With nearly 5000 historic volumes filling the shelves of The Hurd library, it would be easy to assume that all of our treasures are leather bound and neatly stacked. However, we are discovering that many of the incidental items in the library have their own, often completely unexpected stories. So this month I will be sharing some of these discoveries on the blog. At the beginning of the month I began this feature with a picture tease of Bishop Hurd’s wig stand. This post is the main article of this series, discussing the discovery of the fascinating history behind the library’s unique collection of chairs.
Two of the chairs in The Hurd Library embroidered by Lady Julia Carew, c1919. Photographs by Sarah Stretton.
There is a collection of 8 chairs in the library and 6 chairs in The Saloon, which all feature oriental style embroideries. Until recently, very little was known about the chairs, their providence or history except that they were believed to have been embroidered by Lady Julia Carew towards the end of WWI. Armed with this scrap of information, Mary Arden-Davis, Vice-Chair of the Friends of Hartlebury Castle and The Hurd Library, attempted to uncover the history of these beautiful embroideries. Mary was put in contact with Dr Lynn Hulse, from the Royal Society of Needlework, and a leading expert on Lady Julia Carew. Dr Hulse was delighted to discover this hitherto unknown collection of Lady Julia’s work. She visited the castle and authenticated the chairs which are marked with Lady Julia’s signature and the date of 1919. It is not yet known if the embroideries were originally hangings that were altered to become chair covers.
Example of Lady Julia’s signature and date on a chair from the Library. Photograph by Chris Penney, Hurd Librarian.
So what makes these embroideries so significant? The answer is simple: the skill of their influential maker. Lady Julia Carew was the epitome of the accomplished society lady; she lived in Persia as a child, became the wife of the Baron Robert Carew and was a superb pianist. But her lasting legacies are the embroideries she created throughout her life, some of which remain with us today. In her own lifetime she was celebrated as “the best needle and tapestry-worker in Society…famed for her exquisite skill” (The Sketch, 1902).
Lady Julia Carew and an example of Lady Julia’s wall hangings featuring the “tree of life” motif. Images courtesy of Dr Lynn Hulse.
Lady Julia spent 5-7 hours embroidering daily. This was a time commitment necessary to stich all of her own wall hangings for her stately homes in Ireland and London. Lady Julia also believed that every bride should cross-stitch her own stair carpet! One can only imagine that she also believed in very lengthy engagements. She was taught to embroider at the Royal School of Needlework and shared their goal of returning ornamental embroidery to the forefront of the decorative arts. For many decades the focus of Lady Julia’s style was on emulating the sumptuous Jacobean embroideries that were created in the 17th century based on the “tree of life” motif. The majority of her work is in this style but the chairs we have at the castle are an exception. By 1919 she had begun to lose interest in this style and turned her attention to the oriental imagery that is featured on the chairs here at Hartlebury. Thus the chairs are a remarkable demonstration of the evolution of Lady Julia’s decorative style.
On March 3rd Dr Hulse held a one day workshop at Hartlebury Castle, called Lady Julia Carew (1863-1922) and the embroideries at Hartlebury in aid of the Hartlebury Castle Preservation Trust. On the day, Dr Hulse gave a fascinating lecture to 60 people where she spoke of her excitement at finding out about this additional collection of Lady Julia’s work at the castle. In the afternoon, she held a practical workshop based on the embroideries with her colleague designer Nicola Jarvis. The day was a great success and has received very positive feedback.
Dr Hulse has written that “Lady Carew’s lifelong passion and skill for the art [of embroidery] rank her as one of the most significant English needlewomen in history”. We are thrilled that the collection here at the Library and Castle plays such a significant part in the history of the British decorative arts.
Many thanks to Dr Lynn Hulse for photographs of Lady Julia, information on Lady Julia’s work and for bringing to light this wonderful element of the castle’s heritage.
Hulse, Lynn. ‘The best embroideress…in Society’: Lady Julia Carew and the Girton College Panels’
Written by Sarah Stretton, Skills for the Future Graduate Trainee at The Hurd Library and University of Worcester Research Collections.
Images of Lady Julia Carew’s embroideries were featured in the Treasures for National Day post last month.