Mythical tales and where to find them at Montacute House

Settee at Montacute

Like comic books and graphic novels, there is always a place for stories told with pictures.

Please note: Due to the display of Tottington Hall, the Chicheley furnishings are not available to see until November.

The lists of historical inventories record that Montacute was once filled with tapestries, upholstered furniture and carpets.   Those have long gone, often sold by the family to raise funds to save the building.  However, the house has become home to a new collection of internationally outstanding textiles.

Most impressive might be the stately set of ten chairs, embroidered screen and settee ordered in about 1720 for Chicheley Hall in Buckinghamshire.

Screen at Montacute House, Somerset
Screen at Montacute House, Somerset
Screen at Montacute House, Somerset

They were transferred to the nation through the ‘Acceptance in Lieu’ scheme from the collection of Major J Grenville B Chester in 2012.   They are now on display at Montacute and cared for by the National Trust on behalf of the Government.  

Each piece tells a different story.  All except one are taken from the writings of the Roman poet Ovid.  His collection of myths and historical legends ‘Metamorphoses’, gave inspiration to generations of writers including Chaucer and Shakespeare.  Roman numerals on the inside of the seat rails perhaps helped to remind the owner the order in which they should be set out.  

The maker used the back frame of the chairs to display the story panels.  Each is made of one single panel of embroidery.

Chair from Montacute House, Somerset
Chair from Montacute House, Somerset
Chair from Montacute House, Somerset

The seats are covered with flowers.  Sitting on the images of people was not thought to be very appropriate.  Today it might still feel strange. Imagine these chairs as conversation pieces.  Three hundred years ago we could have sat or stood talking about the vivid stories they told as we might chat about the actors or plot in a new film today.  A colourful way to engage and entertain guests, it was also a chance to demonstrate your own knowledge of classical history.

The tiny stitches of silk and wool on linen canvas, seats edged with gold silk fringe, carved and gilded walnut legs were also meant to leave us in no doubt about the owners expensive and exquisite taste in furniture.

Detail from chair back at Montacute House
Detail from panel on chair back at Montacute
Detail from chair back at Montacute House

The house team at Montacute use cotton covers to protect the chairs from the irreparable damage of sunlight and dust.   This is how such furniture has always been kept.  Covered up until needed for a special event.