A £500,000 collection of 17th-century embroideries has been given to the Ashmolean in honour of Professor Christopher Brown CBE as he steps down as the museum’s director.

Ashmolean's new treasure

The Ashmolean has been given a wealth of historic 17th-century embroideries in honour of Professor Christopher Brown CBE, who retires as the museum’s director today. Considered one of the world’s finest groups of historic English embroideries, and estimated to be worth more than £500,000, it has been donated by Micheál Feller and his wife Elizabeth. The Feller Collection, comprising 61 pieces spanning the 17th century, is on display at the museum in the Eye of the Needle exhibition which runs until 12 October.

The Fellers, who run the organic butcher’s shop in Oxford’s Covered Market, started collecting embroideries when they first married and have continued for more than forty years, exploring not only the skills and techniques of embroidery but also the personal and public histories behind the pieces. Their interest originated with Elizabeth, an accomplished embroiderer whose mother was a seamstress.

She said: ‘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.’

Professor Brown, who has been the Ashmolean’s director since 1998, said he was ‘profoundly grateful’ for the donation. ‘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. It is a huge personal honour that this gift comes to the Ashmolean in my last week as director. ’

He is succeeded by Dr Alexander Sturgis, director of the Holburne Museum of Art in Bath since 2005.

The Feller Collection ranges from costume articles to pictorial panels, and in Eye of the Needle they are on public display for the first time, alongside embroideries from the Ashmolean’s existing holdings. The exhibition explores the role of embroidery in the lives of 17th-century women — a period when their position was under exacting scrutiny but when skill with the needle could offer them valuable rewards. Biblical or rural themes are examined in the context of religious upheaval and increasing urbanisation.

The example pictured above is a sumptuous box depicting the life of Abraham, in silk thread with padded appliqué silk satin and wire-wrapped silk. It dates from before 1665 and its anonymous maker has been tentatively identified as a Miss Bluitt, later Mrs Payne.

Exhibition curator Dr Mary Brooks, director of Durham University’s MA in International Cultural Heritage Management, said: ‘The Fellers’ generous gift enriches the Ashmolean’s collection. Remarkable for the dramatic stories, detailed patterns and luxurious materials, these embroideries have huge research potential as well as being a visual delight.’

Tickets for the Big Stitch events and activities this Saturday, jointly hosted by the Embroiderers Guild, have been snapped up already. However, there is still time to catch the main event. The Eye of the Needle runs until Sunday 12 October, with extended openings on both Fridays and Saturdays. Admission is £6, with concessions available. Booking is recommended.

All images are © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, and are reproduced with kind permission.