Monday, 26 December 2011

Tapestry Biographies

'This is a book of tales about the lives that buildings lead...'
(The Secret Lives of Buildings, p.9)

Inspiration for this blog post struck on my flight to my parent's house for Christmas. Though I was in the mood for a bit of Charles Dickens, I decided to take a book which had been on my bedside table, waiting patiently to be read: The Secret Lives of Buildings by Ed Hollis, Lecturer in Interior Design, ECA (now part of University of Edinburgh). The intention of the book is to give buildings individual biographies, as a balance to the numerous existing biographies of architects.

I have always been interested in the use of biography as an art historical tool. This partly stems from an interest in technical art history, as taught at Glasgow University. The method involves looking at the life of each object, it's meaning, creation, life etc. Ed Hollis' book struck a particular chord with my research because, though there are numberous biographies and monographs on the individuals who designed for the tapestry studio, there are very few for the tapestries themselves. So, what tales can they tell?

Have you seen these tapestries?

There are some tapestries which have not been seen or recorded for decades; they exist only in archives and black and white photographs, despite the efforts of Dovecot and other interested parties. These include:
Three Figures, 1940s, designed by Henry Moore, woven at Dovecot Studios
Vision After the Sermon (Jacob and the Angel), c.1947, based on a painting by Gauguin, woven at Dovecot Studios
 Where have they gone? These two tapestries were woven shortly after WWII when Dovecot was creating a new identity for itself, weaving designs by contemporary artists - Gauguin was the exception and was most likely woven very early on, in order to create some works to show prospective artists what they could achieve. This is not a case of the tapestries being lost; rather, their lives have been lost. Working with archives is always liable to be hit and miss and some objects such as these have disappeared with very little trace left behind. Their biographies are necessarily short.

Changing Hands

Many of Dovecot's biggest and profitable tapestries were corporate/public commissions. These include Cycle of Life (1958, Sax Shaw) for Warriston Crematorium, Genesis (1970, Robert Stewart) for Strathclyde University and Had Gadya suite (1986, Frank Stella) for PepsiCo. But, as the current recession has illustrated, companies and organisations are not fixed, and are prone to change, especially when it comes to their physical location. In some cases, when a company moves from the building a tapestry was originally intended for, the weaving may be gifted to a eminent member of staff on their retirement, or put into an auction for sale. Their are two examples of incidents such as this leading to an interesting new chapter in the tapestry's life.

BP Tapestry, 1966, designed by Harold Cohen, woven at Dovecot Studios

The BP Tapestry, designed by Harold Cohen, was commissioned by BP for their new building in London. The weaving of this tapestry, and the collaborative process which evolved between, is an interesting story in itself, to be explored another time. When BP eventually moved from its 1960s location, Brittania House, in 1994 the company had to decide what to do with the tapestry. At over 26 feet long it was unlikely to find a comfortable new home in an office environment. Instead, it was given to the University of Hull, where is now hangs in the university library.
Five Gates of London, 1975, designed by John Piper, woven at Dovecot Studios

The tapestry shown above was woven for an insurance company, Sedgwick Forbes, for the entrance foyer of their new offices on Whitechapel High Street, London. As you can see, the tapestry was designed in a similar way to a theatre backdrop, covering the full height of the wall. For the design, Piper visited the print collection of the Guildhall Print Room, in the City of London, and chose five of the City's historic gates. Many of them can be seen in this print. Sedgwick Forbes was eventually purchased by a larger financial firm, and the tapestry was put up for auction. With such a large tapestry, it is not surprising that it was bought by a gallery, rather than a private collection. The tapestry was purchased by the Guildhall Art Gallery, situated in the City of London.
Five Gates of London, Guildhall Art Gallery

In the years since Piper drew his design for the tapestry, the Guildhall's print collection has moved to the London Metropolitan Archives, a far less historic location. The Guildhall Print Room became part of the entertaining space of the building and, by happy coincidence, is now home to the tapestry.


