Glimpses of Girton - The Reception Room

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The interior of the Reception Room, 1923 (archive reference: GCPH 10/4/7/5).

The Reception Room, with its vibrant Jacobean-style embroideries, is one of the most distinctive rooms in the College. The crewel work embroideries are based on the tree of life motif. Exotic animals such as a leopard, crocodile, kangaroo and emu gambol amongst animals more familiar in the British landscape such as deer, sheep and squirrels. Interwoven also are flowers which bloom in country gardens throughout England and Ireland, like carnations, clematis, and passion flowers. Hiding at the bottom of two of the panels is a small white terrier.

These exquisite embroideries were the work of Lady Julia Carew, who was also the mistress of the white terrier, Pepper. She was the wife of the third Baron Carew, whose family home was Castleboro, County Wexford in Ireland. Castleboro had been badly damaged by fire in the mid-nineteenth century and many paintings had been destroyed, so Lady Carew and her sister, Lady Cory, began to create embroidery panels to decorate the walls. They were both notable needlewomen and had been taught needlework at the Royal School of Art Needlework (RSAN). This school had been founded in order to restore ornamental embroidery to the position it once held in the decorative arts.

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Lady Julia Carew at her embroidery frame, published in Needlecraft magazine, December 1906 (archive reference: GCAR 8/3/2).

In an interview with The Ladies’ Field magazine in 1920, Lady Carew recalled how she ‘found pleasure in Jacobean designs’ while studying at the RSAN[1]. She began by making picture panels and chair covers for her drawing room, eventually developing her skill until she was able to make the intricate panels that now adorn the walls of the Reception Room. In an earlier interview, published by Needlecraft magazine in  1906, Lady Carew explained that the RSAN provided her with the designs for her embroideries, but that she planned the execution, stitches and colours herself. In the interview, Lady Carew said her needlework gave her ‘repose and relief from the bustle and fatigue of everyday life’ and that she spent some time every day on her embroidery[2].

It is thought that the Girton panels were meant for the ballroom in Castleboro. However, due to the Irish War of Independence, the Carews left Castleboro and Lady Carew began to look for a new home for the embroideries. It was Lady Muriel Newton, a friend of Lady Carew, who suggested Girton as a possible recipient. Lady Newton was the cousin of Helen Marion Wodehouse, who was a student at Girton from 1898 to 1902 and who would later become Mistress. Lady Carew gifted the embroideries to Girton in 1922, but sadly died before they were installed.

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The characteristic landscape embroidered by Lady Carew. Since this section was never mounted in the Reception Room and is held in the College Archive, it has retained its vibrancy of colour (archive reference: GCPH 2/2/8/2).

The Reception Room, also known as the ‘Carew Room’ or ‘Jacobean Room’, was officially opened on the 7th of March 1923. Lady Cowdray performed ‘the little informal ceremony’ as a tribute to her friend Lady Carew[3]. It was Lady Cowdray who paid for the embroideries to be mounted in oak frames made by Sir Edwin Cooper, father of an Old Girtonian. Lady Cowdray also financed the first restoration of the embroideries in 1932, carried out by the Cambridge Tapestry Company.

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A sheep embroidered by Lady Carew. Since this section was never mounted in the Reception Room and is held in the College Archive, it has retained its vibrancy of colour (archive reference: GCPH 2/2/8/3).

Since its opening in 1923, the Reception Room has changed little and the embroideries have retained their beauty and charm. Lady Carew’s portrait, which she donated to the College and was painted by John Baldry, was moved from the Hall to hang over the fireplace in the Reception Room in 1928, where it remains to this day.

 

Further reading:

  • ‘Every Woman Should Embroider’, The Ladies’ Field (20 November 1920), pp. 324-325.
  • Hulse, Lynn, ‘The Best Embroideress in Society’, Girton College Annual Review (2011), pp. 24-29.
  • Hulse, Lynn, The Embroidered Furnishings of the Lethbridge Sisters, c. 1899-1922 (OE Publications, 2016).
  • Lady Julia Carew in the Hurd Library (2012), website: http://thehurdlibrary.tumblr.com/post/19675555389/lady-julia-carew-in-the-hurd-library.
  • ‘The Needlecraft of Lady Carew and Mrs Clifford Cory’, Needlecraft (December, 1906), pp. 12-14.
  • Portrait of Lady Julia Carew, by John Baldry (1921), available on the Art UK website, https://artuk.org/discover/artists/baldry-john.
  • Richardson, Joan, 'The Origin of the Carews', Genealogists' Magazine 26, no. 7 (September, 1999), pp. 245-49.

 

[1] ‘Every Woman Should Embroider’, The Ladies’ Field (20 November 1920), pp. 324-325, at p. 324.

[2] ‘The Needlecraft of Lady Carew and Mrs Clifford Cory’, Needlecraft (December, 1906), pp. 12-14, at p. 12.

[3] Letter to Bertha Phillpotts from Lady Cowdray, 31st October 1922 (archive reference: GCAR 2/6/17/3(pt)).

 

Published: 23 February 2017