From the Exhibition:

English Embroidery from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, ca. 1580–1700: ‘Twixt Art and Nature

The exhibition, English Embroidery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580–1700: ’Twixt Art and Nature, explores the technical, stylistic and iconographical characteristics of English embroideries of the late Elizabethan and Stuart eras, and asks questions as to their production and uses within the context of the home and of their relationship to the wider ambient culture.

This portrait miniature of Charles I is one of the most technically accomplished examples of professional seventeenth-century needlework. In addition to this miniature, there are two examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum (812-1891), one in the Wallace Collection in London, and another in Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen1. Like a painting in silk thread, this miniature represents the merging of two English artistic traditions—a naturalistic rendering of faces using fine techniques such as split stitch, which had been in use in England since the twelfth century, and the painted miniature portrait, a courtly fashion that began during the reign of Henry VIII.

The king’s likeness has been taken with great fidelity from a 1641 print by Wenceslaus Hollar, which was itself ultimately derived from a chain of different prints based on a painted portrait by Anthony van Dyck of Charles I and his consort, Henrietta Maria, painted in 1632 (image in cat. No. 3)2.

The embroidery is contained within a glazed silver frame with molded edges and a suspension loop at the top, flanked on either side by a spiral ribbon cresting. The glass has beveled edges, and its various imperfections and minute air bubbles suggest that it is original to the period. It is a kind of “cabinet miniature,” intended less to be worn than to be mounted in a cabinet or placed on a table.3

The bust of Charles is slightly raised from the flat gray-green satin background, an effect produced by the portrait’s having been worked on a separate foundation, which was then applied to the satin. The king’s characteristic hairstyle, pointed beard, and upturned moustache are convincingly shaded in various tones of brown, brown-red, and light blond threads. Strands of hair are worked directly on the satin, with the raised portion skillfully merged into the background. The cheeks and jawline are also enhanced by shadowy tones that suggest both stubble and facial bone structure. Each thread is worked in a virtuoso technique that varies the stitch length, tension, and twist in such a way as to manipulate the play of light over the silk fibers. The intensity of detail can be grasped in a number of passages, such as Charles’s right eye, which is created from an amalgam of minute stitches. One can see under magnification that the lower lid is outlined by a minute pink thread, couched down and worked over by a mass of flesh-toned silk. The iris is laid down in several shades of blue thread, separated from the black pupil by a lighter couching thread, which not only suggests depth by pulling the other threads around the pupil, but also creates the catch-light that defines Charles’s expression.

The care in which this piece is rendered suggests the sympathy and spiritual intimacy which a significant part of English society harbored for the ‘martyred’ monarch. Within weeks of Charles’s execution the story of his “martyrdom” was already committed to print, available for sale, and under his own name as author. This popular work was the Eikon Basilike: The Portriate of His Sacred Majesty in His Solitudes and Sufferings recorded from the king’s own words from which the pose of this embroidered miniature and other royal images derived their solemnity.4 Indeed, the embroidered image is taken directly from a print which forms the frontispiece of the Reliquiae Sacrae Carolinae of 1651, an expanded edition of the King’s works with a bound-in 1649 version of the Eikon Basilike.

Such commemorative texts and images of the late King were condemned by the Commonwealth government which saw fit to legally suppress all public displays of grief for the executed King. Under the auspices of the Commonwealth, the Eikon Basilike itself was attacked by John Milton in his aptly named Eikonoklastes (breaker of images). Milton, amongst his polemics, railed against the non-protestant nature of the Eikon Basilike as it was seen by him to promoted iconic veneration of a ‘tyrannical’ king.5 Despite its clandestine and seemingly ‘non-protestant’ nature the cult of the ‘martyred’ Charles I grew and with it a market for small, intimate kinds of memorial art befitting private reflection. Physically purging these private modes of memorial must have been deemed insurmountable as according to C.V. Wedgwood “no serious attempt seems to have been made [by the Commonwealth] to prevent the display of the king’s portrait in private houses.”6

As the embroidered miniature’s discreet and intimate size suggests, it was undoubtedly produced as an image for the emerging cult of the Royal Martyr. This contemplative use is especially apparent as the miniature includes the opening phrase of the 18th Psalm embroidered above Charles’ head: “Deus meus est Rvpis mea….” (the Lord is my Rock… Psalm 18:2) said to be written by King David “…The day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies…”7 Appropriately, Charles was known to have reflected on such spiritual words in times of hardship as an anonymous royalist text, The Princely Pellican, observes:

But such was God’s goodnesse ever to him, as his afflicted soul was never so much depressed, but by repairing to those Rivers of Divine Comfort, the Psalms of David, he became infinitely refreshed: so as, the burthen of his griefs was nothing so heavy, as the solace which that Book afforded him, was delightfully stored with all sprituall melody.8

As a new David, Charles too designed meditations in the form of the Eikon Basilike and aspired to salvation by meditating upon the Psalms before his death at the hands of his enemies. By invoking Psalm 18, the embroidery calls to mind this pious connection and literally frames the martyred King as a spiritual model to his loyal subjects in the face of hardship.

Jonathan Tavares is a third year doctoral student at the BGC.

1.See Nevinson, “The Embroidered Minature Portrais of Charles I” (1965): 310-13.

2.Wenceslaus Hollar, Charles I, etching (1641), after an engraving by Robert van Voerst, Charles I and Henrietta Maria (1634). This in turn, is taken from a painting of the same subject by Anthony van Dyck in 1632, itself a reworking of the original composition by Daniel Mytens of ca. 1630-32, in the Royal Collection, Hampton Court Palace. See Millar, “Some Painters and Charles I” (1962): 323-30; also Peacock, “The Visual Image of Charles I” (1999): 226-27.

3.Foskett, Minatures (1987): 18.

4.Elizabeth Skerpan Wheller. Eikon Basilike and the rhetoric of self-representation in The Royal Image: Representations of Charles I. ed. Thomas N. Corns. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 130.

5.Sharon Achinstein. “Milton and King Charles” in The Royal Image: Representations of Charles I. ed. Thomas N. Corns. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 141.

6.See Lois Potter. “The Royal Martyr in the Restoration: National Grief and National Sin”, inThe Royal Image: Representations of Charles I. ed. Thomas N. Corns. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 241.

7.The King James Version of the Bible, 470.

8.Elizabeth Skerpan Wheeler. “Eikon Basilike and the rhetoric of self-representation” in The Royal Image: Representations of Charles I. ed. Thomas N. Corns. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 126. Citing: John Ashburnham (?anonymously). The Princely Pellican, Royall Resolves Presented In Sundry Choice Observations: with satisfactory reasons to the whole kingdom, that his sacred person was the only Author of them. (N.P. 1649), 12.