Portrait of Mr John Noble (1979) has had one of the most adventurous lives, of all Dovecot's works. Designed by Archie Brennan and depicting the former Director of Dovecot, the portrait was stolen along with other items from the Noble family's home at Ardkinglas. Such was the disappointment of the family that a replacement was woven in 1981. Thanks to some police work, the original was eventually recovered!

Monday, 19 December 2011

Sax Shaw talk in January & Twitter

On 19th January I'll be presenting a talk 'Tapestry and Stained Glass: The Work of Sax Shaw'. The time is tbc so please check Dovecot's website for more info. The talk will take place on the weaving floor, and explore the interaction between Shaw's design for tapestry and stained glass.
St Margaret, Sax Shaw, 1968, Parish Church of the Holy Trinity, St Andrews
 AND, I have now joined twitter. You can find me @FranBaseby. Happy tweeting!

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Christmas at Dovecot

To get you in the Christmas spirit, here are a few festive treats from Dovecot:

Dovecot Studios Christmas Card, Robert Stewart, Private Collection

Edinburgh Tapestry Company Christmas Cards and Tile Designs, Margaret Stewart, Private Collection
Edinburgh Tapestry Company Christmas Card, designed by Robert Stewart, courtesy Sheila Stewart.
Edinburgh Tapestry Company Christmas Card, undated
Madonna of the Sea, tapestry, 1949, designed by John Armstrong
Robert and Sheila Stewart 'Oven Mitt' Christmas Card, courtesy Sheila Stewart
Christmas Sketch by Sax Shaw, courtesy Shaw Family

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Dovecot Design in 1950s

In the 1950s, under the influence of Harry Jefferson Barnes (Deputy Director of Glasgow School of Art, Dovecot's production expanded. Designer Robert Stewart (Head of School of Textiles, Glasgow School of Art) was recruited to start designing and producing tiles, printed textiles, placemats. He was assisted in this by a former student, Margaret Stewart (no relation).

The tiles were particularly attractive commercially as they had no purchase tax. Robert and Margaret designed a broad range of tiles, often in coordinating sets, which could be used on walls, fireplaces, or as table ware. The Edinburgh Tapestry Company Archives at Mount Stuart include a brochure of tile designs, showing each pattern in a number of different colourways, from which clients could place orders.

Tile Designs, Private Collection
Placemats were produced in a number of materials. Robert Stewart developed 'blotting paper' placemats which could be used a number of times and then disposed of. These were designed with bright colours and strong graphic designs.

Blotting Paper Placemats, Private Collection
Barnes was keen to expand these into tourist souvenirs, and a collection of topographical mats were produced an packaged in branded Dovecot sleeves:

Margaret Stewart developed an innovative folding table mat using decorated parquet flooring strips backed with green felt:
Detail of Folding Placemat, courtesy Sheila Stewart
Design for Folding Placemat, Private Collection
 Dovecot is clearly a product of the people who have been involved in its running throughout it history. Harry Jefferson Barnes and John Noble, with their involvement in the Scottish Crafts Council, realised that tapestries alone were not sufficient to keep the company solvent. Their solution was to create smaller, more affordable, items, produced along the same principles of good design and craftsmanship which the studio had always followed.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Working with 'raw' archives

