One thing I love about working with Liberty prints is the complexity and depth of their designs.
This one, Gambier, is from their 2015 A/W range and I loved it so much that I bought a length ‘on spec’, hoping that someone would fall for it as much as I did. A couple of customers did, and they both commented that it looked Celtic. I agreed – that’s a thistle in the middle of the design, isn’t it? And look at that knot! Celtic, if ever I saw a knot!
I had a vague memory, though, that Liberty had said the design had Tudor connections. Now, I have had a fascination with Tudor history since I can’t remember when. Then, a few years ago, I started dressing as a Tudor in out annual torchlit November 5th procession here in Lewes and now I find that, when I am not thinking, reading about and making western wear, I am thinking and reading about Tudor dress. And making it. O, and wearing it, too. But only on November 5th.
So when I checked back on Liberty’s website and learned that this design was based around textiles in the paintings of Henry VIII’s court painter, Hans Holbein (1497/8 – 1543), I was intrigued. The dress history geek in me just had to go hunting.
I love Holbein. I went to an exhibition of his drawings of Henry’s courtiers at the Tate Gallery a few years ago and looking at them, I felt they could have been standing alive in front of me. Even the mightiest were made humble by his humanising strokes.
Here’s poor Anne Boleyn in her nightie.
It was Holbein who created the image of Henry VIII, in all his bulky, murderous masculinity, that we still hold as iconic . So that’s where I looked for the motifs that inspired the designer of our Liberty print. It turns out that the central motif is not a thistle but a pomegranate, a symbol in Tudor times of fertility and abundance. In 1540, when Holbein painted this portrait of Henry, he wore a coat made from fabric decorated with a stylised pomegranate design, so we would all know what a fertile and abundant man he was.
But I think the actual inspiration for it must have been a portrait of one of Henry’s close friends, Sir Henry Guildford (1489 – 1532). Sir Henry was at one point the King’s ‘Master of Revels’ responsible for organising the court’s entertainments. But by the time this portrait was painted in 1527, he had the responsible role of Comptroller of the King’s Household. He looks as if he was a force to reckoned with, doesn’t he?
Holbein has used gold leaf to show us how sumptuous his robe is – and look at that chain!And look closely at the pattern on that gold cloth… here’s our pomegranate:
And here’s our knot:
So… not Celtic, after all. It turns out continuous knots occur in the art of many cultures – Islamic, Buddhist and at the court of that most English of Kings, Henry VIII.
I guess there must have been continuous knots all over these islands, in the same way that there were versions of the same familiar folk songs from England, Scotland and Ireland.
Does that design still look Celtic to you? It still does to me! But that’s alright, I think. Like a great song, a beautiful design can cross cultures and have more than one meaning, depending on what angle you see it from, or how your ear is cocked. That’s all part of our richness, and what makes human culture so life enhancing.