Fashion and Embroidery in Art

Hi everyone,

I recently enjoyed a visit to Compton Verney which if you’re not familiar, is an art gallery housed in a beautiful Grade 1 listed, Georgian mansion house in Warwickshire, UK. The galleries house permanent collections of British art, Chinese artefacts, British folk art and others, as well as hosting temporary exhibitions.

I especially enjoyed the British Portraits gallery where you’ll find a number of paintings from the Tudor and Jacobean period. I’m a huge fan of this era of painting. I love that the people in the portraits have faces which are so contemporary, while the costume they are dressed in is so of the period. During this visit, I did find the costume painting particularly striking and I thought I’d share some examples with you.

Let’s start with this painting:

This is a painting of Frances Stewart, nee Howard, Duchess of Lennox and Richmond, Countess of Hertford. Painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, 1621, oil on panel.

The style of painting in this era is highly detailed and as such, tells us a lot about the garments worn by the sitter. Take a close look at her bodice which is highly ornate and decorated with swirling boughs of floral designs.

What technique do you think this would have been worked in? I think it’s likely it might have been embroidery, do you agree? Maybe the dots of paint are used to suggest beads or metallic thread.

Notice also the fine painting of the lace collar. I’m always astounded by the painting of lace and this is a lovely detailed example. If there are any lacemakers out there maybe you’d even have enough detail from this painting to recognise the lace pattern name, or to recreate it.

This next painting is an imposing portrait of Henry VIII by an unknown follower of Hans Holbein the Younger, painted circa 1560, oil on panel.

This painting was created during the reign of his daughter, Elizabeth I to demonstrate the power of her lineage. An iconic image, it’s only when you look close that you can appreciate all of the detail of the garments…

The artist has captured every detail of the goldwork and the embellishments of jewels. Now despite having an embroidery degree, I’m no expert on goldwork, but I’m pretty sure that some of my fellow students who went on to work at the Royal School of Needlework, would be able to tell you all about the techniques that the embroiderer would have employed to decorate Henry’s clothes.

Did you know the RSN has built an online stitch bank? It is an online directory of 200 stitches. Each stitch entry contains information about its history, use and structure as well as a step-by-step method with photographs, illustrations and video. There is a whole section for goldwork.

Here is a link to take a look.

This painting is of Edward, Prince of Wales, later Edward VI. Again by a follower of Hans Holbein the Younger it was painted circa 1542 and is oil on panel.

The painting depicts Edward age five posed as a miniature version of his father implying that the future of the dynasty is secure. Sadly Edward died a few years later aged just fifteen.

Let’s take a look at those sleeves. Again they feature lots of goldwork embroidery, clearly all the rage at the time. Notice the slashes with the white fabric poking through. What are those closures to the slashes? Do you think they are some sort of gold toggle or bead?

This is such a charming painting. Made by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger it’s of an unknown young boy and was painted in 1608.

At this time it was fashionable for boys to be clothed in dresses until they were ‘breeched’ and started to wear trousers aged about six or seven. It’s thought the boy in this painting is about two years old according to an inscription on the painting although I think he looks older don’t you?

He really is wearing quite the outfit! Just look at the painting of that green fabric, surely velvet. The sleeves and bodice are richly embroidered. I thought at first glance that it was beaded, but looking more closely it looks to be as though the embroiderer has used some sort of Tudor sequin. Perhaps the coral coloured marks on his sleeves are slashes revealing an under sleeve?

Again, he has a fine lace collar, and also a head dress. The painting of this is just beautiful, you can just feel how light as a feather and delicate that lace work is. Quite the opposite to the dress which I should imaging weighed very heavily on that little boy’s shoulders.

And finally to finish is this splendid painting. This is Sir Thomas Knyvett, 4th Baron Berners. It’s oil on panel and was painted circa 1569. The work is attributed to ‘The Master of the Countess of Warwick’, an artist thought to have originated in the Netherlands.

This is such a great example of one of those portraits where the face looks so contemporary I feel like he could speak at any moment! But just look at that outfit. Slashed and stuffed hose which looks like velvet and silk, and a slashed doublet with double ruffles!

Take a closer look at that doublet. It looks to be white fabric with some sort of red detail, maybe that’s embroidery. Then that’s slashed through to reveal a very decorative black and white fabric with a floral design. Could that have been printed, or would it be a blackwork embroidery?

I hope you’ve enjoyed looking at these beautiful paintings with me. Next time you are able to visit a gallery to see some portraits why not take an extra moment to pay attention to the clothing and see if you can spot any embroidery or surface decoration techniques that you enjoy using in your own work.

Bye for now,


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