By Robin Hanson, Conservator of Textiles, The Cleveland Museum of Art, and Holly Witchey, Adjunct Professor, Department of Art History and Art, Case Western Reserve University
A Little More about the Cleveland Burse
When confronted with the burse in person, the overwhelming impression is one of luxury and precious, expensive materials (fig. 1). The burse is not flat but rather three dimensional. Roughly 43.2 cm (17 in.) square, the burse is 3.8 cm (1½ in.) deep and weighs about 2.2 kg (nearly 5 lbs.), most of which is due to the weight of the gold and silver thread (fig. 2). Luxury items were costly. In addition to the materials — which also include pearls, jet, and dyed silk thread — there was the cost of skilled labor (embroiderers).
Just how costly was unknown to us until recently. While researching in the National Archives at Kew, Stephen Patterson, former head of collections information management at the Royal Collection of the British Royal Household, discovered in the accounts for George IV’s coronation on July 19, 1820, the bills for a burse that was to be carried by the Keeper of the Privy Purse in the various processions (fig. 3). The accounts record that the cost for the materials and labor for the burse (Privy Purse) was £80 9/- 6d (80 pounds sterling, 9 shillings, 6 pennies). Of this sum, £45 (45 pounds sterling) was paid for the embroidery and £24 4/- (24 pounds sterling, 4 shillings) for the gold lace and tassels. The value of the burse at today’s exchange rate would be about £6,844 ($8,454), of which some £3,400 ($4,200) would have been for the embroidery.
Several guilds would have collaborated to ensure that the burse was completed in time for the coronation, including the Mercers (cloth dealers), Goldsmiths, Gold & Silver Wyre Drawers, and Broderers (embroiderers). Textile historian Patricia Wardle has written about Edmund Harrison, an embroiderer in the 17th century to two kings — James I (reigned 1603–1625) and Charles II (reigned 1660–1685) (see below for suggested readings) — but there is much to research about the era of George III, when many of these guilds were transitioning to mechanized manufacturing.
Research Journeys and Friends across the World
In order to efficiently complete our research, we divided and conquered. Hanson’s natural interest in the materials from which the burse is made sent her off in one direction, while Witchey’s attraction to the history of collecting sent her in another. In this blog, we discuss those two trajectories. An unexpected benefit of this research has been our many connections — some old, some new — all of whom have taken an interest in our research and arranged to have objects available for viewing and to spend time with us, giving us the benefit of their specialized knowledge. It truly takes a village.
Throughout her career as a textile conservator, Hanson has been intrigued by the many forms of gold and silver metal thread and its use in textiles, so this project allowed her to focus on this curiosity. In 2018 Hanson attended a one-day class at the Royal School of Needlework, where she was introduced to goldwork embroidery. In 2019, while at a conference for textile conservators in Ottawa, Hanson visited Cynthia Jackson, a goldwork embroiderer trained at the Royal School of Needlework who also is an art historian researching the makers of goldwork embroidery in the Tudor era. Jackson’s blog on Tudor embroidery is well worth exploring.
Jackson has been interested in burses for many years and has written an interesting analysis of the burse in the British Museum’s collection, one of two extant burses from Elizabeth I (reigned 1558–1603) (fig. 4).
In 2018–19 Hanson proposed that the CMA host a three-day workshop for conservators on metal thread in textiles. Due to the pandemic, that was put off a few years until we could meet in person. Funded by the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) — the professional organization for art conservators in the US — the workshop took place in early June 2022. Thirteen conservation professionals from around the country attended.
The workshop had three goals: to look at textiles with metal thread across periods and cultures in the CMA’s extraordinary textile collection (fig. 5), to allow participants to work with various types of metal thread to understand how it behaves, and to discuss the scientific analysis and conservation treatment of metal thread. Hanson co-taught the class with Tricia Nguyen, a materials scientist and goldwork embroiderer, who gave tutorials, facilitated looking sessions, and talked about the history and manufacture of gold thread throughout the ages (fig. 6). Participants took home a linen sampler they worked with gold thread (fig. 7), a library of gold metal thread samples for future reference, and an annotated bibliography of conservation literature on metal threads, including their history and production, scientific analysis, and treatment.
As we mentioned in a blog last month, we’ve identified 24 English burses to date — the earliest from Elizabeth I (reigned 1558–1603) and the most recent from Elizabeth II (reigned 1952–2022).
Witchey has taken two trips to the UK to look at burses and portraits of Lord Chancellors with their burses: one in the spring of 2019 and a second in the spring of 2022. Both were made possible with a grant from a charitable trust. The 2019 trip to London and Cambridge included visits to the holdings of the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Museum of London, as well as the Fitzwilliam Museum.
