Textile treasures go on display at Durham Cathedral

Unconventional English artist, Grayson Perry, will be exhibiting one of his latest works alongside some of Durham Cathedral’s most significant historic textile pieces, in Textiles: Painting with the needle

Unconventional English artist, Grayson Perry, will be exhibiting one of his latest works alongside some of Durham Cathedral’s most significant historic textile pieces, in Textiles: Painting with the needle – an exhibition running from Saturday 5 November to Saturday 11 February, in the Open Treasure visitor experience.

Grayson Perry’s piece, titled Death of a Working Hero, is based on a traditional miners’ union banner, inspired by the artist’s visit to the North East as part of his TV documentary series Grayson Perry: All Man.

Death of a Working Hero shows the figures of ‘strong men’ past and present: a miner and a cage fighter. Beneath them is a funeral, with mourners gathered around a coffin emblematic of how the high mortality rate from mining accidents has been replaced by the high rate of suicide among young men in the region today. This artwork is displayed by kind permission of Grayson Perry and Victoria Miro, London.

Grayson Perry’s piece is the most modern element of the exhibition, which features textiles from across the centuries. At the opposite end of the time-spectrum are two pieces retrieved from St Cuthbert’s tomb in 1827. One is an Anglo-Saxon silk Dalmatic (a tunic-style church vestment), dating back to the eighth century, featuring locally-made Northumbrian braid added for decoration, the other is part of a large shawl or mantle known as The Peacock Silk, which dates from around 1100 and is thought to have been made in a workshop in Almeria, Spain. Its decoration features double-headed peacocks inside large roundels, with griffins in the spaces between them.

Three copes, the liturgical cloak-like vestments worn for services, feature in the exhibition. Perhaps the highlight of the display is the Coronation Cope, worn by the Bishop of Durham at the coronations of the last four British monarchs, most recently by Bishop Michael Ramsay at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. Another is the cope commissioned by Durham Cathedral for the visit of Charles I in 1633, a rare example of 17th century church needlework from the time when such vestments had fallen out of fashion.

Examples of Medieval English embroidery can be seen on the fragments from the grave of William of St Calais. These feature silver-gilt thread and are a very early example of an embroidery technique called ‘underside couching’, where the metal threads are attached to the fabric by tiny loops of linen thread, hidden underneath.

The exhibition also houses Arabella Stuart’s bible, dating back to the 1600s. Lady Arabella Stuart was the cousin of King James I and in 1610 was arrested for marrying without the King’s permission. Travelling to Durham to be placed in the charge of the Bishop, William James, she escaped from her guards but was recaptured and sent to the Tower of London instead, where she died. She embroidered the cover of the bible herself.

20th Century pieces include examples of work by the Cathedral’s dedicated team of volunteer Broderers who create and maintain many of the textiles works seen in use in the Cathedral today.

On display are the Lenten Altar set, which was designed by the Cathedral’s head borderer Tracy A. Franklin and dedicated in February 2013. The centre of the design features a crown of thorns, as worn by Jesus Christ at the Crucifixion. The branches are made from padded leather, with red silk thread representing Christ’s blood. The main fabric is natural, unbleached linen, which complements the natural stone of the Cathedral but also represents sackcloth, traditionally worn by people repenting for their sins. This is embroidered with desert grasses in coloured silk, while the thorns are outlined in pure gold metal thread.

Durham Cathedral’s Head of Collections, Lisa Di Tommaso, said: “This latest and much anticipated exhibition, puts on display some of the Cathedral’s richest textiles; rich in their history, their splendour and their symbolism.

“With such a breadth of subject matter from the most modern piece on loan to us by Grayson Perry to our Anglo-Saxon relics, we hope to attract a wide-spectrum of visitors to the exhibition ranging from textile scholars and enthusiasts, to those who simply wish to admire the beauty of these splendid and often eye-catching pieces.”

Textiles: Painting with the needle runs from Saturday 5 November – Saturday 11 February 2017. Entrance is included as part of the Open Treasure ticket, which can be purchased online at or at the Durham Cathedral information desk at the rear of the Cathedral Nave.

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