As a stitcher, with an interest in history, I feel rather ashamed to say that I have never seen the Bayeux Tapestry (the embroidery), or even the copy by the Victorian ladies of Leek that now resides at Reading Museum. It is on my "to do" list, but obviously not very high up. However, as I mentioned in last week's blog, I have been reading Carola Hicks' book The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece, which although it has been print since 2006, I only discovered last week.
The book starts with a description of the work, with a run down of the narrative alongside explanations and suggestions of major scenes - not all of them completely understood. Then it looks at possible patrons of which Queen Matilda and Bishop Odo seem the front runners. Carola suggests another could suggestion might be Edith Godwinson, widow of King Edward, sister of King Harold, friend of King William and makes a good case for this possibility. After discussion on how the embroidery could have been physically made the story goes on as to how it has been the subject of various interpretative studies by antiquarians, used as propaganda by both Napolean and Himler, been copied on paper and in thread, claimed as equally likely to be British, French or Norman (with links to Vikings) and how it has been used in advertising, modern satire and of course turned into a profitable tourist destination.
Along the way there are asides about novels and films that have used the embroidery either as part of the plot or in the background. The embroidery was also once the subject of a musical play. The work has also been the inspiration behind many other embroidered works such as the Overlord Embroidery. I also know of the Maldon Embroidery (and seen both). By coincidence my local paper mentioned that the Maldon Embroidery (local to where I live) has its 25th anniversary this year and the Maldon branch of CAMRA ("the beer people") are celebrating this fact with its beer festival, raising funds for the Heritage Centre it is housed in. It just shows that a work like this does not end when the last stitch is made.
There may have been parts of the book I enjoyed more than others but there were many times when I just could not put it down. I felt the author had researched it so well and it has a lovely collection of notes and an extensive bibliography - which I always think is the sign of a good book. The good research was perhaps not surprising as the author taught Art History at Cambridge. What is sometimes unusual is the ability to turn good research into what I felt was an easy and entertaining read. I felt I had gone on the research journey with the author and was quite saddened to learn that she had died about four years after publishing.
For anyone interested in embroidery and history I think this book is a must read and I will search out some of the authors other work. Also trips to Bayeux and Reading are now much higher on my list.