In May 2019, at the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn, librarian Dunstan Speight looked at their three burses with Witchey, gave her a tour of the inn (fig. 8), and provided directions to Ede and Ravenscroft, the tailors for the Lord Chancellors’ robes of state and regalia.
Paul Cox, curator of the Reference Collection at the National Portrait Gallery, arranged for Witchey to see a portrait of Charles Pratt, 1st Earl Camden and George III’s (reigned 1760–1820) second Lord Chancellor from 1766 to 1770, in off-site storage and a portrait of Lord Thurlow, George III’s fifth Lord Chancellor from 1778 to 1783, at the National Portrait Gallery Library.
Beatrice Behlen, senior curator for fashion and decorative arts at the Museum of London, kindly invited Witchey into her storeroom to see the burse in their collection dating from the reign of Victoria (1837–1901) (fig. 9).
And then in Cambridge, Nik Zolman, chief technician at the Fitzwilliam Museum, made their burses available for viewing and provided access to the curatorial files for Witchey to study in a private room at the museum (figs. 10–11).
Another useful connection made during that trip was facilitated by a reference librarian at the Westminster Reference Library. Her suggestion that Witchey contact the Worshipful Company of Gold & Silver Wyre Drawers, one of the livery companies of the City of London, continues to bear fruit.
Witchey’s post-pandemic trip in May 2022 allowed her to range farther afield looking at burses in Cambridgeshire and Staffordshire. Hanson helped facilitate visits to National Trust properties in Cambridgeshire — Anglesey Abbey, Ickworth, and Wimpole Hall — through her textile conservation colleagues in the UK and their connections.
Ickworth had two objects on display that we originally thought were Lord Chancellor burses but that we now know to be Privy Purses — smaller purses for a more specific purpose, and outside our scope of research. Anglesey Abbey has a collection of what may have been pillow covers, all made during the reign of George I (1714–1727) but bearing the insignia of various monarchs.
Only Wimpole Hall had an actual Lord Chancellor’s burse on display, as well as Thomas Hudson’s portrait of Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke (1690–1764) and George II’s (reigned 1727–1760) third Lord Chancellor from 1737 to 1756.
In the neighboring village, St. Andrew’s Parish Church included two tomb monuments with carved burses — one for Philip Yorke (figs. 12–13) and one for his son Charles Yorke (1722–1770), who was Lord Chancellor to George III (reigned 1760–1820) for just three days in January 1770.
In Staffordshire, Witchey spent a morning at Weston Park in Weston-under-Lizard. Open to the public, Weston Park has a large art collection and comprises 1,000 acres of landscape designed by Lancelot (Capability) Brown (c. 1715/16–1783), an English gardener and landscape architect who remains the most famous figure in the history of the English landscape garden style.
Gareth J. L. Williams, curator and head of learning at the Weston Park Foundation, invited Witchey to Weston Park on a day when it was closed to the public to see the burse that belonged to Sir Orlando Bridgeman (1606–1674), Lord Keeper of the Great Seal from 1667 to 1672 during the reign of Charles II (1660–1685) (fig. 14). Charles had five Lord Chancellors during his 25-year reign; Bridgeman was the second. Bridgeman’s burse has been in the possession of the Bridgeman family since the 17th century and currently is displayed at the family seat of the Earls of Bradford at Weston Park. Witchey was able to see Bridgeman’s burse in situ, as well as his portrait, and have a conversation with Williams about existing documentation for the Weston Park burse.
The burse at Weston Park is particularly crucial to our research because it is one of the few well-provenanced burses we are aware of. This means we know to which Lord Chancellor it belonged: Sir Orlando Bridgeman, whose portrait by Dutch portrait painter Pieter Borselaer is displayed in the niche above the burse (fig. 15). In general, it’s quite difficult to tie a burse to a specific Lord Chancellor because the only indicator of date and ownership is the cypher of the reigning monarch.
In addition to the burse, Weston Park has a 30.5 cm (12 in.) silver cup fashioned from the great seal (which is engraved with the burse and bears only the maker’s mark “TM”) (fig. 16).
Historical Research: Chancellors, Chancellors Everywhere
At this point, we can with some certainty associate five burses to specific Lord Chancellors: two from the reign of Charles II (1660–1685), one from the reign of William III (1689–1702), one from the reign of George II (1727–1760), and one from the reign of Victoria (1837–1901).
The first of these is the burse belonging to Sir Orlando Bridgeman discussed above.
The second burse was made for Sir Francis North, 1st Baron Guilford (1637–1685) and Charles II’s fifth and final Lord Chancellor (1682–1685) (fig. 17).
