Monday, 25 October 2010

Winter is setting in

Winter has truly arrived in our home. The dust is being shaken off our extra thick duvet, Miss Marple (the cat) has taken to only sleeping in areas of the floor where the hot pipes run and favourite dvd boxsets are making their appearance to entertain us on cold nights. Christmas is also creeping in, mainly in the form of various winter gift guides, the John Lewis one particularly tempting! The list of knitted and sewn gifts is getting longer and longer and the likelihood of me finishing them in time is quickly diminishing.

Christmas this year is an important time as it will mark the end of my first semester at uni. The finale of this term will take place at a postgrad research methods conference where I will be addressing the question: Dovecot Studios: Art or Craft? This will later be turned into a 3,000 word essay (pretty miniscule consider the length my final thesis has to be!)

It may seem that I have set myself a pretty big issue to address in a 15 minute presentation but I wanted to give my fellow students an idea of the questions facing the study of tapestry, which are likely to be very different from their own field of study. Although it is not the central question of my thesis, the issue of the art/craft divide will enable me to place my research within a context, and an in-depth knowledge of its various facets will undoubtedly inform my work.

copyright Penguin Books

I have recently been reading Deyan Sudjic's book The Language of Things (Penguin, 2009). The books investigates what it is about design which interests us and the importance of design to different areas of industrial production. It also looks into the way that design has often been seen as an opposite to art: design/art, useful/useless. Of particular interest to me was his chapter on Art which describes how the Museum of Modern Art, New York began collecting so-called design and attempted to display these items in the same as a painting by Leger. His writing brought up many issues which I feel are relevant to the study of tapestry. Are these items fine art or are they craft? Are they useful (acoustically or in their historical use in travelling royal courts) or are they useless? How importance is their material, especially in display materials in public institutions? All of this will provide rich pickings for my conference paper.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

An inspiring sojourn in London part 2

Our trip to London was not entirely focused on tapestry. One of the most exciting parts of the trip was my first trip to the Design Museum.
Design Museum, London
Brit Insurance Design Awards Exhibition 2010, Design Museum, London
The Brit Insurance Design Awards Exhibition was full of fascinating items and inventions, from fashion collections to folding bicycles, community libraries to solar-powered ovens. Some of my favourite items included PARCS furniture (coloured items of modular furniture to challenge the way we imagine the workplace), the Young Creative Network's Library (for its interactive and design-led approach to library services) and Soma by Ayala Serfaty (a haunting installation of floor-based lights made from tinted glass filaments).
PARCS Furniture

Young Creative Network Library

Soma by Ayala Serfaty
Our visit to London was rounded off with a visit to Tate Modern. I was surpised at the number of artworks in the main galleries which were made from textiles or tapestry. One room was entirely devoted to Magdalena Abakanowicz's Abakan Red and Abakan Orange tapestry installations. In another, an untitled Robert Morris work of the 1960s was hung opposite Jannis Kounellis' work of the same period, featuring shanks of un-spun wool hanging over a wooden rack.

The highlight for me, by far, was Ai Weiwei's installation for The Unilever Series, Sunflower Seeds. The floor of one end of the turbine hall was covered in hundreds of thousands of ceramic sunflower seeds, created to scale. These created a beautiful grey carpet, intended for people to walk. Heartbreakingly, due to health and safety concerns the installation had been roped off, stopping anyone from walking on it. Despite this set-back, the installation still held its own and created an atmosphere of peace and intrigue.

Given my positive response to this work, I was shocked to read an article in the Guardian on the train home by artist Heather Chalmers ('These cuts are no blitzkrieg on the arts - funding has been wasted'). Without getting into the politics of her article (since Friday, it has received 110 online comments), I could not understand her use of the sunflower seeds as an example of how Tate Modern wastes it spaces by showing "some piece of tat" in its turbine hall. She criticises the use of high-profile works to draw in younger audiences but when I visited Tate Modern on Friday this installation was achieving just that. The turbine hall was full of secondary school pupils, avidly watching the documentary on how the ceramic seeds were made. How many other opportunities are there in free galleries for school-age children to learn about the skill and patience which goes into objects such as these? In the V&A, there was no film illustrating how the Raphael tapestries were made.

Opinions over the use of arts funding are never going to be objective. For me, Sunflower Seeds is perhaps my pick of the year so far for the emotional responses it provokes and Tate's informative ways of teaching us about the creative process.

An inspiring sojourn in London part 1

I have just returned from a lovely few days in London with my partner. As well as catching up with friends, the trip served two purposes for my research.

