<em>Bedcover</em> (c. 1710) <!-- (recto) --><br />

linen, silk (thread)<br />
211.0 x 218.0 cm<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Gift of Krystyna Campbell-Pretty AM and Family through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program, 2021<br />
2021.103<br />


England Bedcover

A recent addition to the NGV’s collection of historical textiles is a bedcover from England, c. 1710. Featuring a vast expanse of goldwork embroidery, the work offers insight into the influences and creative practices of textile production at the time. The highly refined techniques used throughout the work include detailed quilting of the cotton and linen ground fabric, and a rich embroidered surface in jewel-like silks and metallic threads. 

While the specific details of the bedcover’s history  is not entirely known, it is understood that it was a gift from Queen Anne of Great Britain (1665–1714) to Frances, Lady Bathurst (1653–1727), whose husband was treasurer to the royal household at the time. That the bedcover was passed down from generation to generation within the family, and is in excellent condition, certainly supports its likely status as a cherished heirloom. 

The complexity of the design, quality of the work and the extensive and skilful use of metal thread work suggests that it was professionally embroidered by more than one individual. Embroidery workshops existed at this time, fulfilling commissions for wealthy clients, royalty and the church. Embroiderers’ organisations or guilds existed in Europe from as early as the Middle Ages. Workshops were commonly run by men, but employed both men and women. Their work was regulated by informal guilds, to ensure the highest standard of work.  

Professional embroiders would sometimes work with artists or designers for specifically commissioned pieces, but designers usually remain unknown. Embroiderers may have also adapted or modified existing designs from pattern books. Patterns, styles and motifs tend to mirror the dominant aesthetics styles in favour at the time and appear across multiple art forms. Stylistically this work falls into a decorative category known as the ‘Bizarre Phase’, popular in continental Europe and England between about 1690 and 1720. Woven silk designs sat at the heart of this trend, and were identifiable via their strange asymmetrical motifs, bold colours and lavish use of gold and silk threads.  

These designs were heavily influenced by a mixture of Indian, European, Chinese and Japanese elements. Initially, designs included recognisable floral and botanical motifs, but later became more idiosyncratic and free form, featuring hybrid architectural elements and Asian motifs, as well as abstract and enigmatic shapes. The striking juxtaposition of naturalist and fantastical elements were a key feature of this fascinating style, which was formally labelled ‘Bizarre’ in the twentieth century. Bizarre silks were widely used for clothing and furnishings. 

It is interesting to note that much English embroidery of the eighteenth century was directly influenced by these fantastical woven silks. Professional embroidery was seen as a legitimate alternative to woven brocade fabrics at this time. Examples such as Bedcover, c. 1710, which demonstrate this relationship so directly, however, are extremely rare. 

The exquisite quality of the needlework and the extensive use of prized metal thread found in Bedcover would suggest that it is an important example of specialist professional embroidery practices producing decorative textiles during the early eighteenth century.  

Katie Somerville, Senior Curator, Fashion and Textiles, National Gallery of Victoria