Gareth Williams at Weston Park linked us to another provenanced burse and introduced us to the Hon. Iain Hill-Trevor at Brynkinalt Hall near Wrexham in Wales. Hill-Trevor supplied photographs of the burse belonging to his ancestor Sir John Trevor (1637–1717) and Sir Francis Grant’s portrait of Trevor. The burse remains in the family collection of Hill-Trevor. To further complicate matters, Sir John Trevor served as speaker from 1690 to 1693, rather than Lord Chancellor, during the reign of William III (1689–1702).
We have a provenanced burse that dates from the reign of George II (1727–1760). Witchey saw this burse during her 2022 trip to Wimpole Hall; it belonged to Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke (1690–1764) and George II’s third Lord Chancellor from 1737 to 1756.
Finally, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has the Lord Chancellor’s burse of Lord Lyndhurst (1772–1863), who served three terms as Lord Chancellor under three succeeding monarchs: George IV (reigned 1820–1830), William IV (reigned 1830–1837), and Victoria (reigned 1837–1901). This burse has the Royal Arms of Queen Victoria, so it can be securely dated to Lord Lyndhurst’s third term as Lord Chancellor (1841–1850). Lord Lyndhurst was the son of American painter John Singleton Copley (1738–1815).
Having specific burses tied to specific Lord Chancellors is important because it allows us to better understand the process through which a burse was created and gifted. We know, for example, that at the end of Sir Orlando Bridgeman’s tenure as Lord Chancellor, he was able to keep his burse, and Charles II gave him the solid silver seal as well (which, as you will remember from part one of this blog, would have been carried in the burse). Bridgeman melted down the silver seal and had the silver recast into a cup with an image of the burse engraved on it (fig. 18).
Despite years of archival research, no explicit record exists of the purchase of the Cleveland burse by Jeptha Homer Wade II (1857–1926) — probably because all the records not already passed on to other family members or the museum were destroyed in a house fire in 1929 (three years after Wade’s death). We know that Wade made frequent trips to England between 1889 and 1914, and the burse could have been purchased or gifted to him on one of these trips or purchased from a dealer in New York City, where the family maintained an apartment.
Although Witchey has transcribed Wade’s travel journals and his lists of purchases from his travels, Wade seldom gives enough specifics of his purchases to be able to identify the art object itself. An exception to this is Wade’s purchase of the CMA’s Summer from artist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898) himself with the assistance of well-known dealer Charles Durand-Ruel (1865–1892), which is well documented. All we can say with certainty (at this time) is that the burse was created during the first four decades of the reign of George III (1760–1820) and was the property of one of five Lord Chancellors.
The Worshipful Company of Gold & Silver Wyre Drawers
As noted above, on Witchey’s first trip, a tip from a reference librarian at the Westminster Reference Library led Witchey to the Worshipful Guild of Gold & Silver Wyre Drawers, one of the livery companies of the City of London (see below for suggested reading on their history). An email to the then Master Malcom Craig was answered almost immediately by Mark Dickens, then clerk of the Worshipful Company. He put Witchey in touch with Mr. E. M. Vernon Knapper, the company’s Past Master Emeritus, who traveled to London to meet and share the guild’s history. The guild is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the grant of their first royal charter by James I in 1623 with an exhibition at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery in late 2023. Witchey shared with him the burse research that had been done to date.
At the time, Knapper and Witchey discussed whether it might be possible for the guild to borrow the CMA burse, but because of the pandemic it proved too difficult to make the necessary connections. Never fear: the exhibition will have a burse. Witchey connected guild members to Gareth Williams at Weston Park, which has kindly agreed to lend Sir Orlando Bridgeman’s burse for the 400th anniversary of the chartering of the company. The Weston Park burse will be on display in London’s Guildhall Art Gallery from Saturday, September 30, to Sunday, November 12, 2023.
And the Research Continues . . .
In the future, we hope to complete a technical scientific analysis of the burse, which will include cataloging and characterizing the different types of metal thread. We have already started looking at the types and variety of stitches.
In her archival research during trips to the UK, Witchey has found mention of several additional burses in public and private collections in the UK and Europe. Future research will include determining if these are legitimate burses, and if so, figuring out which monarch they can be assigned to and adding them to our ever-growing list of burses (fig. 19).
Glover, Elizabeth. The Gold & Silver Wyre-Drawers. London: Phillimore, 1979.
Wardle, Patricia. “The King’s Embroiderer: Edmund Harrison (1590–1667); I. The man and his milieu.” Textile History 25, no. 1 (1994): 29–59.
Wardle, Patricia. “The King’s Embroiderer: Edmund Harrison (1590–1667); II. His work.” Textile History 26, no. 2 (1995): 139–84.