Warp and weft: the Huguenot’s of Spitalfields
I was thrilled to be asked by one of my clients, Dr. Tessa Murdoch, to come along to last month’s launch of an Appeal from the foremost Huguenot charity of the 21st century.
Dr. Murdoch is one of the charity’s directors, and in 2009 she co-published a finely illustrated history of the French Hospital entitled “The French Hospital: Its History and Collections”
The Directors of the French Hospital have launched their Appeal to raise £5.1m to create a National Huguenot Centre to present its unique collection of important Huguenot artefact and archive materials to the public, documenting the Huguenot’s history and heritage. The launch event was superb. As we waited for the line-up of speakers, it was an unexpected surprise to be introduced to a fellow American from Virginia, of Huguenot descent. Over the course of the evening I spoke to several people with interesting stories and links to the Appeal, and as they learned of my own work, the event reached a climax when I received an invitation to the Huguenot centre in Kent to give a talk on the art of bespoke tailoring.
But what is my connection with a group of French Protestants who took refuge in London from religious persecution in the 16th and 17thcenturies? Well, many of them settled in the Spitalfields area where I now have my tailor’s studio. Spitalfields remains one of the few areas of London where you can find a creative mixture
of deep heritage and buzzing cutting-edge enterprises. Long before dot.com, though, the surrounding streets here used to be filled with craftspeople: silk weavers, lace makers, tailors, silver and goldsmiths and leatherworkers to name a few. Strangely enough, when it comes to working life I can easily relate to the world that would have existed centuries ago. Indeed, some of the basic tools used in my work once belonged to my teacher’s teacher. And the Huguenots brought with them their traditional crafts based around weaving, lace-making and tailoring, already well-developed in the Cévennes region of the South of France. Spitalfields became a hub of high quality garment and fabric manufacture, of which I like to think I’m carrying on the tradition.
Despite their original destitution, the Huguenot refugees who came here were among France’s most enterprising and productive people. Their professionalism and creative genius enriched British life and human assets enormously. France’s loss was Britain’s gain, and without the Huguenots this country would have undoubtedly been different.
So I look forward to being more involved in this very important work and perhaps one day enriching my own experience with a visit to the traditional Huguenot lace-makers who still practice in France.
For further information about the French Hospital please see www.frenchhospital.org.uk (Registered Charity No. 219318)
Photo by Brian Jones Images