The Ashmolean has acquired one of the world’s finest collections of historic English embroideries which has been given to the Museum by collectors Micheál and Elizabeth Feller. The gift comprises 61 pieces which span the whole of the seventeenth century; and these are currently on display in the summer exhibition, The Eye of the Needle which runs until 12 October. The Feller embroideries have long been considered one of the world’s most important groups of historic textiles and the gift is estimated to be worth in excess of £500,000. It has come to the Museum in honour of Professor Christopher Brown CBE who will retire as Director of the Ashmolean on 30 September. Professor Brown says: I am profoundly grateful to Micheál and Elizabeth Feller for this gift. The collection has been built, over many years, through Micheál and Elizabeth’s passion and dedication; and the gift to the Museum, where the embroideries can be enjoyed by thousands of visitors, is an act of enormous generosity.
The pieces which have been given to the Museum are seventeenth-century embroideries which include dramatic pictorial panels, samplers, domestic items and costume pieces. These embroideries were made during one of the most turbulent centuries in English history, when religious and political conflict split families and the country. Beyond the opportunity for demonstrating technical ability, the embroideries illustrate the themes and concerns which occupied the minds of the young women making them. They often depict biblical stories at a time when religious issues, including the use of images, aroused great controversy. Similarly, during a period of increasing urbanization the pictorial pieces show idyllic country scenes with imaginary creatures and flowers.
The Fellers are well known to residents of Oxford as the proprietors of the renowned butcher’s shop in the City’s Covered Market. They started collecting embroideries when they were first married and have continued to buy pieces for over forty years. The interest in textiles and sewing originated with Elizabeth whose mother was a seamstress and who is, herself, an accomplished embroiderer. The pieces which the Fellers have collected reflect their interest in the skills and varied techniques of embroidery, and in the individual stories and wider history that the embroideries illustrate.
Elizabeth Feller, says: Thanks to my mother’s influence, sewing and embroidery has been a meaningful activity throughout my life. Our collection of embroideries worked by other people began with small household items such as needlepoint cushions and went on to include samplers, panels and a huge variety of other objects, all steeped in English history and the stories of the individuals who made them – and that is what we love. Micheál and I are delighted that the seventeenth-century embroideries will now find a home at the Ashmolean where they will be cared for and enjoyed by people for many years to come.