Stumpwork at Mompesson House

Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, the Angel showing her the well.

With a background in textiles, our Conservation Assistant Kate feels a particular affinity with the stumpwork pictures at Mompesson. Here she tells us why getting close to these beautiful pictures is such a privilege.

Stumpwork, or raised embroidery as it is also known, is a style of embroidery in which the stitched figures are raised from the surface of the work to form a three-dimensional effect. It originated in England in the 1600s and often depicted flowers, insects, small animals and people.

Snail
Detail of a snail
Snail

This year at Mompesson we're having a closer look at our stumpwork and have taken down two of our pieces from the green room and brought them to the small drawing room so that visitors can have a closer, more detailed look.

The stumpwork is one of our most delicate pieces in the collection and as such we have specific plans in place to look after it. Light is a particular problem for textiles. It causes the most damage to textiles and is irreversible. So the stumpwork that’s in the small drawing room has been put in a glass cabinet without lighting so as not to degrade the colours any more than they have been. Above the cabinet we have installed a screen and it shows close ups of the stumpwork and the detail that can be seen in the photos is extraordinary.

Lion
Lion
Lion

There is a blue wool dosimeter sitting on top of one of the stumpwork pictures in the green room to record its annual exposure to light. Dosimeters are sent away to conservators every February for inspection. Conservators can analyse how many lux hours of light the stumpwork has been exposed to by how faded the wool has become. The stumpwork is the most highly light-sensitive object at Mompesson House and is only allowed 150,000 lux-hours a year. We achieve this by closing the wooden shutters when the house closes to the public, the blinds are also lowered during the days when we are open and, finally, having them on a north facing wall.

Over the winter, Dr Susan Kay-Williams the Chief Executive of the Royal School of Needlework came to see our stumpwork and her visit has left us with a new insight into these wonderful pictures.

As a preserve of the wealthy stumpwork was taught to girls from the age of seven to showcase their domestic skills; by the time they were 11 or 12 they were real masters of this exquisite craft. It was as important to be seen as a good needle worker as to be able to run a house and these items were brought out to impress prospective mother-in-laws. By the age of 14 the girls would have been married and the time that was spent on these would no longer be available.

Our pictures are based on the story of Abraham from the Old Testament. This was a very popular story and was often seen in stumpwork from this period. Ours were made by the Chambre family of Kendal.

It would seem that they were originally started in the late 17th-century and were probably made to cover a box. They were sewn in panels and were perhaps unfinished. The panels at the front of the box would have been more elaborate as can be seen in the faces and the delicately-bound hands. These show the time and patience required to make these beautiful pieces. The panels were never used for their original purpose and were tucked away until the late 19th-century. They were then reworked by cutting up the original panels and gluing onto silk and new sections added to make the pictures we see today.

Elaborate face and hands
Detail showing face and hands
Elaborate face and hands

It was so fascinating to talk to a specialist about our much-loved pictures. Under our care and protection, they will go on to tell their story in the house for years to come.