<em>Hangings</em> (c. 1700) <!-- (front view) --><br />

linen, wool<br />
(a-b) 202.0 x 150.0 cm (each)<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Gift from the Estate of the late Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, 2018<br />
2018.1391.a-b<br />


Dame Elisabeth’s embroidered garden


Two ornate bed curtains, generously gifted to the NGV by the Estate of the late Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, offer a fascinating insight into crewelwork, a type of embroidery using wool, as well as a history and story that has informed their unique conservation treatment.  

Undulating vine tendrils, beautifully ornate pomegranates and carnation flowers, squirrels and exotic parrots cover two densely embroidered bed curtains. The scene is of a natural world run riot in a rich variety of stitches, without care for strange juxtaposition or sensible scale. It is easy to appreciate why Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, with her love of nature and gardening, would have been drawn to crewelwork embroidery. The story of these two bed curtainsdemonstrates the resurgence of interest in crewelwork over the centuries and Dame Elisabeth’s enduring love of embroidery and textiles.

Thought to have been produced in England between 1690 and 1710, the two curtains are heavily embroidered with wool ‘crewels’ and depict a ‘Tree of Life’ theme which was popular at that time. These curtains would have originally been used around a four-poster bed, providing its occupants with both warmth and privacy.  

<em>Hangings</em> (c. 1700) <!-- (front view) --><br />

linen, wool<br />
(a-b) 202.0 x 150.0 cm (each)<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Gift from the Estate of the late Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, 2018<br />
2018.1391.a-b<br />


In 2018, the bed curtains were gifted to the NGV by the Estate of the late Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, continuing the long and generous association that Dame Elisabeth and Sir Keith Murdoch have had with the NGV. Like many bed curtains from this era, they have been treasured and re-purposed over the centuries as crewelwork moved in and out of fashion. For decades, Dame Elisabeth hung the bed curtains at windows either side of an external door entrance to the sitting room in her beloved home at Cruden Farm 1  Langwarrin, however over time their use became challenging due to increasing deterioration. When the works entered the NGV Collection, the Gallery’s Textile Conservators undertook careful analysis of the materials and techniques used, and condition and provenance of the works, to devise a conservation treatment plan for the two bed curtains. 

The term ‘crewelwork’ is associated with a style of heavy and dense woollen embroidery created in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and taken by the English to the colonial America. Crewelwork embroideries were stitched by upper class women and their households to produce elaborate bed curtains for four-poster beds. The ‘Tree of Life’ design features vertical trees adorned with various exotic and local English flora and fauna, all set upon a rolling ground known as ‘terra firma‘. This design is thought to be influenced by Indian cotton palampores imported into England by the East India Company in the seventeenth century .2  

Due to the weight and the density of crewel embroidery it was worked on a strong twill cloth of either linen, or a mixed linen warp and cotton weft, and the inclusion of a wide variety of stitches provided creative freedom for the embroiderer. The popularity of crewelwork has enjoyed numerous resurgences over the centuries, contributing to the re-purposing of historic crewelwork pieces for window and furniture coverings. Though strong, the ground fabric inevitably weakens with age and the weight of the dense wool embroidery. Historically, to continue a crewelwork curtains use as a functional textile, the embroidery was cut from the damaged ground and re-stitched to a new linen ground with an additional crewel yarn stitched around the cut embroidered edges to disguise their re-application. 

Dame Elisabeth’s long-held love of textiles, including embroidery, crewelwork and tapestry are evidenced by various gifts to the NGV, including a similar designed needlework panel donated almost seventy years ago in 1953 3 and a collection of Roger Kemp tapestries that hang resplendently in the Great Hall of NGV International on St Kilda Road.4 While at high school Dame Elisabeth knitted singlets for the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and as a young mother used her little sitting room at ‘Heathfield’ (the Murdoch’s grand residence in Toorak between 1933 and 1941) to take afternoon tea and to sew. 5 Later in life, Dame Elisabeth also made practical hand-stitched repairs on the linings of the bed curtains as confirmed by Cruden Farm staff. 

<em>Needlework panel</em>  <!-- (recto) --><br />

wool<br />
83' x 37'<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Gift of Lady Murdoch, 1953<br />
1380-D4<br />


Roger KEMP (after)<br />
 VICTORIAN TAPESTRY WORKSHOP, Melbourne (workshop)<br />
 Cheryl THORNTON (maker)<br />
 Grazyna BLEJA (maker)<br />
 Merrill DUMBRELL (maker)<br />
 Robyn MOUNTCASTLE (maker)<br/>
<em>Organic form</em> 1991 <!-- (front view) --><br />

wool, cotton<br />
496.8 x 546.0 cm<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Commissioned by The Art Foundation of Victoria with funds provided by Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, Founder Benefactor, 1991<br />
CT74-1991<br />
&copy; Courtesy of the artist&rsquo;s estate

Sadly, Dame Elisabeth passed away in 2012; however, her garden and home at Cruden Farm remain largely as she left them, having been gifted to the public‘.6 Initially, it was hoped the crewelworks could be retained as window curtains for the home, however the extensive nature of the restoration process led to the decision to gift the bed curtains to the NGV where they would receive the conservation treatment required and avoid the stresses of use as functional curtains. 

