BEARS WITH A HISTORY

Each year Leeds Castle, near Maidstone in Kent, carries more than half a million visitors on a journey through nine hundred years of British history. Canterbury Bears’ association with the team at the castle began in 2014 when they were asked to create a trio of ‘Famously British Bears’ in celebration of the Charity’s 40th anniversary … it was the beginning of a fascinating foray into the past for The Bear Team.

Lady Olive Baillie, Anglo-American heiress and landowner, acquired the castle in 1925. An extraordinary hostess, dubbed ‘The Real Gatsby’, her Leeds Castle gatherings were the jewel in the crown of ‘The Great House Party’ era. Whilst she herself was known to be reserved and discreet, Lady Baillie brought together stars of the silver screen such as Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplain, Errol Flynn and Noel Coward; alongside iconic statesmen, Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden; and Royalty from all over Europe. 

When she died in 1974 she left her greatest love, Leeds Castle, in trust to the Nation. The Leeds Castle Foundation opened the castle and grounds to the public, as a not-for-profit charity, to protect this iconic building for generations of visitors to come.

The first set of fund-raising Leeds Castle bears were named for Henry VIII, who transformed the castle into a royal palace for Catherine of Aragon; and Lady Baillie’s first husband Charles, and Grandfather, William; and as a limited edition were popular amongst collectors and gift-givers alike.

The next two projects were prompted when Bob Needham, the castle’s Retail Manager, spotted a Canterbury Bear made from a recycled pair of jeans (a form of memory bear that has reached a huge audience through Canterbury Bears’ 2021 fundraiser The Great Teddy Bear Project).  

He and the castle’s curator had been discussing what to do with replaced fabrics after refurbishment of key rooms in the castle and that serendipitous moment when Bob spotted our Jean Bear led to two extraordinary recycling projects. 

The first was the castle’s dining room, which was being restored to the glory of it’s 1930s hey-day.  The tattered and worn curtains had been carefully removed and replaced but the fabric was too beautiful to throw away and so the project to make a limited edition of bears from the curtains was begun just as the final touches were being made to the newly restored dining room. Like the first set of bears they were named with strong connections to the castle and Lady Baillie. Bob was thrilled to find that they were being bought by people who connected to the castle and the names of the bears in special ways: two bears were wedding day gifts to Leeds Castle brides from their grooms; bears were bought for their namesakes; one now looks out of a bedroom window over Dover; one is part of the Leeds Castle collection and one is owned by Royalty!

A few short years later and the gargantuan task of restoring one of Lady Baillie’s favourite spaces was begun: The Yellow Drawing Room.  It was the only space in the castle that she retained for her own use during the Second World War and the walls of the room were lined with an extraordinary silk damask commissioned in 1939 by Lady Baillie’s designer, Stéphane Boudin and made by Tassinari & Chatel in Lyon, France.  It was this silk, faded but still beautiful, that was sent to Canterbury Bears to transform with meticulous patience into limited edition bears and dogs. 

The dogs were a homage to Lady Baillie’s love of her pets and with the bears named as before after people connected to Lady Baillie and the castle, the latter were given names from her beloved dogs – from Boots, Zimba and Smudge to Gigi and Sari, they were an immediate hit.  Each purchase revealed a connection between the castle as an entity and its new owner, through the naming and the history of the fabric, the story of restoration and preservation was passed on.

There are still one or two bears available from the castle and their latest refurbishment is prompting a project with Kent-based artisan Sian Lewis and her company Ffrangcon, handbags from upholstery fabrics that we look forward to seeing in the castle shop alongside our historical bears. We are also are looking forward to more collaborations with the team at Leeds Castle in the future. If you are interested in purchasing one of the last bears of the Yellow Drawing Room edition please contact Leeds Castle on the email below.


PAWS FOR THOUGHT

Christmas 2018 was a dramatic and sad moment in the history of our limited edition creations for Leeds Castle. On a busy day with festive shoppers enjoying the delights of the Leeds Castle gift shop two of the limited edition dogs, Winston and Eva in their beautiful presentation boxes, were stolen under cover of the hubub of the Christmas crowds.

They have never been retrieved and so we would appeal to our ‘Teatime’ readers that if you hear of their reappearance, the teams at the castle and in teh workshop would grateful for any information about them and their whereabouts.

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