Tucked quietly away in a corner of Berkshire is an amazing textile mural called The Country Wife. It is currently being renovated by volunteer embroiderers with the hope that one day it will be put on public display for the general public to marvel over.
The National Needlework Archive is located in the Old Chapel on the former Greenham Common Airbase which was operational bet
ween 1940 and 1991. The whole area is strangely evocative of 1960s America. The way the old huts are laid out along roads incongruously named Main Street and First Street etc. just seems so alien in rural Berkshire! Sadly the modern world is steadily moving in – the prefabs are being demolished to be replaced by shiny car showrooms and workshops. Such a shame – though I suppose the small, dark rooms are not conducive to modern living. The Chapel was built in the mid 20th century for all denominations of Christian worship – with services and meetings arranged to avoid clashes between the various congregations.
The Country Wife is an immense mural made in what is called Stumpwork Embroidery – this is described by the Royal School of Needlework as: “raised embroidery which uses an array of different materials and embroidery techniques to tell a contemporary story in stitch using three dimensional elements. Techniques include silk work, goldwork, counted work, flat & raised stitching, bead work, padding and needlelace”.
It was designed by an acclaimed textile artist Constance Howard in 1951 to be displayed in the Country Pavilion at the Festival of Britain on London’s South Bank. It is 5 metres wide by 4.5 metres high and depicts activities typical of women in rural communities in the mid 20th century – Many of the feature on the mural were made by members of the Women’s Institute who were experts in such fields as glove making, casework and embroidery. At the close of the Festival it was presented to the National Federation of Women’s Institutes and was on show at Denmans College in Oxfordshire until in dire need of renovation it was transferred to the WI Collection at the National Needlework Archive.
It is a breathtaking piece of work still, despite it being rather tired looking. Constance Howard who was Head of Department at Goldsmiths College, London was an inspirational textile artist and together with her students managed to capture the very essence of life for country women in the mid 20th century. It is well worth a visit and wouldn’t it be marvellous if someday to could be put on display somewhere prominent rather than left to languish unseen.
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