I have recently spent some time looking through the papers of Sax Shaw, whose family kindly allowed me access. Shaw became Artistic Director of Dovecot n the early 1950s, having designed two tapestries The Lion and the Oak (1948) and Fighting Cocks (1950). Though Sax's involvement with the studio was relatively short-lived, he is of particular interest to me due to his dual interest in stained glass and tapestry.
Sax Shaw in his studio, tapestry loom and stained glass design in the background  © Shaw Family 
Despite their different textures, tapestry and stained glass have much in common. Both make use of concentrated colour and, unlike painting or drawing, involve a process in which the object's design is an inherent part of the object, built up piece by piece. The difference, of course, is that the glass which makes up a coloured window often has decoration applied to it as well. I am also interested in the unique atmospheric effects which tapestry and stained glass have on their locations. A tapestry, dependent on its size, can alter the acoustics of the room it inhabits. Stained glass goes even further than this - with sunlight or artificial light shining through, we the viewer can experience the fall of light on our bodies.
Window designed by Sax Shaw, Abbey Church, Kilwinning
 Having spent 4 days at the home of Shaw's widow, I now have the task of working out what to do next. The privileged time I spent with the uncatalogued 'archive' has resulted in pages and pages of notes, and hundreds of record photographs. What to do with it all?! So I have began the slow process of sorting, reading and extracting, and I'll be sure to blog when I've come up with some ideas.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Queen Victoria

Whilst at the Victoria & Albert Museum recently, I spotted this!
unfortunately I wasn't tall enough to get a good picture
From a distance you could tell it was some form of needlework or weaving, but I was completely shocked to discover it is in fact woven tapestry.

It was woven in 1877 at the Royal Windsor Tapestry Manufactory and won a gold medal at the Paris International Exhibition in 1878. For me, as well as being technically exquisite, it is representative of the trend of copying paintings directly into tapestry, a method which is often cited as the medium's downfall before it's renaissance in 1940s France. The original painting was by Heinrich von Angeli (Hungary, 1840-1925). The work was commissioned by furniture-makers Gillow & Co, London who founded the tapestry workshop. For more information on the V&A website, please click here.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Year One

My first year review is on Friday so it's time to take stock of the last year and what I have learnt.

I made the right decision!
Embarking on a PhD, particularly when you are just 4 years into your career, is a nerve-racking experience. Will I manage to adapt? Will my writing be good enough? Will I be able to find a job afterwards? Will I regret my decision? As a natural born worrier, all of these thoughts went through my head BUT I made the right decision.

Research introduces you to new worlds
I knew that my research on Dovecot would involve the study of designers and artists I had never looked at before. I didn't realise, however, the scope of subjects which it could lead to: social history, textile manufacture, design reform in the home, stained glass, print-making... Which leads me on to the next thing I have learnt...
Textile designed by Eduardo Paolozzi for Horrockses Fashions

My capacity for enthusiasm is larger than I thought
Having the time and freedom to focus on nothing but research (with the occasional work diversion) has reignited my enthusiasm, whether it be for Parisian architecture, Sax Shaw's stained glass or Modernist interior design.
Sax Shaw stained glass at the National Museum of Scotland

That I really, really like Graham Sutherland's work

The number of blog posts featuring his name is testament to this.

Writing about about handmade objects inspires you to make your own
My knitting has been encouraged by the tapestries, textiles and related objects I spend all day looking at and reading about.

My wee friend Yasmin with her knitted bunny
Doing a PhD is lonely, something I had been warned of before, BUT time is a luxury and I'm enjoying the opportunity to think without distraction. Plus the CDA project means I get to work with my lovely colleagues Elizabeth and Grainne.

People are generous
When not on my own, the people I have met through galleries, conferences and tapestry viewings have been generous with their knowledge and advice. 

Taking a break
The most frustrating aspect of writing is that the words don't always flow when you want/need them to. This is an aspect of creativity which didn't often happen in the world of work. Taking a break from writing and studying to recharge is often a guilt-laden event but essential.

I'm sure as my review approaches I will think of many more things, and I have purposefully left out the endless list of names, dates, styles etc which I have obviously picked up along the way.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011


Though I am not a weaver, I am a knitter, so this mini blog is a bit off-piste but still woolly. When in Paris, we stayed with my partners family in a lovely town called Enghien-les-Bains. One of my favourite shops in France is AGATHA jewellers and in Enghien they had the most amazing knitted window displays... or are they crocheted?


Also, I am currently reading Joanne Turney's book The Culture of Knitting - it is one of the best academic books I have ever read and would really recommend it to anyone interested in knitting.

