A stumpwork workbox at Croft Castle
A stumpwork panelled box that's part of the collection at Croft Castle, Herefordshire, dates from around 1640.
Rich in symbolism
Stumpwork is a style of raised embroidery using a variety of stitching techniques and the padding of certain elements to create a 3D effect. It was particularly popular in the seventeenth century and often depicts a story or allegory that is rich with symbolic meaning.
The main panel of the Croft Castle box shows a lady playing a mandolin, under an arch twined with fruit and flowers. In the bottom right corner a decorative fountain pours water from the mouths of two stone beasts onto a single blue fish, swimming in the bowl below.
The other panels depict courting couples, a lady catching fish in a stream, a maid milking a cow and a girl collecting fruit in a basket. Snails, rabbits, butterflies, birds, bees and caterpillars all frolic across the surface of the box, worked in silks, chenille, metallic thread and adorned with pearls.
It is likely that each particular flower and animal was carefully chosen for the significance or associations it held. To the seventeenth century viewer, these symbols and hidden meanings would act as a secret language to tell a story, the narrative of which we can only wonder at today.
Ravages of time
Conservation work undertaken on the wooden casket created a rare opportunity to see the reverse side of the embroidered panels, revealing the vibrancy of their original colours. Over time, exposure to the UV rays present in daylight has faded the silk yarn, resulting in the muted appearance of the top and front panels we see today.
However, the back panel of the casket has avoided the damage caused to the other panels by the simple fact that is has always faced the wall. Comparing the front and reverse sides of the embroidery, it becomes clear that the yellow, pink and purple dyes have suffered the most, while the blues and greens have fared relatively well.
It is impossible to reverse the effects of almost four hundred years of light exposure, but it is possible to prevent further damage. UV filters on windows and careful monitoring and control of light levels help to protect light sensitive materials such as textiles from photolytic damage.