Coming soon, Alice Kettle : The Garden of England

Visitors to the Queen’s House at Royal Museums Greenwich may be aware that something new is on the horizon… fittingly, as spring is around the corner, so is ‘The Garden of England’, an installation of three works by textile artist Alice Kettle, which will open on 14 March in the Queen’s House.

This is the inaugural project of the Royal Museums Greenwich contemporary arts programme. Three new works by Alice Kettle draw on the museum’s portrait collection, celebrating the queens and courtiers of the Queen's House, and its original setting as a garden retreat, capturing the richness and flamboyance of the Stuart court.

The costume of Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, for whom the Queen’s House was begun (but was left incomplete on her death in 1619) shows the embroidered motifs and colours that were popular in the early seventeenth century.

Anne of Denmark (1574-1619)

Anne of Denmark (1574-1619) about 1605, attributed to John de Critz (1551-1642)

They had their own set of meanings and could be read as a sort of code.   In the language of colours and flowers the carnations, which are embroidered on Anne’s doublet and the forepart of her skirt, mean perfection.   Her pink ribbons and cuffs indicate modesty while the silvery white of her dress represents innocence and purity. The blue ribbons are for amity or friendship and goodwill.  Overall, a fitting choice for a queen consort.

The satirical play Captain Underwit (performed before 1641) lampoons this vogue, as Device, an aspiring man of fashion, explains his ribbons and their colours to Lady Huntlove: ‘Shall I decipher my Colours to you now? Here is Azure and Peach: Azure is constant and Peach is love; which signifies my constant Affection.”

Alice Kettle uses both the floral themes brought to mind by gardens – as gardening was a fashionable pastime in the seventeenth century – and the use of floral emblems on clothing and incorporates them into a luxuriously patterned garden.  I’ve included a detail here:

Detail of Flower Bed, 2013, copyright Alice Kettle

Alice has also created a stitched portrait of Henrietta Maria, the French princess who married Charles I in 1625 and who, with architect Inigo Jones, completed the Queen’s House in 1633.  This new portrait of Henrietta Maria will hang with portraits of Anne of Denmark and their courtiers.

In the Tulip Stairs – the motif is really a stylised fleur-de-lys the emblem of France, for Henrietta Maria – Alice uses floral motifs to reference both queens, Anne of Denmark and Henrietta Maria.  ‘Flower Helix’, to which Alice Kettle is, as I write, putting the final, magic touches, is a hanging of knotted thread work with delicate lacework petal and flowers attached to it, to create a cascade of frothy white flowers, akin to ‘Queen Anne’s Lace.’

Here are the flowers before they’ve been attached to the ‘Flower Helix’. The piece will be assembled in situ in the Queen’s House itself.

Flowers to be attached to 'Flower Helix', made by Alice Kettle with contributions from a variety of makers

These details from Alice’s work are only a sneak preview, but I hope to be able to give further updates, with more images, as Alice begins to install her work at the Queen’s House in the next couple of weeks.