Butterfield's interpretation of medieval textiles
William Butterfield (1814-1900) was one of England's most accomplished and prolific Gothic Revivalists. Between 1881 and 1883 he built St Mary Magdalene's, Enfield in Middlesex. Every aspect of the building and its decoration is by Butterfield, including all the textiles. For the high altar he designed a number of glorious altar frontals (including the red and festal frontals illustrated) with embroidery which is reliant on medieval work. The demi-angels, lilies, fleur-de-lys and 'water flowers' as they were known, all have precedent in medieval English embroidery.
Butterfield was himself very interested in medieval embroidery. In 1880, around the time that he designed the Enfield frontals, Butterfield was involved in the publication of a seminal work on late medieval English embroideries. At his suggestion Mary Barber had started to produce a series of glorious illustrations of late Opus Anglicanum. These illustrations were to form a volume entitled Some Drawings of Ancient Embroidery, which was published after Barber's death under Butterfield's direction. It is the seminal work on the subject.
One of the plates from Mary Barber's volume.
Do follow the link to the Enfield website, where you will see some more photos of the Butterfield frontals.
Why did a man of Butterfield's talent reproduce a style of Opus Anglicanum which is - at the risk of coming on all Ruskinian - decadent, compared to it's glory days of the 13th and early 14th centuries. By 1500, as the recent post here indicates, surviving English church embroidery - orphreys excluded - is largely a matter of copying a small number of motifs, most of which Butterfield includes in his frontals.
Personally speaking and speaking very much from an emotional rather than an intellectual position, I rather like the late medieval work. Dare I say it I even prefer it to the earlier work.