An important tent stitch embroidered pillow cover worked in vibrant, unfaded silks depicting various scenes from the biblical story of Esther and Ahasuerus including Mordecai riding the King's horse, the hanging of Haman and Ahasuerus receiving Esther.
The edge of the pillow cover decorated with the original complex silver thread bobbin lace and to the reverse the original pink silk backing.
It is the unfaded state of the silks and the near pristine condition which makes this piece so remarkable.
King Ahasuerus, ruler of the Persian empire, who had been discarded his wife Vashti, chose the beautiful Esther in her place, though Esther had failed to reveal to Ahasuerus that she was a Jewess. Mordecai, Esther's uncle and guardian, had saved the King's life by alerting him to a conspiracy against him, but the King forgot to reward his loyal Jewish subject.
Haman was the King's chief minister. Mordecai refused to bow down to him. The slighted Haman took his revenge by persuading the King to sign a decree for the extermination of all the Jews. Thus Mordecai ordered Esther to intercede with the King to save the Jewish people. Esther was afraid to do so because Persian law decreed that anyone who approached the King without being summoned would suffer the death penalty. However, she decided to approach the King accompanied by her maids of honour. The King then touched Esther with his sceptre; a sign that she was not to be killed.
The four scenes from the Biblical Book of Esther are:
 CENTRAL SCENE AND BOTTOM RIGHT: The bearded King Ahasuerus is dressed in a red tunic and cloak with ermine trimmings and seated on his throne under a canopy whose curtains are drawn back either side. He wears a crown and stretches his sceptre to touch Esther who has a red dress with white collar and cuffs. Esther’s train is held by her maid of honour in a blue dress with white collar and cuffs. The style of the dress is that of the Stuart court of the early 17th century. At this meeting Esther, having been saved, by the gesture of the Kings’ sceptre, asks him to favour her by feasting with her and Haman.
Meanwhile the proud and avaricious Haman is once again offended by Mordecai and, at his wife's suggestion, builds a gallows to have Mordecai hanged. This gallows plays a key role in the reversal of fortune which is to come.
During the night the King learns that Mordecai was the one who revealed the plot against his life but has not yet been rewarded. Thus the King asks Haman how he should reward a subject who has rendered him great service. Haman, who naturally assumes the King wishes to honour him, declares that subject should be dressed in the king's royal robes and led around the town on the King's horse, while a herald calls: "See how the King honours a man whom he wishes to reward!" To his horror and surprise, the King instructs Haman to lead Mordecai around the city.
 TOP RIGHT: Haman, dressed in a red jacket and blue trousers leads Mordecai on horseback. Mordecai is dressed in royal robes similar to those of the King. Haman blows a trumpet. They move towards red brick buildings with windows representing the Persian city of Susa, where the this drama takes place.
Immediately after Mordecai's parade, King Ahasuerus and Haman attend Esther's feast. She reveals that she is Jewish and is destined to die if Haman's plan for the extermination of the Jews is carried out.
 BOTTOM LEFT: the King, Esther and Haman sit at the table on which plates of food can be seen. Esther points at Haman, who is turning way from both her and the King. This is the moment at which Esther denounces Haman. All three are dressed as in as in the earlier scenes except that Haman now wears boots instead of shoes and has a white napkin spread on his lap.
Overcome by rage at the manner in which Haman has deceived him, Ahasuerus leaves the room to reflect upon the situation. In the King's absence Haman falls at Esther’s feet begging for his life. The king comes back at this moment and thinks Haman is assaulting Esther. He orders Haman to be hanged on the gallows that Haman had prepared for Mordecai.
 TOP LEFT: Haman is hanging from the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. He is watched by a female figure seated on a chair. She is probably Esther as she wears the red dress with white collar and cuffs, as in the previous scenes. Behind her is a red brick building with a cross crowning the gable roof. This seems incongruous in the context of the Persian pre-Christian context. (Perhaps it is copied from a scene where the Christian cross would be appropriate?).
The decree for the extermination of the Jews cannot be annulled, but the king allows the Jews to kill their enemies. As a result, on 13 Adar, 500 enemies of the Jews and Haman's ten sons are killed, followed by a Jewish slaughter of 75,000 Persians.
Esther sends a letter instituting an annual commemoration of the Jewish people's escape from extermination in a holiday to be called Purim (lots). King Ahasuerus appoints the Jewish Mordecai to a prominent position in his court.
 DECORATIVE ELEMENTS. Along the top edge are sun, clouds, rain and the moon. At the the bottom left is a reference to the saving of the Children of Israel in the desert: And they thirsted not when he led them through the deserts: he caused the waters to flow out of the rock for them (Isaiah 48:21); and along the bottom border, interspersed between the scenes, are plants, birds, insects, fish and animals (lion, leopard, and hunting dog chasing a stag). These are similar to the same features in other needlework panels of the same period: the unfinished Judith and Holofernes, and the three panels depicting the story of Eliezer procuring Rebekah as wife for Isaac. The animals, especially lion and leopard, probably are intended to evoke the exotic countryside of Persia and the Middle East in biblical times, even though the costumes evoke the English court of the early 17th century.
Probably the Sperling family (Flemish immigrants to England in the 17th century); by descent in the family to the second half of the 19th century, to:
Mrs Morshead (née Sperling); by descent to:
Ian Morshead; to 2008
London, Victoria & Albert Museum (long-term loan), c. 1980-2008