A king and his wife stand beside a turreted red castle, waited on by an attendant who holds the train of the queenÂ’s elaborate dress aloft.

Above them, a rolling sky illuminates the surrounding animals – a deer, a cat, others seemingly drawn from fantasy – while ripe berries and blooming flowers burst from the vibrant foliage. The composition is both elaborate and unusual, all the more so for being constructed from thousands of individually threaded glass beads. The 17th century was a golden age of British needlework. Silk embroidery and beadworking had become fashionable pastimes for women, and the teaching of needlework in wealthy households gave rise to an age of remarkable domestic craft skills. Yet while the embroideries of the period have faded with time, the coloured glass of this beadwork basket has retained its original lustre. The central figures almost certainly represent Charles II and Catherine of Braganza, whom Charles married shortly after his restoration to the throne. Surviving baskets from this period are rare, and the use of lampworked glass for the heads and hands of the royal figures makes this particular basket unique. Lampworking, an ancient technique similar to glassblowing in which a torch or lamp is used to melt the glass prior to shaping, was developed into a fine craft in the 17th century by craftsmen in Navers, Venice and Amsterdam, while the glass beads themselves were most likely imported from Venice and the Netherlands. It is unknown what purpose such baskets served. It has been suggested that they played a role in weddings and festivities, or were gifts to celebrate a birth – they are often described as ‘layette baskets’. Despite the mystery surrounding its use, Alexander Sturgis, director of the Holburne Museum, describes the basket as ‘the perfect Holburne object: exquisitely made, historically fascinating, irresistibly charming and slightly mad’. It joins the Holburne’s small but significant collection of 17th-century embroidery, which includes a related embroidery depicting the Restoration of Charles II.


Sir Frederick Richmond; by descent; Bonham's; Whitney Antiques.

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