Treasures of the RSN: ‘Purple Angel’

20th June, 2020

We hope that you managed to be part of our first Instagram ‘Live’ with RSN Chief Executive, Dr Susan Kay-Williams, last Wednesday 10 June and, if you didn’t, you are still able to listen to it on IGTV through clicking on our Instagram post of 10 June.

During the ‘live’, Susan talked about one of our Collection pieces, the ‘Purple Angel’, which is a fascinating piece as much for the back of it as for the incredible beauty of the angel on the front. The ‘Purple Angel’ was donated to the RSN by a lady who found it in a loft of a relative who had died, he was a vicar. It had been completed but was unmounted, and nobody in the parish knew of the piece when it was shown to them. The RSN mounted and framed the angel for it to be displayed during the ‘For Worship & Glory’ ecclesiastical exhibition at Hampton Court Palace in 2013.

The Purple Angel, front (left) and back (right).

The angel is in Goldwork with purple robes in stylised Silk Shading, possibly from the late 19th or early 20th century. It is often a point of fascination for stitchers to look at the back of a piece of embroidery, the usual reason being to see the neatness of the work but, in this piece, there was something more to it as the neat back gives no clues as to what the front looks like!

When working gold thread it is usually couched down (held in place) with yellow thread that becomes invisible once applied, which is the case for the halo and the Tudor Rose here, but we also see green, red and blue threads. The background at the top and bottom is couched with green, yet it still seems to blend in. It makes the gold look slightly darker, which helps with the overall three-dimensional look of the piece.

The most unexpected aspect is the red thread which is behind the wings. The wings are in padded sections and, to keep these defined, each undulation is held in place with a red couching stitch in the ‘gutter’ and then the red thread goes behind the next padded section keeping it all under tension. The final area of Goldwork is on the collar and cuffs of the gown. All of the chevron pattern is worked on the top in stitch, it is not pre-existing on the fabric. The gown is worked in stylised Silk Shading to indicate the folds and drape of the robe.

The hair and face of the angel are stitched with tiny stitches in a range of shades to give the pink of the cheeks.

When we invited the lady who had donated this beautiful piece to see it framed, she told us that she had found two more panels of angels in purple, the only difference being that one was looking the other way. So, it would appear that these were possibly originally designed as a triptych but were never framed. The lady kindly donated the other two angels to the RSN Collection which remain unmounted and unframed so that they can be used to show students the methodology.

The Purple Angel – the back of the face

Seeing the ‘Purple Angel’

Following the ‘For Worship & Glory’ exhibition at Hampton Court Palace, the exhibition has travelled to Ely, Chester and Exeter Cathedrals, and we are excited to return to Ely Cathedral to display ‘For Worship & Glory Part 2’ from 25 February to 25 March 2021.

The ‘Purple Angel’ is quite a remarkable piece and we are very lucky and grateful to have been donated the piece to keep in our Collection forever and to display for others to enjoy.