Hannah Whyman is a specialist antique textile dealer and conservator, based in the Cotswolds. In the latest installment of our new series, Finders Keepers, Hannah shares the story of two striking and unusual objects that have passed through her hands: her greatest find and the piece she'll keep forever.
INTERVIEW BY CAMILLA FRANCES | 26 JANUARY 2024
Ever since the late great British artist, Peggy Angus, taught Hannah Whyman to block print aged 10, the textile dealer and conservator has been captivated by textiles. From her dedicated conservation studio in an old wool town, Hannah works with hand stitched and embroidered fabrics, from the purely decorative to the domestic and practical. "Each carries the story of someone taking the time to create something with love, sometimes for a trousseau, to decorate their home or as a gift to a beloved," says Hannah, who began dealing in textiles in the '90s.
"I don’t feel happy unless I’m around things, and objects. I was brought up in Scotland, with architect parents, in a modernist house on a hillside in a minimalist environment that never sat right with me personally. I guess what I do is a reaction against that aesthetic," she laughs, adding: "I love lots of stuff, and old stuff."
My Greatest Find: English gentleman’s undress cap, c.1600
My most memorable find to date, and one that ticked every imaginary box for me, was a fine and rare Gentleman’s undress cap (pictured above). The dealer I bought it from, who'd acquired the cap along with a pair of Indian slippers, believed it was Turkish, and indeed the cap’s intricately worked gold embroidery did resemble Ottoman era craftsmanship. But I had a feeling there was more to it.
I began searching through museum guides and references at home, and eventually found a very thin pamphlet from a 1948 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, entitled Elizabethan Embroidery. On the front was an incredible cap, strikingly similar to mine in style, design and manufacture. After more research, it became clear that my cap was not Turkish, but English, from the 17th century.
It is simply beautiful and in excellent condition, it can’t have been worn much and was clearly much-loved and stored safely in a box for centuries. It is handmade from fine linen and embroidered in green and red silks with coiling vines, spays of carnations and blossom, enhanced and encircled by raised gold braid heart shaped tendrils. I love it, but had to part with it. It sold via Kerry Taylor Auctions for £20,000.
The piece I'll keep forever: Malaysian marriage bed, 19th century
I found this wonderful bed, which is now my own bed at home, nearly 30 years ago in a junk shop in Cardiff. It's a hand carved, hand painted Folk Art Malaysian marriage bed, and it was love at first sight. It's really special, the colors, the patina, the story: it would probably have been slept in by an entire family.
When it arrived at my home, disassembled, it looked alarmingly like a pile of ancient firewood and took a lot of patience and head scratching, until we discovered which piece slotted where. Eventually, each piece of the bed fitted perfectly into its rightful place, like some glorious three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
I still love it as much today as I did on first sight, and it's stood the test of time. Today, I prefer to sleep in it pared back to its bones, so-to-speak, but we frequently dress it up to show off sumptuous cushions or wall hangings I've worked on.
I remember a doctor - who paid a home visit - after I’d returned from India with Typhoid - commenting, “it's like visiting an Egyptian princess in her sarcophagus”.