Until quite recently there were nine embroidered cushions in the Brasenose College Chapel. At the beginning of this year they were removed for analysis, and were subsequently identified by an expert at the V&A as important examples of 17th century Turkish work, and potentially of national significance.
After some brief research, College Archivist Georgina Edwards found a bill dating from 1667 (a year after the consecration of the Chapel), which appears to detail the purchase of the cushions. There is a payment of 6 pounds and 2 shillings ‘for 12 toppes of cushions for the Chappell’ and of 3 pounds 11 shillings ‘for makeing them up [and] for a long cushion’ (see the images of the bill below).
The bill suggests that there were originally 13 cushions – 12 standard size and 1 long cushion. Of the nine remaining, the standard cushions measure approximately 38cm by 55cm, and the long cushion measures approximately 37cm by 70.5cm. The expert from the V&A suggested that the singular long cushion would have been placed in the centre of one of the Chapel’s altar steps, with six smaller cushions either side for kneeling on. It is possible that they were made especially for the consecration of the Chapel, which took place in November 1666. The existence of the bill almost certainly confirms the provenance of the cushions, and this increases their value and significance.
Considering that they have been in use for 350 years, the cushions are in remarkably good condition, with only a few wax marks and some fading of the wool. However, in order to ensure their future preservation they have now been taken out of use and are kept in the brand new archive store, where environmental conditions can be closely monitored and their security can be guaranteed. They have been wrapped in acid-free tissue and placed in archival quality boxes for their long-term storage.
The History of Turkey Work
‘Turkey work’ refers to a style of knotted embroidery which was used in England particularly during the 17th century. The technique derives from the type of carpets woven in the Middle East, which were brought to England in about the 16th century (see Encyclopaedia Britannica, available at https://www.britannica.com/art/Turkey-work).
Turkey work was also used for chair covers and cushions, the latter being used in stalls in cathedrals, churches and colleges.
Design of the Brasenose Cushions
The cushions show the arms of the founders of Brasenose College, namely William Smyth Bishop of Lincoln, and Sir Richard Sutton, a lawyer. Four of the remaining cushions have Bishop Smyth’s arms, and five have Sir Richard Sutton’s heraldry.
Bishop William Smyth’s portrait, which hangs in Hall, and one of the cushions bearing his arms:
Sir Richard Sutton’s portrait, which hangs in Hall, and one of the cushions bearing his arms:
The cushions were assessed by an antique textiles and fans consultant and described as follows:
Four of the cushions are ‘designed with the Coat of Arms of Bishop Smith of Lincoln (?1460-1514) displaying a central chevron with three red roses, the whole having an upright flowering stem to each side, the lower border with the date 1666, the left, right and upper borders with a rose and lattice pattern worked in red, blue, green and yellow wools, the outer edge with narrow tufted trim, padded and with later light [or dark] green cloth backing.’
Five of the cushions are ‘designed with a shield displaying the Coat of Arms of Sir Richard Sutton (d.1524), the first and fourth quarters with a chevron and three bugles and the second and third with a chevron and three crosslets, the whole having a tree and leaves to each side, the lower border with the date 1666, the left, right and upper border with a rose and lattice pattern worked in red, blue, green and yellow wools, the outer edge with narrow tufted trim, padded and with later dark green linen backing.’
The nine remaining cushions will be professionally cleaned by a conservator. It is hoped that in the future they might go on display or that replicas will be made in order to ensure access to these important items.
Helen Sumping, Archivist (Maternity Cover)
The 1667 bill documenting the purchase of the cushions: