In 1917, English artist and actor Ernest Thesiger wrote to the Ministry of Pensions with what must have seemed a somewhat eccentric proposal that they establish an embroidery workshop to provide training and employment for disabled combatants returning from the war. Thesiger suggested the men could initially ‘copy and mend old needlework’ but eventually they should make and sell their own designs. The London War Pensions Committee quickly rejected Thesiger’s proposal, a decision which he maintained reflected prevailing ideas that embroidery was too ‘effeminate [an]
occupation for ex-soldiers’. However, Thesiger’s proposed workshop soon did become operative, under the auspices of a charity, as the Disabled Soldiers’ Embroidery Industry. Within a decade it had become one of the most celebrated and successful luxury textile workshops in Britain making a central contribution to the renaissance of embroidery during the first half of the twentieth century. In 1927, almost a decade after Thesiger’s initial proposal to the Ministry of Pensions, an exhibition
showcasing the work of the Disabled Soldiers’ Embroidery Industry was held in the London home of a prominent politician, industrialist, art collector and founder of the Imperial War Museum, Sir Alfred Mond. At this exhibition, Queen Mary was presented with a gift made by a man ‘who had lost both legs’ in combat, ‘an exquisite little casket in black and gold Spanish work on a white silk background inspired by the embroideries brought to England by Queen Catherine of Aragon’. In 1946 Queen Mary presented this casket to the people of New Zealand. This article offers an
interrogation of this unique object (now in the collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa) as a means to uncover how modern ideas about masculinity, disability, and craft were transformed by the First World War.
This is the published version of the paper delivered at the Myriad Faces of War conference at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in April 2017.