Monday, 3 December 2012

The Minotaur in Tapestry

The story of Theseus and the Minotaur can be found in Plutarch's The Rise and Fall of Athens. Theseus was the illegitimate son of Aegeus, ruler of Athens. Athens had been defeated by Minos of Crete and every nine years Athens was ordered to pay tribute in the form of seven young men and seven young women (anybody spotting the inspiration for The Hunger Games?). On their arrival on Crete, the youths were sent into a labyrinth which was inhabited by the Minotaur a vicious beast half-man half-bull. When Theseus first arrived in Athens (as a young man) tribute was due and he volunteered to go. Though Plutarch wrote that the details of the story differ from author to author, it is said that Theseus defeated and killed the Minotaur and led the other 13 tributes back to Athens safely.

Le Minotaure (1928) Pablo Picasso, black chalk and paper on canvas, National Museum of Modern Art, Pompidou Centre, Paris. Donated by Marie Cuttoli 1963.
The minotaur first features in a twentieth century tapestry in 1935. Marie Cuttoli owned a picture by Picasso of Le Minotaure and commissioned a tapestry of it from an Aubusson workshop. Picasso's image does not reflect a specific point in the story of the minotaur. The artist visited the subject of the minotaur repeatedly in his prints and drawings; this particular image is thought to be the first and is concerned with the grotesque combination of bull and man. It is an uneasy image, as if the legs of the man are struggling to escape from the head of the bull. It is an unlikely image for tapestry: it has a plain background and the central figure is executed as a line drawing.

Theseus and the Minotaur (1943-44) designed by Marc Saint-Saens, woven Aubusson, 284 x 478 cm, National Museum of Modern Art, Pompidou Centre, Paris
The subject of the Minotaur appears again almost a decade later in a tapestry designed by Marc Saint-Saens. Saint-Saens chose to focus on the moment that the minotaur was killed by Theseus. It is a bloody image as theseus plunges his sword into the bull's neck. His treatment of the subject and its translation into tapestry is in keeping with French tapestries of this period. Saint-Saens and his colleagues (includign Jean Lurcat and Dom Roberts) employed bold bright colours and plentiful detail to create weavings that took advantage of the unique nature of tapestry. This is in contrast to the Picasso piece which is essentially a drawing enlarged and copied into tapestry. Interestingly, the Minotaur is no longer half-man but is all-bull. It is reminiscent of bull fights and we may think this was the tapestry's subject were it not for Theseus' ancient dress. Given the political situation in France at this time, it is not surprising that Saint-Saens chose to focus on the moment of the Minotaur's defeat. Theseus takes on the role of France overcoming the fascist occupation of the Nazis.

Theseus and the Minotaur (1956) designed by Sax Shaw, weavers unknown, woven at Dovecot Studios.
detail of Theseus and the Minotaur
A Dovecot tapestry of Theseus and the Minotaur was woven in 1956 and designed by Sax Shaw, then artistic director. Shaw was very influenced and inspired by French tapestry designers and often adopted their imagery. However, he used these images and motifs in very different ways. His version of Theseus is more simplified and less violent that Saint-Saens'. Theseus' arm is raised, about to strike. Movement is suggested by the swirling patterns of solid colour, typical of Shaw's design style. This work makes the most explicit reference to the story as 14 tributes can be seen in the background (though it really ought to be 13).

Topics like this are one of my favourite parts of research: selecting a particular theme, image or effect and tracing its origins and development in the woven medium. I'm sure there will be many more to come.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Making Connections

There hasn't been much blog activity recently. Not because my research has ceased or the weavers have stopped weaving, but because I am in my third (and final) year - a time when editing and writing overtake active research.

I have been struggling with this stage - its doesn't involve looking at or feeling tapestries, delving into archives or visiting interesting places. It involves sitting at my desk staring at a screen or hundreds of files day after day. It is at times very solitary and frustrating, but I am also trying to remember how fortunate I am to have the space to think. I remind myself that when I am back at work I will not have such a luxury!

One real benefit of the editing process is that I am beginning to better understand the connections that can be made across my thesis, cutting through the chronological divisions of its chapters. For example, the issues of church decoration that influenced West's design for the Gould Memorial Tapestry are the same ones that Joyce Conwy Evans had to think about in the Canterbury Cathedral Altar Frontal. Both tapestries needed to feature religious iconography, fit in with the surrounding interior design and be visible to a large audience from a distance (both pictured above).