Firstly, we went to the Victoria & Albert Museum to see the Raphaels Cartoons and Tapestries. It was a brilliant display, allowing the viewer to see the finished tapestry (four of the set were loaned by Vatican Museums) at right angles to Raphael's original cartoon. In addition to the Vatican tapestries, was a tapestry woven at Mortlake Tapestry Studio, England based on one of the cartoons.

It is clear that the weavers at Pieter van Aelst's workshop in Brussels, which wove the Papal tapestries, made great changes to the colour and decorative scheme of the designs, whilst keeping the original structure of Raphael's paintings. The tapestries have been filled with gold and silver threads, reflecting the wealth of Pope Leo X, and the ornament of many of the Apostles and Christ has been made more luxurious. In Raphael's cartoon of Christ's Charge to St Peter, Christ and the Apostles are dressed in simply coloured clothing. Christ's robe is white with no decoration. In the tapestry (image below), it has been decorated with gold stars with a shimmering trim and all of the figures have brighter and more obvious halos.
For me, the scale and interpretation of the designs highlighted both similarities and differences between a Dovecot Studios and workshops from previous centuries. Dovecot no longer works on the minuscule scale of weaving which the Belgian weavers used, however its' weavers do utilise their knowledge of the medium and interpret designs for tapestries in ways which stop the finished tapestry being a direct copy.

Whilst in London, I also visited the Tate Archives to see items from the John Piper Archive which relate to Dovecot. There was a wide range of items, including a sketchbook with a hand-written draft of Piper's Foreword for the 1980 catalogue of Master Weavers, an exhibtition celebrating Dovecot Studios.

The Piper archives have given me a great deal to move forward with. Although he did not design a tapestry for Dovecot until the 1970s, the studio's Directors had been courting him since 1948, encouraging him to put forward designs at the same time as Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Return to Student Life

After three years in the working world I have returned to the student life of seminars, essay deadlines and cold study rooms (I am wearing my coat as I type).
Introducing myself to other students and telling them what my PhD is focusing on has led to a variety of responses, ranging from 'Dovecot? I've always wanted to visit there.' to 'Tapestries? Do they still make them!?' The PhD sits slightly awkwardly in the history of art department - is it art or craft? Does it fit in with the focus on painting, sculpture, photography and contemporary artistic theory? My intention is to show that tapestry can sit comfortably in both 'worlds' and to bring academic rigour and an art historical context to a project which is above all about the creation of beautiful objects.

My initial research has focused on two artists who are of particular interest to me.

Harold Cohen worked with Dovecot in the 1960s and the early 1980s. In 1980 he wrote an article about the experience of working with the tapestry weavers - as far as I know he is the only artist to have written in such detail about their work with Dovecot:
“Mine? I thought it was the most gorgeous object I had ever had any part in, but it was ours, not mine.”
BP Tapestry, 1966, designed by Harold Cohen, woven at Dovecot Studios, University of Hull Collection
The respect Cohen has for the Master Weavers at Dovecot and their immense experience is evident in his article and shows how a mutual respect and understanding between artist/designer and weaver can create spectacular tapestries.

John Piper fascinates me because of the absence of loyalty towards any one tapestry studio - his tapestry designs were woven in Edinburgh, Sussex, France and Nigeria. Was producing tapestries key to his own artistic practice primarily as a painter, or were other reasons at work? I suspect large-scale tapestries were another way for him to satisfy the great public demand for his work.
Five Gates of London (detail), 1975, designed by John Piper, woven at Dovecot Studios, Guildhall Art Gallery Collection
My first month has been enlightening and less daunting than I had envisaged and I am already enjoying hours spent with my head in books. As for the chilly temperatures, I must buy some fingerless gloves...

Thursday, 7 October 2010

First-time Blogger

Blogging is new to me but already I am realising it's potential to help sort out the multitude of thoughts floating around my head. I intend to use this as a means of letting people know how my research is going and what fascinating things I am finding (possibly more fascinating the more interested you are in tapestry!).
My PhD is focusing on Dovecot Studios. Dovecot is an amazing tapestry studio in the centre of Edinburgh which hand weaves both tapestries to commissions and speculative, experimental pieces. The quality of work  produced by Dovecot is a constant source of inspiration to me - the Master Weavers have built up a close relationship with many contemporary artists, such as Claire Barclay, Dame Elizabeth Blackadder and Barbara Rae RA RSA. They translate these artists's designs in beautiful tapestries; the focus is on translation, not imitation. The tapestries are artworks in their own right.
The weavers are artists too and should not be thought of a mere manufacturers. Some of their most recent projects have stemmed from their own artworks and designs. More detailed information on Dovecot can be found at:
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