Thursday 2 May 2013

Edmund Harrison (1591-1667) – the King’s embroiderer

One of Harrison's pictures now in the
National Museums of Scotland
click to see further information from the museum site
There is often a general assumption that embroidery is a domestic, non-professional occupation, but in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries much work was done by members of the Broderers Guild, which received its first charter in 1561, though it appears to have been around from a considerably earlier date. Edmund Harrison was one of the most important members of the Company which still owns the cup he gave to them, engraved with comment  “The Gift of Edmund Harrison Imbroiderer to our late Soveraigne King James deceased and unto O’Soveraigne Lord King Charles that now is 24 Janry 1628”

 Edmund Harrison was born in London in 1591, the son of a merchant tailor he attended the Merchant Taylors’ School. He may have been trained by two men who were also embroiderers to the King, and his predecessors and/ or contemporaries, William Broderick (died 1620) and John Shipley (or Shepley, died 1631). Harrison continued as a King’s embroiderer until the Civil War. According to Wardle during the interregnum he traded in coal. (Wardle, 2008) Harrison also headed one of the consortiums at the time of the second list. This is the second list drawn up in January 1651 of “about 970 of the said creditors and servants” that is people who were owed money by the late King Charles. Harrison, who at one point is described as a wood monger, sold on about £500 worth of paintings that he had received, including two Titians and a Rubens. (Brotton, 2006) After the Restoration he was reinstated when the Broderers’ Guild wrote to Charles II that he was ‘the ablest worker living’, at that time he was seventy years of age. Charles II granted him £341 yearly for his living, and another £159 12s. for embroidering 250 coats for the yeomen of the chamber, yeomen waiters of the tower, yeomen of the robes and wardrobes, and 42 messengers of the chamber. (Holford, 1910) When he died in 1667 he was worth about £6946 10s, his will and probate inventory are available from the National Archives.

What type of work did Harrison do?

 Ceremonial : Much of Harrison’s work was ceremonial and related to the court, cloths for ceremonies of state and the state barges, banners and standards, for the orders of chivalry, and livery for the heralds, a slightly later herald's tabard is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, while a tabard from the period, unfortunately without a colour photograph, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. From 1627, when the Garter Star was introduced, Harrison supplied  stars of the order for cloaks and coats, 34 in 1633-34 and 40 in 1665-66, one of these stars, which may or may not be by Harrison himself, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. (Wardle, 1995)

 Religious: Harrison is also known to have completed altar frontals and similar both for the King and for private patrons. The Victoria and Albert Museum has in its collection both a pulpit hanging, attributed to Harrison by Wardle with arms of the Sandys of the Vyne family and dated to 1633, and an altar dossal also from the 1630s depicting the Last Supper.

Clothing: Harrison appears quite frequently in the Wardrobe accounts providing clothing for the King. One of the richest suits purchased in 1633/4 cost £226 18s 8½d, part of which went to Harrison for “embroidering the said doublet, hose and cloke, upon watched (i.e. watchet) satin wrought all over verie rich with fine needle gould, and fine twists and flagon cheines and lace purle of fine damaske gold and naple silk at being furnished by him.” (Strong, 1980) Harrison also provided embroidered costume for court masques.

 Embroidered pictures:  The series of embroidered pictures by Harrison, known as the Corby Castle pictures, were split up after a sale in the 1920s. They are dated to 1637 and depict the life of the Virgin. They are in a technique known as or nue, a type of goldwork where the gold threads are couched down with coloured silk threads, the density of the couching threads creating shading in the design. (Synge, 2001)  Two of the pictures are in the National Museums of Scotland; one depicts the Annunciation and the other the Circumcision of Christ .  Another in the series, depicting the Adoration of the Shepherds, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum (unfortunately there is no image attached to the record).

This article is very heavily indebted to Patricia Wardle’s extensive work on Harrison, which should be read for further information on him. (Wardle, 1994) (Wardle, 1995)

Brotton, J., 2006. The sale of the late king's goods.. London: Macmillan.

Holford, C., 1910. A chat about the Broderers' Company. London: Allen.

Strong, R., 1980. Charles I's clothes for the years 1633-1635. Costume, Volume 14.

Synge, L., 2001. Art of embroidery: history of style and technique.. London: Royal School of Needlework.

Wardle, P., 1994. The Kings's Embroiderer: Edmund Harrison (1590-1667), part 1. Textile History, Volume 25, pp. 29-59.

Wardle, P., 1995. The Kings's Embroiderer: Edmund Harrison (1590-1667), part 2. Textile History, Volume 26, pp. 139-184.

Wardle, P., 2008. Harrison, Edmund (bap. 1591, d. 1667), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 1 May 2013].


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