Other Tapestries in Paris

In addition to the Gobelins, I visited the Jean Lurcat Museum in Angers, to see some of the tapestries designed by the man often held responsible for the renaissance in modern tapestry in France and beyond. Again, photography was not allowed but some images can be seen on the website, linked above. My overall feeling was one of disappointment. Lurcat has a very distinctive style, often featuring bright, almost acidic colours and supernatural or religious imagery. Visually they are striking but overwhelm the tapestry element - they are woven so finely you have to look quite close to realise what they are. In addition to this, many of his designs, especially the enormous suite The Song of the World (Le Chant du Monde) feature large expanses of black. The hours spent by the weavers on this must have been mind-numbingly dull and it seems a waste of tapestry's potential as a medium.

So, leaving aside Lurcat, here are a selection of photographs of other tapestries seen in Paris. I would encourage anyone visiting Paris to go to the Cluny Museum, now called the National Museum of the Middle Ages, and the Musee des Arts Decoratifs.
Augustus and the Sybil, early 16th Century, National Museum of the Middle Ages, Netherlands

Detail of above

Crucifixion, 16th Century, National Museum of the Middle Ages, Brussels; this is an exquisite tiny tapestry

The Art of Sword Forging - Tubalcain & Giohargus, 1st quarter of the 16th Century, National Museum of the Middle Ages, Netherlands; this tapestry was part of a wonderful exhibition about swords, which also featured a screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail!

The Liberal Arts, c.1520, National Museum of the Middle Ages, Tournai

Detail of above

Sacred Love - Tapestry with the Arms of Guy de Baudreuil, 1515-1520, Bruges, Musee des Arts Decoratifs


After a lovely research trip to Paris, it's time for me to take stock of what I found on my tapestry trail. My first port of call was the Gobelins tapestry workshop, part of France's Mobilier National.

The tour of the workshop took our group to two weaving areas - the first of these was concerned with weaving tapestries on basse-lisse (low looms) on which the warps are almost horizontal. Unfortunately we could not take photos inside but I have managed to find a picture online:
Here is an image of the haute-lisse (high looms) at Dovecot:
David Cochrane weaving Easter Day, designed by William Crozier, 2009
One of the major differences is that the on the upright looms at Dovecot, the weavers work from the front. On a basse-lisse loom at the Gobelins, the weaver works form the back. Because of this they have to view the original design in a mirror: this is because the work as they see it from the back is a mirror image, but also because the only way they can view the front of the work is also through a mirror. In the photo of the basse-lisse loom you can see a white-framed mirror resting near the warps.

The tapestries being woven at Gobelins were very fine, with a high number of warps per inch. When I was there it seemed like a laborious process, with work progressing slowly. When I mentioned this to Jonathan Cleaver, one of the weavers at Dovecot, he said that in fact the low loom technique is supposed to be faster as it has a pedal system to bring the back warps to the front during weaving. Why did it seem so slow to me? I think the answer is to do with my perception than the French weavers' actual speed. Because of the use of mirrors the process seemed less fluid than the weaving I had witnessed previously - instead of glancing at the design, the weavers had to stop and place the mirror. It was an eye-opening experience and raised many more questions than I had thought it would.

The other area of the workshop was concerned with the weaving of Savonnerie rugs - you can see a picture on this blog. These are woven much like an upright tapestry, except the weft is looped around each warp, created a loop of yarn which is then trimmed with scissors to create the rug's surface.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The atmospheric impact of colour

One of my favourite experiences at Dovecot has been encountering the different atmospheric changes in the studio when a new tapestry is begun. Coloured yarns, previously confined to the shelves or store cupboards, leap out into the weaving floor, surround the looms or rug tufting frame on which they are to be used. To give a hint of what I mean here are some pictures:

photos: Jonathan Cleaver and Francesca Baseby © Dovecot Studios
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