It is not clear exactly where Dame Elisabeth may have acquired the curtains, however, a conversation between Dame Elisabeth and her biographer John Monks in the early 1990s suggests the curtains may have come from Heathfield: 

 ‘So we bought it, but I never had any grand ideas about refurnishing and renovation and spending a fortune – one just went on gradually replacing things in those days, unlike today’ … says Elisabeth, who to this day, can point to curtains from Heathfield still hanging in the sunny rooms of Cruden Farm. 7

Dame Elisabeth valued soft furnishings for both their beauty and practicality, as her head gardener Michael Morrison wrote ‘at the height of summer Dame Elisabeth kept her home’s heavy curtains drawn’.8  

As to their origin and date of production, factors that support the bed curtains being made in England between 1690 and 1710 are the density of the overall pattern, the colour palette and motifs selected. Interestingly, textiles conservators discovered that a surface stitch similar to the modified Romanian stitch generally associated with American crewelwork, was used throughout. Examples of this stitching method are occasionally found in English needlework of this era, however the possibility that the works were completed in America cannot be dismissed.9

In planning the appropriate conservation treatment for the work, conservators assessed one crewelwork embroidery that had been cut from its linen twill ground and another that was intact but had sustained damage over time. Retaining the damaged ground of the intact textile was seen as an important part of the history of the work. The first would be meticulously re-stitched to a new linen ground, matching the original weave as close as possible, while the second would be kept intact and anchored to an additional lining with conservation couching stitches used to stabilise the damage.   

More than half of the first bed hanging has now been conserved. As the bed curtains are likely to be displayed together and to retain an historical appearance, the new linen ground was dyed an aged colour to match the second hanging. The embroidery pieces were laid onto the new linen ground, with old and new weaves carefully aligned and cut edges tucked under then secured with entomological pins.  The edges of the embroidery have now been meticulously stitched in place using colour-matched cotton threads and curved needles.  

The bed curtains are a wonderful example of crewelwork and represent the enduring love that Dame Elisabeth Murdoch had for textiles. They were treasured in her home over many years and contributed to the cosy, warm and historic environment that existed in the sitting room at Cruden Farm. After a long life as functional curtains and being generously donated to the NGV, through careful and thoughtful conservation, the works will join other textile treasures of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the NGV Collection 10 and, along with Dame Elisabeth’s much-loved Cruden Farm, be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations. 

<em>Bed curtain</em> 1720-1730 <!-- (recto) --><br />

linen (twill), wool (thread)<br />
172.5 x 134.5 cm<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Felton Bequest, 1928<br />
2922-D3<br />



Crewel: a thin, loosely twisted, worsted yarn used for tapestry and embroidery 

Worsted: a fine, smooth yarn spun from combed long-staple wool 

Palampore: a hand-painted and mordant dyed cotton textile made in India for the export market and traded directly to England from the mid-1600s 

Entomological pins:  Extremely fine stainless-steel pins traditionally used for securing insect specimens 

Kate Douglas and Didee Knight are NGV Conservators of Textiles. The NGV warmly thanks the Estate of the late Dame Elisabeth Murdoch for generously gifting these works. 

This essay was commissioned for and appeared in NGV Magazine, Issue 30 Sep–Oct 2021.



Ian Evans, correspondence with Paola Di Trocchio, NGV Curator, Fashion and Textiles, 10 July 2018 


Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, ‘‘Tree of Life’ palampore’, NSW Government, <https://collection.maas.museum/object/196121>, accessed 6 August 2021


National Gallery of Victoria, ‘NGV Collection Needlework Panel (ENGLAND)’, Victorian Government, <www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/51472/>, accessed 2 March 2021 


National Gallery of Victoria, ‘Victorian Tapestry Workshop, Melbourne’, Victorian Government, <www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/artist/8283/>, accessed 2 March 2021


John Monks, Elisabeth Murdoch: Two Lives, Pan Macmillan Australia, 1994, p. 10528 


Cruden Farm, <crudenfarm.com.au>, accessed 5 July 2021 


John Monks, Elisabeth Murdoch: Two Lives, Pan Macmillan Australia, 1994, p. 113 


Lisa Clausen & Michael Morrison, Cruden Farm: Garden Diaries, Penguin Random House, 2017, p. 131 


Lynn Hulse, email to Kate Douglas and Didee Knight, 3 June 2021 


National Gallery of Victoria, ‘Bed curtain 1720–1730 (ENGLAND)’, Victorian Government, <www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/47131/>, accessed 10 June 2021