Francesca Leoni, the Ashmolean’s Curator of Islamic Art, tells the story of an up-cycled Cretan wedding dress which found its way to the UK as a cushion cover.
Cretan Cushion Cover – View it here
If you want to take a closer look at the cushion cover discussed in this episode, you can view it at the link above, or visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website: ashmolean.org/museum-secrets
Producer: Lucie Dawkins
Presenters: Lucie Dawkins and Francesca Leoni
About Museum Secrets: The curators at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology have been recording bite-sized tales of the wonderful, and sometimes unexpected, life of a museum. We can’t wait to share them with you! Join us every weekday for 3 weeks, from 28 December onwards, for a daily dose of cheer.
Lucie: This is Museum Secrets from the Ashmolean.
I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every day I’ll be bringing you a bitesized undercover story from our collections. Step in through the front doors, and join me for some joyful, wonderful, and sometimes bizarre tales hidden in the objects. We will be going behind the scenes and beyond the labels, into dark corners of the storerooms and into the minds of the curators.
Today we are heading up the stairs in the atrium to the first floor, and into gallery 29. There’s something eye-catching here. It’s a brightly embroidered cushion cover, teeming with dancing humans, instruments, animals and plants. But it wasn’t always a cushion cover. It’s actually an up-cycled party dress.
Have you ever wondered what an object would say if it could talk? Well, so has curator Francesca Leoni. Here she is.
Francesca: I used to be a dress and now I am a cushion cover.
How did that happen? And where is the rest of me? How did I end up here?
My story begins in the house of a young lady, on the island of Crete around 300 years ago. A special occasion is approaching – a festival or maybe an engagement party. A proper outfit is needed and that hardwearing linen-cotton cloth that was set aside can now be put to good use.
A few cuts and moves, and it is not long until a typical Cretan frock emerges: a long and wide pleated dress hung on the shoulders by short straps. The skilled hands of the ladies in the village gather around it, ready to transform it into something magical.
Old needles are pulled out and threads of shiny silk are gathered, in ten, nay eleven, different colours: white, beige, yellow, burnt-orange, red, light brown, azure, blue, pale green, olive and black, ready to conquer the blank field with a plethora of virtuoso stitches: chain, double-running, herringbone, satin, split, laid and couched and… ‘Cretan feather’, the trickiest of all.
Fanciful, composite pillars start to take shape, growing as trees from the baseline of the dress’ hem. The central one, emerging from a crater-like vase, carries opulent blooms reminiscent of Turkish gardens: daisies, roses, narcissus, honeysuckle and carnations.
It is not long until a menagerie of exotic birds is attracted by their scent, their colourful plumage garnishing their plump shoots. And yet amidst them, strange creatures also lurk: double-headed eagles with flaming blue tongues and scaled dragons with bodies coiled around their floral stems. Threatening for sure, but harmless.
On either side of this floral firework, a circus of performers are busy with their routines. A well-dressed lady on the left stands on a floral swing on top of a bulbous vase, carefully balancing her botanic crown whilst smiling at the crowd. To the right, a mermaid shows her tail in an acrobatic jump, accompanied by the notes of the violinist beneath, birds, hares, stags and hounds frolicking all around.
And so it is that a plain, rustic gown, has turned into a special one, ready to be paraded and admired by peers over and over again.
Dresses like this can be over 300 years old, you see, so they were very treasured and as such they were not discarded when out of fashion but rather passed down to generations of women to enrich their dowry chests.
This was until handmade products in Greece were replaced by industrial ones in the late 19th and early 20th century. And so began their slow decline, their turning into family heirlooms mostly hidden away, often cut down and distributed amongst the youngest as mementos of a bygone era, only to be looked at from time to time when not sold to foreigners and collectors in exchange for money.
This is how my new life as a cushion cover began. With a hand and skill comparable to past ones, a later owner ensured that I could continue my journey. Hence, by piecing together sections of the now worn-out dress, I was given a new life and an opulent frame, one designed to match the original frieze – where gadrooned vases alternate with peacocks and creatures of the sea that seem to come out of a Renaissance Italian drawing.
Some black stitches, applied to the upper and side borders, betray their younger age. And yet the design blends in almost seamlessly, brought together by voluptuous scrolling vines springing left and right which seem to continue endlessly underneath the folds and seams.
In this new garb, I came to adorn a British house, Barnett Hill, owned by Beatrice Lindell Cook and her husband Frank Henry Cook (yes, the grandson of the travel entrepreneur Thomas Cook). There I met other Greek embroidered textiles, no longer fit for use, really, but part of a delectable collection of specimens from which to draw inspiration when needlework was still a lady’s favourite past time. Many stared at me during long afternoons amidst cups of tea and gossip, as their needles gave birth to new blooms and forms.
How I got separated from them all, I honestly can’t recall. Maybe I was given to a friend or a relative before Beatrice’ collection was shipped to the St Louis Museum in America, forming the bulk of their embroidery collection.
I only know I resurfaced around the early 2000s, when the Ashmolean Museum decided to acquire me, and was added to another group of fellow Greek embroidered textiles. Like me, these too had left the islands decades earlier, folded in the suitcases of British enthusiasts, and ready to inspire a collecting fashion that was to breathe new life into this craft hundreds of miles away from where they were first created.
Lucie: I would love to be able to hear all the conversations that this piece of embroidery must have overheard in its 3 century long existence. So many communities of women have come together to make and care for it. The Cretan women who first sowed this beautiful scene, their daughters, grand-daughters and great-grand-daughters who passed it carefully down through the generations, preserving and up cycling it, and the ladies of Barnett Hill, who used it as inspiration for their own embroidery. It contains a history of women’s ingenuity and creativity.
If you want to see this cushion in person, the Mediterranean Threads exhibition in Gallery 29 is on view until 6 June 2021. But if you can’t make it into the museum, all is not lost. You can see it an image of it if you follow the links in the podcast notes.
Join us in the next episode to hear about the adventures that the Ashmolean collections go on as they travel all around the world.
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