Numbered cartoon for Cycle of Life (1957-8) designed by Sax Shaw

The shadow (or light?) from French tapestry weaving was a constant presence throughout 1945 to 1970 in Dovecot's practice. Immediately after the war French tapestry became popular in Britain thanks to a major exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1947. The successful resurgence of contemporary tapestry weaving under the guidance of John Lurcat was one of the influencing factors in Dovecot's decision to collaborative with living artists. Lurcat's influence continued into the 1950s when Sax Shaw was Artistic Director. Shaw adopted the French artist's methods - including the creation of full scale cartoons numbered with the corresponding colours to be used (images above). Tapestry by numbers indeed. By the 1960s, French tapestry was not so much an influence, but a parallel. The Lausanne Biennales, begun in 1962, enabled to Dovecot to promote its tapestries on an international level and develop its communication with international tapestry weavers.

On another note, I have two new reviews on RIO Magazine: Scotland Can Make It! (on at the People's Palace, Glasgow) and the annual Scottish Furniture Makers Association Exhibition. A review of Nuno Japanese Textiles currently on at Dovecot will be up shortly.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

RIO Magazine

This post is just to let you know that I am now contributing exhibition and publication reviews to RIO Magazine. Originally published in 2009 as a free bi-monthly magazine, it can now be found online. Founded by Tina Rose, the online magazine is for any with an interest in craft. Happy reading!

I have also updated the Papers/Talks page of the blog.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Bird Yarns

Bird Yarns is a project led by artist Deirdre Nelson as part of the project Sea Change (Tionndadh na Mara in Gaelic). Run by the not-for-profit programme Cape Farewell, Sea Change is a 4 year project designed as part of the London 2012 Festival and the Year of Creative Scotland. Bringing together scientists and artists, individual and collaborative activities have been, and will continue to, explore the issue of climate change on Scotland's western and northern isles.

One such artist is Deirdre Nelson. Working with a community of knitters  on the Isle of Mull, Deirdre devised an Arctic Tern knitting pattern. The birds were knitted with local Ardalanish yarns and in July 2012 they were displayed on Tobermory Pier. As well as those knitted on Mull, terns were sent from all over the UK and further afield. 

Image via Bird Yarns
For two days in September the arctic terns landed at Dovecot before heading to The Lighthouse, Glasgow for the month of October. There is something very inspiring about seeing these hand-knitted birds all together. Though all made to the same pattern, knitters were required to improvise the beak, eyes and feet themelves, and to use whatever stuffing they liked. This has resulted in a varied mix of styles and reflects the very personal nature of hand knitting. As I spent some time in the room with them, they began to develop their own characteristics. This top one is very pensive, gazing out of the window at Calton Hill.

This next one looks like superman - flying through the air with a determined look on his face and an especially streamlined beak.

This little man looks like he's wearing a helmet a few sizes too big.

In order to allow as much public involvement as possible, a knitting set has been created. These are available to purchase at Dovecot and online here. The kit comes with knitting needles and two shades of Ardalanish yarns. I'll update this post once I've knitted mine!

Monday, 17 September 2012

Alford Heritage Museum featuring 'probably the best collection of mangles in the world'

On a dreich weekend in June I joined a few friends in Alford, Aberdeenshire. We were supposed to be camping at Woolfest in the Lakes but a lingering illness and torrential rain encouraged us to opt for a watertight cottage instead. Whilst there I discovered the Alford Heritage Centre. This is a museum like no other. An eclectic collection of 'stuff' from by gone years, the museum harks back to Victorian days when row after row of interesting objects were crammed alongside each other, vying for your attention. In some ways the centre is desperately in need of funding and refurbishment - goodness knows what conservation issues may be lurking. But I fear that any such intrusion would force the museum to let go of its unique character. There are no barriers, minimal interpretation, no 'enablers' to enable children to understand what they are seeing. Instead it is a visual feast that allows you to explore in your own time and in your own way. Enough talking, here come some pictures!

The Centre charges a very small entrance fee and is run entirely by volunteers. If you are in Alford for the weekend, you can also check out the Grampian Transport Museum, Alford Valley Railway and Haughton Country Park. The town also has lovely independent cafes and shops, and a fantastic haberdashers.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Tapestry, Gender, History

There came a moment in my research this week when I realised I was writing about the first tapestry both designed and woven entirely by women at Dovecot. This tapestry was Untitled (1967) designed by Elizabeth Blackadder and woven by Maureen Hodge. It is in the collection of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Gender does not form a large part of my thesis, but it is an unavoidable topic. It made me think about where tapestry sits in the arguments surrounding women and textiles.

Maureen Hodge weaving BP Tapestry in 1966.
Maureen was the first female tapestry weaver employed by Dovecot. She was recruited in 1964, immediately after completing the tapestry course at Edinburgh College of Art. She remained until 1973, when she was appointed head of the college's tapestry department. In 1950 Ronald Cruickshank, Head Weaver told the News Chronicle (9 February 1950) newspaper that he did not employ women as they would leave when they married and presumably he thought the years of apprenticeship would be wasted. This attitude did not change until the 1960s, with the emergence of female graduates from the tapestry course at Edinburgh College of Art.

