In celebration of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s first Royal Tour of New Zealand, we have decided to dedicate a ‘Royal Tour’ length blog series to items in the collection which somehow relate to the Royal family and their relationship to New Zealand.
I was going to start the week’s blog posts with a piece on the Royal Tour route, however, I have been side tracked by yesterday’s inspirational visit by Jenny Adin-Christie, a professional embroider who trained at the Royal School of Embroidery (RSN), and who was responsible for creating the bodice of Catherine Middleton’s wedding dress to Sarah Burton’s design.
Jenny was one of an international team of embroiderers who worked on the gown at the Royal School of Needlework, the studios of which are at Hampton Court Palace. At the time, none of them knew for whom they were stitching. A freelance embroiderer and teacher, Jenny is in New Zealand to teach a range of workshops. Much to our delight she stopped in at Te Papa to present an illustrated lecture, and to view an extraordinary group of large-scale embroideries linked to the Royal School of Needlework in Te Papa’s collections. The embroideries in question were stitched by Lady Jane Cory (1866-1947) whom studied at what was then known as the Royal School of Art Needlework in the early 1900s.The School of Art Needlework was founded by Lady Victoria Welby in 1872 with the purpose of reviving ‘a beautiful art which had fallen into disuse and, through its revival, to provide employment for educated women who, without a suitable livelihood, would otherwise find themselves compelled to live in poverty’. Three years later the school was granted Royal patronage and became the Royal School of Art Needlework. Lady Cory and her sister Lady Julia Carew, who also trained at the school, did not need to make a livelihood, but shared a passion for embroidery - especially for embroidery on a large-scale. Lady Cory’s embroidery of Musica, depicted below, is a massive 6’6″ by 3’7″ in scale.
In an interview in Needlecraft magazine in 1906, Lady Cory noted that Musica was her first figure subject. She sourced the pattern from the Royal School of Art Needlework. The embroidery is based on a design for a door hanging by Edward Burne Jones, an artist associated with the British Arts & Crafts Movement. The design was lent to the school to be copied as a needlework cartoon. Musica took Lady Jane seven and a half months to complete. Having already studied at the Royal School of Needlework, she undertook an additional ‘five hours special instruction in the art of working faces for my Musica.‘ These would have cost her about 6s 6d an hour.
During her interview for Needlework magazine, Lady Cory commented: ‘I could not form any ideas as to how many shades of colour I used altogether, but in the eye alone there are eight. In this panel I have employed needlework stitches only, but, as doubtless you are aware… parts of the background and the flesh tints are painted in. This is a method that I personally do not care for, as I prefer to feel that I have accomplished the whole entirely with my needed. Every stitch in this panel is worked straight, and I work with two strands and shade with one. Some of my shading wool is as fine as hair’. Her next challenge was to be another Burne Jones’ design, Pomona.
In comparison to the life of a professional embroider, who is trained to be able to intensively stitch eight hours a day, Lady Cory commented that she no special rules as to when or how she worked, taking a few moments ‘whenever the time and opportunity offers’, while her sister declared that she spent several hours a day at her frame. Described as ‘the best Embroideress in Society’, Lady Carew embroidered an entire decorative scheme, designed for her by the RSAN, for her husband’s ancestral home, Castleboro. Today, Lady Carew’s embroidered panels are cherished as one of the few decorative schemes created by the RSAN for a domestic interior that have ‘virtually remained intact’. Dr Lynn Hulse, the former archivist of the RSN, describes them as ‘a rare survival of the renewed interest in antique embroidery that began in 1873 with the first exhibition of ancient needlework hosted by the South Kensington Museum at the behest of the School’.
Although lesser known than her sister, Lady Cory’s nine heroic scale embroideries are also testimony to the RSN’s rich history. Arguably they should have remained in England. However, when Lady Cory died in 1947 without issue, she bequeathed most of her estate to major English museums including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. She noted in her will that if the V&A did not chose to accept the embroideries, that they could be offered to a museum in Ottawa, Canada, New York or Washington in the USA, Canberra, Australia or Wellington, New Zealand. Even though the director of the time, Dr Robert Falla, noted that he thought it ‘unlikely’ that the Dominion Museum could ‘exhibit or make adequate use of the whole collection’, the executors of Lady Cory’s will chose Wellington as their new home. In August 1948, Lady Cory’s embroideries arrived in Wellington on the New Zealand Star, and the Dominion Museum, now Te Papa, came to own a little piece of the Royal School of Needlework’s incredible history.