Medieval manuscripts blog

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14 May 2015

Magna Carta (An Embroidery)

Today Cornelia Parker’s new artwork, Magna Carta (An Embroidery), is being unveiled at the British Library. Commissioned by the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford in partnership with the British Library, the artwork is a 13 metre-long embroidery of the Wikipedia page on Magna Carta, as it stood on 15 June 2014, Magna Carta’s 799th birthday. The embroidery, which is the work of over 200 stitchers, is the result of more than two years of planning.

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Cornelia Parker with a fragment of Magna Carta (An Embroidery) in the British Library (photograph by Tony Antoniou)

Paul Bonaventura of the Ruskin School of Art first contacted me in March 2013 to discuss the idea of fundraising to commission a new work of art that would take Magna Carta as its point of departure and be premiered in the Library during our exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, which runs until 1 September. This proposal became a reality thanks to funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England and from the John Fell OUP Research Fund.

Cornelia Parker’s proposal was chosen from ideas presented by the shortlisted artists in February 2014, setting in train the enormous logistical task of organising the work of all the many stitchers. The majority of the words have been sewn by almost forty prisoners, with the remainder being added by a wide range of public figures, politicians, campaigners, academics and lawyers. These include Mary Beard, Kenneth Clarke MP, Jarvis Cocker, Germaine Greer, Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Caroline Lucas MP, Lord Judge, Eliza Manningham-Buller, Jon Snow, Edward Snowden, Peter Tatchell and Baroness Warsi. There are also contributions from some very skilled embroiderers from the Embroiderers’ Guild, the Royal School of Needlework and the company Hand & Lock, and from some rather less skilled stitchers from the staff of the British Library.


King John signs Magna Carta (1902) stitched by Janet Payne, Embroiderers’ Guild (Eastern Region)

I took a break from an intense period in the preparation for the opening of our Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition to sew a few words, including ‘British Library’, late one night in January this year. It was quite a challenge to keep my sewing up to the standard of the surrounding words sewn by prisoners already trained in stitching by Fine Cell Work, a social enterprise that trains prisoners in paid, skilled, creative needlework. Sewing my words was a chance to reflect not only on the many hands that had contributed to the embroidery, but also the many different people over the centuries who have reused, reinterpreted and reworked Magna Carta itself.


Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts, embroidering the words ‘British Library’ (photograph by Noah Timlin)

Cornelia said, ‘I wanted the embroidery to raise questions about where we are now with the principles laid down in the Magna Carta, and about the challenges to all kinds of freedoms that we face in the digital age. Like a Wikipedia article, this embroidery is multi-authored and full of many different voices.’


Detail of one of 1215 Magna Carta documents, held by the British Library. Stitched by Pam Keeling, Embroiderers’ Guild (East Midlands Region).

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) is on free display in the front hall of the British Library from 15 May to 24 July. The exhibition is accompanied by a film, a publication and even mirrors so that you can see parts of the back of the embroidery.

Claire Breay


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