Tapestry’s domination by men is at odds with the feminization of textiles, as expressed by feminist art historians such as Rozsika Parker. Embroidery is one particular example of a medium still dominated by women in the 1960s. Throughout the decade Embroidery magazine referred to the ‘embroideress’ or the ‘needlewoman’ instead of the gender neutral ‘embroiderer’. The editors of the magazine and almost all of its writers were women during the decade.

William Morris Company Merton Abbey Tapestry Workshop
In part, tapestry’s reputation as men’s work comes from its association with manufacture and factories. In the twenty-first century the western world views tapestry as a luxury, handmade artifact, but illustrations of earlier tapestry studios exhibit a less idealist view. The photograph of Morris’ Merton Abbey workshop shows a small, cramped studio designed to fit in as many looms and weavers as possible without losing natural light. In 1950, Dovecot was still considered to be a factory, as evidenced by correspondence regarding an inspection of the premises in that year. Any employee under the age of eighteen needed a certificate from a local doctor to prove their fitness for work.

However, the domination of tapestry by men can be traced back to pre-industrial Europe and into the Middle Ages. The Tapestry-Maker's Guild stipulated that only women could weave. One of the plot strands of Tracy Chevalier's novel The Lady and the Unicorn concerns the rules that stop weaver Georges de la Chapelle's wife, Christine, from helping him weave the tapestries.  Despite this, women could be involved in the preparation of tapestries. In Chevalier's book, Georges and Christine's daughter spends every evening sewing together the slits left between the warps in the tapestry. The involvement of needlewomen is evidenced in Medieval sources. In her publication The Troyes Memoire: The Making of a Medieval Tapestry Tina Kane discusses the account books of the Church of Sainte-Madeleine, also in Troyes. The account books include itemised payment to individuals involved in the commissioning of a series of tapestries for the Church - it is not known whether they were ever woven. These individuals include Poinsete, a seamstress, and her assistant. Poinsete was responsible for preparing full scale cloths for the cartoons to be painted on, and linings for the tapestry. (Kane's book is fascinating, both for her academic insight into her sources and for the translation of the Troyes Memoire itself)

This blog post really just scratches the surface of the matter of women and tapestry. The limits of my research mean I have not had time to spend on it - if you have any comments or further thoughts I would love to hear them!

Friday, 31 August 2012


This post has been a long time coming. In the late 1940s into the 1950s there seemed to be a plethora of tapestries of cockerels! (insert your own pun here) The first I noticed was Sax Shaw's Fighting Cocks (1950). It's a pretty gruesome tapestry, with large droplet of blood dripping from the cockerels' wounds and feathers flying. The brutality of the imagery is at odds with the delicate flowers filling the background.

Fighting Cocks, 1950, designed by Sax Shaw, woven by Ronnie McVinnie and Archie Brennan, Bute Collection.
Another can be found in the weird and wonderful Phases of the Moon, designed by Scottish artist John Maxwell and commissioned for the Scottish arts Council. It is currently in Dovecot's Weaving the Century exhibition if you would like to see the whole thing.

Phases of the Moon (detail), 1958, designed by John Maxwell, woven by Fred Mann and Harry Wright, Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums.
Where were they all coming from? The answer was France. In their designs for tapestry, both Sax Shaw and John Maxwell were heavily influenced by French tapestries, particularly those designed by Jean Lurcat and Marc Saint-Saens. The cockerel, or rooster, is the national symbol of France. No surprise, then, that it became a feature of French tapestry design. But the relevance of the cockerel had a more personal meaning for Lurcat, who in turn had a great influence over his contemporaries.

Liberty (detail), 1943, designed by Jean Lurcat, woven at Picaud Atelier, Aubusson.
In his 1950 publication Designing Tapestry, Lurcat wrote poetically of an encounter he had with a cockerel in 1942:

On one of those resplendent mornings in the Lot region where I spent my 1942 exile, I saw in the meadow next to my studio, a cock, the most insolently cockish one to be found anywhere... The bird was overwhelmingly proud. The sun enveloped him, polished up his breast, made it shine, in fact made him a sort of Red God... This animal with its brilliantined crest and feathers, lunges like a fencer with each of his strides, and his claws come to ground like the wave of a marshal's baton. What glory! What splendour - an presents itself - a King! Versailles - the great monarch - the Roi Soleil! Hadn't I here the new poetic substance for a tapestry!... All that had to be done after that was to translate it into plastic form.
(Jean Lurcat 1950 Designing Tapestry (London, Rockliff) p.51-52)

One chance encounter was to have a significant effect on tapestry for the next two decades.
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