It began in architect David Brown’s kitchen! The year was 1995 and David was looking for ideas for a project to commemorate Sunbury during the forthcoming millennium. How about a ‘Son et Lumière’ in the park, complete with elephants and Roman centurions? Perhaps not. No residual value. Not very practical! A Doomsday book then? Nice idea but difficult to display.
What about…an embroidery? Bayeux style, capturing Sunbury on Thames in the year 2000 and maybe hanging it in St Mary’s church? “Now that’s an idea”, said graphic designer John Stamp, “I’d like to have a go at designing that.” So John set about designing and David ran the project. What a project it turned out to be!
After a year of research, photography and drawing, John produced a prototype design. The word was out and people came forward with all sorts of suggestions for additions, especially of the wildlife variety! So David Brown, together with fellow architect and now chairman of the Sunbury Embroidery Group Robert Shaw, refined John’s original to include as many of these as possible.
By coincidence the Hampton School of Needlework closed down around this time and expert embroiderer Pam Judd was able to join the embryonic team to head up the production.
The project caught the imagination of the local community and suddenly Sunbury seemed to be full of embroiderers! Over 140 people became involved, ranging in age from 8 to 80, and in experience from novice to highly competent. TV’s Russell Grant was sufficiently taken with the idea to feature the embroidery in his Channel 5 ‘Postcards’ series and Country Life magazine devoted a two page article to the project as well as the front cover!
After four years work, the embroidery was complete and David Brown wrote to Buckingham Palace inviting Her Majesty the Queen to come and see it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained….She accepted!!
The visit was scheduled for a year ahead and a busy 12 months ensued in order to, literally, tie up all the loose ends! The big day came and the embroidery was set up in the Walled Garden. The sun shone. The Queen arrived and chatted with everyone involved and enjoyed herself so much she overstayed her schedule by well over half an hour, much to the discomfort of her retinue!
So the original idea of a tapestry destined to hang in the church had not only metamorphosed into a 10 meter long, intricately women embroidery of the highest quality…it had become famous!
It was still taking up part of David Brown’s house and was too big to be seen to best effect in the church, so it needed a proper home.
Spelthorne Council realised that in the Embroidery they had something very special to the Borough. To help establish a permanent home for the work, the Council made available a corner of the Walled Garden for the construction of a suitable building. All that remained for the Embroidery folk to do was to raise the money!
There followed an intensive fund-raising programme. This involved not only pursuing the usual conventions of canvassing, collection boxes and the like, but also the unconventional – notably putting the Embroidery on display in the Palace of Westminster for a week. ’High level’ funding aside, the campaign highlighted the extraordinary support and generosity of the people of our community.
The architectural design for a proposed ’gallery’ and café was drawn up by Robert Shaw and David Brown and the building was opened in 2006.
Since then the gallery has welcomed legions of visitors from all over the world Last year alone the total topped 50,000. This popularity has firmly established the Gallery and its unique communal display of the embroiderers craft, as Spelthorne’s foremost tourist attraction.
With its Village panel, 8 side panels and 120 squares of insignia of local organisations, the Sunbury Millenium Embroidery is the inspiration for the many enthusiasts who attend embroidery classes on site. In addition, the building was designed to facilitate further transient exhibitions and throughout the year a wide variety of art and craft-based shows and demonstrations are held in the Gallery and adjacent café.
This community-based project has blossomed into something of which Sunbury on Thames can be justly proud. The embroidery won the RIBA South and South East award for design, and received a Civic Trust award in 2007. The community of Sunbury is special. We feel a sense of pride and identity in our village, arts, open spaces and history and so many residents have provided something for posterity in this project.
Original Article by Gerry Cook. Edited by Monica Chard. Photos Vic Kettle