Beryl Dean

beryl dean.jpgBeryl Dean was a remarkable figure, one who did more than any other to influence the direction of embroidery for religious use in the 20th century.
Through her writings, lectures and the exhibitions Beryl Dean has done much to influence public and professional awareness and forward the cause for well-designed church textiles appropriate to contemporary use.

The sheer volume of work and the continuity of production throughout a long and active life, provides a daunting example to those who have followed. Through her teaching she has influenced future generations and has laid foundations on which others may build. She has given credence to the role of the craftswoman-designer who, in the field of ecclesiastical embroidery prior to the 1950s, was not regarded seriously. Certainly, it was generally the architect who dictated the detailing and the design of church furnishings. Beryl Dean helped to break that tradition, imposed in the 19th century, and made it possible for the embroiderer to once again be respected as both designer and maker of church textiles.

Her style was figurative but powerful, demonstrating a dramatic use and understanding of tonal contrasts. She possessed a command of scale rarely found in those who work within the confines of the embroidery frame. Her pieces are arresting, both from a distance and close to, where inspection reveals a multitude of intricate pattern qualities, surfaces and techniques.

Golden Madonna - detail

Metal thread and gold work are methods synonymous with the name of Beryl Dean, yet she was master of an astounding number of techniques besides these. A patchwork and pieced cope and mitre, made for Canon Peter Delaney in 1988/89, illustrates her ability to extend far beyond the metal thread techniques for which she was famous. Each template, some as tiny as 1 cm across, contributes to the shaping of this semi-circular vestment. Tones grade subtly upwards from dark to light, symbolising the theme of resurrection. The intricately pieced gold hood and mitre are integral to the overall composition of this vestment, which bears testimony to the skills of a highly accomplished craftsperson and designer.
One of her last works, a three-dimensional 'Golden Madonna' standing before a large-scale appliqué hanging, drew upon her millinery and glove-making skills for shaping and forming the three-dimensional head and face. The commission proved a great strain to her (she was, after all, in her late eighties) and once in situ the lighting of the piece disappointed her. Yet working this large-scale project satisfied a long-term desire to 'build something in the round'. It also showed her determination to keep moving forward; surely a lesson to us all. In this fast-moving age, it is easy to criticise a style or working method - as many have done - without fully understanding just what has been achieved, what lay before, and just what boundaries have been broken.

Golden Madonna

Beryl Dean's understanding of the properties of fabric and her perfect hand-stitching were evidenced not only in embroideries for religious use, but in items she made for her home. Whitework linen tray-cloths displayed the same technical excellence seen in her notable Fair Linen cloth worked in 1967. A bed-cover of richly coloured patchworked Thai silks showed the same design and compositional skills as her 'Resurrection Cope'.
Not only through her embroidered works has she affected public thought; as a teacher her influence has also been profound. Always concerned that others might advance the subject in their own individual way, she encouraged those under her tutelage not to be hidebound by the traditions of hand embroidery, but to develop their own particular skills and interpretations. Except for points of technical correctness, she did not impose her own way of working upon others. Though master of a vast range of skills and techniques herself, as a teacher she was always open to the use of methods not immediately associated with traditional church embroidery. In encouraging her students to find alternative solutions she has done much to free the subject from the yoke of tradition. Those who may not have been fortunate enough to attend her classes or to work with her on significant group projects will have benefited from her several publications.

Resurrection Cope (front and back view)

Always generous with knowledge, time and materials, her dedication to the subject was inspiring and did much to ensure that others would take up the cause. Fabric appreciation was taught through her own enthusiasm for quality. Choices were opened up to the students and possibilities laid before them. She never imposed; the choice was always ultimately the student's own. Working with her, one's appreciation of fabric quality was subtly extended. Colour was taught by that same subtle opening up of possibilities. Paths were indicated, offered, revealed - but the final selection was always up to the individual.
The value of historical reference played an important part in her teaching. Fostering an awareness of proportion, spacing, design and an appreciation of technical qualities, this helped to set contemporary work within its historical context. Students were encouraged to learn from history without resorting to pastiche.
When teaching at Hammersmith College of Art in the early 1960s, her influence was felt not only by those full-time students who were aiming to make a career from the practice of embroidery, but by countless part-time students who simply wished to pursue their craft with excellence. Many of these students have since anonymously given their services to the Church, sewing and making, mending and keeping historic vestments in good repair. Many have also contributed their expertise to group projects led by Beryl Dean, which form a lasting testament to her skill as a teacher, designer and maker.
Beryl Dean's influence was not solely restricted to the United Kingdom. Travelling, teaching, lecturing, exhibiting in many countries established her international reputation. In pursuing her craft to the highest possible standard, she has been responsible not only for advancing embroidery within the 20th century but also for helping to re-establish the status of the professional woman designer.

Adapted from an article by Judy Barry. It first appeared in The World of Embroidery, Volume 52 No.5.

Further information on Beryl Dean and the Beryl Dean Education Trust can be viewed on the website


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