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Textiles dark secrets

Eighteenth-century toile de Juoy textile from Warner Textile Archive

Back in 2009, EAST produced an exhibition of contemporary work based on textiles, objects and other items from the Warner Textile Archive, based at Braintree in Essex. My interest in history led me to this furnishing fabric that probably dates from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. Produced in France this printed cotton would have been a fashionable addition to the home of a very middling-sort of couple. I even speculated that it was the sort of item deemed appropriate as a wedding gift.

A Dark Secret Behind a Thing of Beauty from EAST @ The Warner Textile Archive exhibition in 2009. Now part of the Collection of Braintree District Museum, Essex

Gifts, as we know, often come in boxes and I therefore decided to translate the design on the cloth into a 3D object. This meant that I could incorporate another aspect of the story behind the fabric – an often unacknowledged or hidden history. A Dark Secret Behind a Thing of Beauty was the title of my response. I wanted to make a comment that it is all too easy to look at a piece of fabric and think of it just in terms of its design or its beauty – less so about the tragedy behind its manufacture. It was particularly important to highlight how what seemed quite an innocuous item was very probably the product of slavery.

Detail of inside the box – a reference to Josiah Wedgewood’s image
in support of the abolition of slavery

Inside the box I created a copy of an image used by the abolitionists, along with the words ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ Designed by Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) and turned into cameo brooches in the 1790s, these items would have been worn by the many women supporters as a means to raise awareness of this abhorrent trade. It took several decades to end the transportation of slaves, but even that did not end slave labour – and sadly it still continues today, in many forms. Slavery is often, but not always associated with race, but even when it is not, it is always about inequality and power.

Courtauld weaving

Woven into the Courtauld exhibition

In May 2019, EAST members held a drop-in weaving workshop at Braintree District Museum as part of the Warner Textile Fair. We set up three sets of warps and asked visitors to weave fabric and threads using the colours green, white and purple. These were the colours associated with the Suffragettes and the weavings were a commemoration of three Courtauld women who strongly believed in women’s rights over 100 years ago.

Now the story of these women are part of a much wider exhibition about the family open at Braintree District Museum (until 30 May 2020). The main narrative is the story of a family who escaped persecution as European refugees, came to Britain and eventually developed a major textile industry. The Courtauld’s brought prosperity through employment to Essex and Suffolk, including Braintree, in the nineteenth century. The family were also major art collectors, forming the foundation of the now famous Courtauld Gallery in London and supporters of this exhibition in Braintree.

This is just an introduction to the three women commemorated by the EAST led weaving – to find out more you need to visit the Museum.

Katherine Mina Courtauld (1858-1935) – oil on canvas

Katherine Mina Courtauld (1858-1935), was the eldest daughter of George Coutauld III. She was a farmer, parish councillor and Secretary of the North West Essex branch of the National Union of women’s Suffrage Societies. On the 1911 census she wrote (in red, to ensure her feelings were known) how she strongly resented being denied the privilege of parliamentary franchise despite being a householder and ratepayer. Katherine was also instrumental in the establishment of the Women’s Land Army during WWI.

Catherine Courtauld (1878-1972) was another campaigner for women’s right to vote. She designed posters which were used by the Suffrage Atelier – a collective that created propaganda for the Votes for Woman campaign. Incidentally, she and her husband were also later responsible for the saving and restoring of the Cutty Sark for the nation.

The last of these three remarkable women was Dr Elizabeth Courtauld (1867-1947) who qualified as a doctor as early as 1901. As principal anaesthetist she worked at the largest British voluntary hospital on the Western Front during WWI – the only one run by women (Royaumont Hospital). She spent most of her working life at a hospital in Bagalore, India.

The EAST hanging from the 2019 Warner Textile Fair – produced by visitors to our drop in workshop and now on display at Braintree District Museum
(apologies for the quality of the photo)

Although the EAST hanging is just a very tiny part of this major exhibition it is nice to think that we honoured women who went against the grain, who stood up for their beliefs and enabled us, in this modern age, to follow our own dreams. However there are many more women’s stories – and plenty of stories of Courtauld men too – in the main display.

I would highly recommend Courtaulds: Origins, Innovations, Family (1816-1982) for a fascinating look at one family’s impact on a country and a county or for anyone with an interest in social history or the history of textile innovation. The display looks at the Courtaulds as inventors, explorers and people with creative vision. There is also a rare chance to see some original Gaugin etchings – which have been lent by The Courtauld Gallery. Gaugin is known for his colourful work so it is interesting to see close up, his work in a very different medium.

Entrance to the exhibition and the rest of the Museum is only £4 for adults (with concessions for seniors and children – under 5s free) – open Tuesday to Saturdays but check their website for more details – www.braintreemuseum.co.uk and look out for their walks, talks and other events on social media.

Janette