Put together by Jacqueline Banerjee from research by Cynthia Gamble — who also took the photographs. You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]

Detail of embroidered curtain, by Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell.

In the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Lady Catherine and her husband Charles Milnes Gaskell were living at Wenlock Abbey in Shropshire. Charles had inherited the estate, which included a residential property — once the prior's lodging — on the death of his father James in 1873. As a founder member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877, he was restoring the house with meticulous care. He was deeply imbued with the Arts and Crafts ideas of his time, and enthusiastic in his support for John Ruskin and William Morris, so it is no surprise to learn that he was also encouraging his wife in her love of gardening and embroidery, interests which would help to transform both the grounds of their house, and its interior. The two interests overlapped. Catherine's needlework designs were inspired by the flowers and shrubs she was planting, and the birds and other wild life (even snails and caterpillars) that animated her gardens, as well as by medieval stained glass and manuscripts, and the Pre-Raphaelites, some of whom she knew and admired (see Gamble, Wenlock Abbey, 267-68). The design here, she tells us in the passage quoted below, was drawn up for her by a "very skilful draughtsman," clearly with her own involvement.

Lady Catherine's Spring in a Shropshire Abbey is a delightfully natural account of life in the old house, and here she is at pains to explain how she went about one of her projects, and what it meant to her. She is describing a linen curtain that she was working on, which would help to decorate the medieval oratory in the house, as well as exclude the draughts. A detail of this beautiful and practical piece of soft furnishing is used for the cover of Cynthia Gamble's book on the Abbey.

The background is of yellow linen and is thickly covered with fourteenth and fifteenth century birds, beasts, and flowers, and in the centre of each there is an angel.

Each curtain is three yards four inches, by two yards four inches. The birds, beasts, and flowers are all finely shaded and are worked in crewels, tapestry wools divided, in darning and fine Berlin wools, and all these various sorts seem to harmonize and mingle wonderfully well together.

The picture, for it really is a picture, was drawn out for me by a very skilful draughtsman. The birds, beasts, and angels have been taken from old Italian work, from mediaeval stained-glass windows, and from old missals, and then drawn out to scale. There are Tudor roses, Italian carnations, sprays of shadowy love-in-the-mist, dusky wallflowers, and delightful half- heraldic birds and beasts, running up and hanging down the stems. It is a great work. Constance, who is good enough to admire it, says that she is sure that the Water-poet would have said, if he could have seen it —

Flowers, plants and fishes, beasts, birds, flies and bees,
Hills, dales, plains, pastures, skies, seas, rivers, trees:
There's nothing near at hand or farthest sought
But with the needle may be shaped and wrought.
Moreover, posies rare and anagrams,
Art's life included, within Nature's bounds.

There are four curtains to do, and alas, I have only one pair of hands!

I keep all carefully covered up with old damask napkins as I go along, so that neither ground nor work can get ruhbed or soiled, and embroider, myself, in what my old housekeeper calls pie-crust sleeves, to save the slightest friction from my dress on the yellow linen.

As to the cherubim's and seraphim's wings, they have been my great and constant delight. I dreamt of a wild glory of colour which I hardly dared to realize, but of which I found wonderful examples one sunny day in the macaw grove at the Zoo. I went up and down and inspected the marvellous birds for an hour, drinking in with rapture the extraordinary richness of their plumage. How marvellous they were! Bed, blue, mauve, green, scarlet, rose, and yellow, all pure unsullied colours, and like flashes of light. They seemed to me like a triumph- ant tune set to pealing chords. There seemed in those glorious creatures to be no drawbacks, no shadows, no trivialities of daily life. In their resplendent feathers they appeared to gather light and to reproduce the majesty of the sun itself.

Detail of embroidered pattern.

I went home, my eyes almost dazzled with their radiancy, and a week after attempted to work into my curtain somethmg of what I had seen — a feeble reflection, I fear, but still a reflection. In my angels and cherubim I have allowed no greys or browns, no twilight shades. Everywhere I have introduced a pure warm note of intense joyous colour, and if I have not always succeeded, at least the wings of my celestial beings have been a great source of delight to imagine, and to execute. In my colouring it has been always morning. Bess was charmed to run and fetch me the different wools needed — "Summer suns," she called them.

I have often noticed that to a young child, pure brilliant colours are an intense joy and a source of gaiety. It is only as the shades of the prison-house draw near, and press upon us, that the lack of appreciation creeps in for what to children and to primitive man is a great and constant glory. That day I was going to embroider some anemones, such as I remembered in the old market-place of Mentone, and a sprig of stocks, such as I recollected once having seen on a drive to Brigg. The eye of the mind can be a great pleasure if properly cultivated. It may not be actually correct, but it can give the soul and the life of things remembered, even through the mist of years.

Close-up of flowers and creatures: a stag, owl, etc. Notice the caterpillar in the top right-hand corner.

And now one word, dear sister-devotees of the needle, about embroidery. Do not imagine that shading in five or six shades of the same colour, which is the way that nine people out of ten work, is the true and natural one. This only produces a sad and wooden flower, without life or gladness, and conceived and worked amongst the shades of twilight. Take any flower and place it in the sunlight, and you will see in any purple flower, for instance, that there are not only different shades, but different colours — red, mauve, blue, lavender, and violet. I realized as I gazed at my anemone, that it must be embroidered in greyish lavenders, with here and there pure notes of violet with heather tints, in red purples, in greyish whites, and with a vivid apple-green centre. All these were strikingly different colours, but were necessary in the shading to make my blossom look as if it had grown amidst sunlight and shower.

I stood my bunch of real flowers in water in as strong a light as possible ; as to the sunshine, alas ! of that there was but a scanty supply, and I had to imagine that mostly, as also the scent of the orange groves and the thrilling song of the blackcaps over- head, for in our northern world, let it be written with sorrow, many and long are the dull leaden months between each summer. Still light did something, and imagination did the rest. I imagined myself back under the brilliant sky of southern France, and I thought I saw the bowls of brilliant flowers as I had known them, whilst I threaded my needle. [Gaskell 13-16]

Gamble tells us that Lady Catherine "took great care to protect her precious embroidery from dust and damage" (Wenlock Abbey, 270). She had a very special cassone in which to keep her sewing, wools and so on. It was a seventeenth-century cedarwood box of northern Italy origin — cedarwood being known to deter moths. "This magnificent cassone, still in use today, is decorated on the underside with a poker-work cartouche supported by angels, and flanked by two panels with scenes of the life of Diana within a trellis and scrolling border" (Wenlock Abbey, 270). Writing about the finished work elsewhere, Gamble says that as well as the medieval birds, beast and flowers, there are "Tudor roses, Italian carnations, sprays of shadowy love-in-the-mist, wallflowers, and delightful half-heraldic birds and beasts, running up and hanging down the stems," and goes on to make a "direct link with William Morris and Edward Burne—]ones in Lady Catherine's colourful embroidery Angeli Laudantes ("The True Value...").

Related Material


Gamble, Cynthia. "The True Value of Rubbish." Shropshire Magazine. December 2015.

_____. Wenlock Abbey, 1857-1919: A Shropshire Country House and the Milnes Gaskell Family. Much Wenlock, Shropshire: Ellingham Press, 2015 [Review].

Gaskell, Catherine Henrietta Milnes, Lady. Spring in a Shropshire Abbey. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1905. Internet Archive. Contributed by University of California Libraries. Web. 7 December 2015.

Created 7 December 2015; last modified 31 October 2023