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Queen of the Desert’s tapestries travel to Newcastle University


She was a trailblazer, a spy, diplomat and archaeologist from the North East who travelled extensively across her beloved Arabia and helped to create a king.

Now, some of the belongings Gertrude Bell collected during her adventures have made their way to Newcastle University.

The four embroidered pieces are believed to come from the Sivas region, now in modern-day Turkey, and were made by the semi-nomadic Rerylahni and Kurdish groups of the region. They were made in the 20th century, probably shortly before Bell bought them and were used as tent dividers.

The pieces were taken by Bell to Wallington Hall in Northumberland, where her half- sister lived and where they stayed until they were auctioned late last year.

Gertrude Bell was also an adventurer and author who at one point was the most important woman in the British Empire. Fluent in many languages including Persian and Arabic, she helped to shape modern-day Iraq and was involved in installing its first king.  She was born in 1868 to a wealthy family in Washington, then in County Durham.

Bell expert Dr Mark Jackson, a lecturer in archaeology at Newcastle University said: “This is very exciting for us. Although the University houses Gertrude Bell’s archive, this will be the first time we have items which she bought on her travels and belonged to her.

“Looking at the archive, there’ s evidence of her  shopping for textiles in the Konya area at the right time. She was with Edith Doughty-Wylie who she had just met. The significance of this is that Edith’s husband , Charles Doughty-Wylie, would become the great love of Gertrude’s life but as he was married taking their love further was out of the question.”

Professor Eric Cross, Dean of Cultural Affairs at Newcastle University said: “Bell was a truly remarkable woman and we are thrilled that we have been able to acquire these items. She achieved so much at a time when it was difficult for women to do so.

“She was also a very complicated character, as we can see from the fact that she didn’t support the Suffragette movement even though she was a liberated woman for the time.  Her legacy is still being debated and even now we can see the effects of the work she did in Mesopotamia being played out in modern-day Iraq.”

The tapestries will form part of the University’s Museum Collection and Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums will curate them on the University’s behalf.

Keeper of archaeology Andrew Parkin, said: “The textiles are an important addition to the University's collection of archive material related to Gertrude Bell.  We now have some objects that she owned and these add a further dimension to our appreciation of her life."

The tapestries will form part of a Gertrude Bell exhibition, planned for the Great North Museum: Hancock in 2016.

A film about Bell’s life Queen of the Desert, starring Oscar winner Nicole Kidman as Bell, is currently in post-production. It has been directed by acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog and is expected to be released later this year.

Homeland star Damian Lewis, who plays Charles Doughty Wylie in the feature, visited Newcastle University earlier this year to view the Gertrude Bell archive so he could read letters between Bell and Doughty Wylie.

Pictured left to right:  Andrew Parkin, Dr Mark Jackson and Professor Eric Cross with the tapestries.

published on: 1 August 2014