‘Decorative Textiles’ was a collaborative seminar with Dr Mary Brooks (Independent conservator and curator) and Dr Tara Hamling (Birmingham University). The aim of the session was to study decorative textiles within the English domestic interior of the long eighteenth century. We were asked to consider questions such as; how did people prioritise, interpret and assimilate various messages using the objects; and were there significant differences in the presentation of the objects?

Dr Mary Brooks started her extremely engaging talk by pointing out that most of the objects she was looking at, small embroidered pieces, were in fact ‘invisible’! Made in the seventeenth century, these textile objects had actually disappeared in the eighteenth century and later reappeared in the late nineteenth to twentieth century. We wanted to know why, and how their meaning had changed with the passage of time. These embroidered pieces were pictorial objects made by school girls and young women, often with limited understanding of the meanings behind the images they created. Needle work was part of their daily routine and was a social activity, at that time young girls needed social skills more than learning. The images depicted were often of very compressed narratives, telling a whole story, or displaying several scenes of a story in just one piece. We might wonder, what were the boundaries of knowledge and understanding? However, it was really the different types of stitching, choice of threads and skill involved that mattered more than choice of design. One very curious aspect of these marvellous objects is that they weren’t listed in inventories or wills and not shown in depictions of interiors, so where were they displayed in the home? Were these completely female objects that stayed within private feminine spaces?

Dr Hamling’s talk discussed larger-scale decorative pieces within the home: painted wall cloths. It was probably the first time many of us in the audience had heard about wall cloths in any detail, and it was fascinating to hear about them. She focused on a set of painted cloths from Owlpen Manor in Gloucestershire, dated 1712-1719, guiding us through the origins and making process of these large-scale objects. Like Mary’s tapestries, these objects had fallen out of favour with historical research and Tara questioned whether it was because they were viewed merely as poor relations to tapestries, or whether it was because of problems of access, or because of the now fragile state of these objects. She was quick to dismiss the lesser status of these- they had been found in Royal households up to the sixteenth century. Likewise, in the eighteenth century, imitation of another type of material was the product of a skilled craftsman, it was a positive, not negative, feature. Over the course of three centuries, the scenes depicted on the cloths changed from Old Testament scenes, with both religious and social didactic functions, to landscapes. This corresponded with the changing location of the cloths in the house- from the hall (public space) to the bedroom (private space).

During the discussion we considered the relation between painted cloths and the use of leather as domestic decorations; the process of making and the relationship between the object and maker; the history of the Worshipful Company of Painter Stainers; and how the makers of the cloths shared in the spirituality of the object. Have a listen here and see what you think.