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V&A pays tribute to one of England's forgotten art forms

28th April 2016

There was once a time when England was unrivalled in its ability to produce the finest embroidery works in the world.

Once coveted by royalty and the Vatican alike, English embroidery has since become something of a lost art.

However, a new exhibition at London's Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum looks set to try and pay tribute to this shining beacon of artistic endeavour.

Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery will open this Autumn and will be the first event of its kind in more than half a century, to provide a platform solely devoted to this era of embroidery.

Curator Glyn Davies claims the exhibition demonstrates how highly regarded the products of English needle-workers were held by the rest of Europe.

The envy towards much of the work was in fact so great that the museum has had to make several loans in order to make this latest  exhibition a reality.

Some of the loans are straight from the Vatican, others are from cathedral treasuries in locations such as Toledo and show how far the fashion spread through direct commissions and diplomatic gifts. The reach of the works has been extensive, with some pieces heralding from Reykjavík in Iceland.

Probably commissioned by wealthy merchants, the thread used  glittering as if new, proved to be almost pure gold, although it was arguably the extravagance of the materials used in these pieces that acted as a contributory factor to the art form witnessing a decline.

The Reformation meant that pieces previously boasting items such as pearls and jewels fell out of favour with people, with secular pieces proving particularly unpopular.

As a result, many of the secular pieces at this latest exhibition have proved particularly rare, with around 90 per cent of the items displayed coming from churches, where they were often stored with greater care.

One of the most eye-catching pieces is a ceremonial priestly cloak that was once used as an altar cloth in the small parish church of Steeple Aston in Oxfordshire.

It was recorded as 'valuable relic' as early as 1844, although there has been no record of a patron being rich enough to give such a precious item to what is ultimately a small and modest church.

The piece is in great condition due to the fact it has been on loan to the V&A for safekeeping for more than a century.

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