Wednesday, 23 May 2012

What happened when I sat at a loom...

When I say that I used to work at Dovecot, the first question is always 'Are you a weaver?' and my answer is an instant, definitive 'No'. It takes years for a weaver to learn their craft and I have huge respect and admiration for their skill. I talk about weaving, read about it, write about it and ask questions about it, but had never done it. Until now.

Les Blessures (detail), Anna Ray
The French Institute in Edinburgh is currently hosting an exhibition of small tapestries, organised by STAR*: Vive la tapisserie! 3. STAR* brings together tapestry practitioners who graduated from the Edinburgh College of Art Tapestry course. The use of the institute for their exhibitions refers to the French Gobelins technique of weaving, on which tapestry weaving in Edinburgh was formed.

Portraits by exhibitors of STAR*

Running alongside the exhibition are workshops where you can weave a small portrait. All of these small portraits contribute to a large, communal workshop and will be cut-off at the end of the exhibition for each maker to take home. Workshops are still running up to 30 May so there is still time to take part! When I attended, Fiona Hutchison was taking the session. I decided to do a self-portrait:

I thought I did a good job... my mum thinks it looks like ET wearing a wig. But what did I learn?

I already had a good grip on the essentials of weaving, but I hadn't considered the more practical aspects: what to do with the ends? what if you finish at either side of the warps - what to do with the loose yarn? how do you handle weaving with different weight yarns side-by-side? It was a worthwhile and really enjoyable task. But as my mum pointed out, the weavers at Dovecot will hardly be quaking in their boots.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Designing Women and Designing Britain

A recent visit to London resulted in an overlap of exhibitions: Designing Women: Postwar British Textiles at the Fashion and Textile Museum and British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Both exhibitions made the case for Britain as a centre of excellence in design in the wake of the Second World War. This was explored further in relation to 'Spaces and Places' in a two day conference at the V&A.

With a background in museums and galleries, I am always interested in the design of an exhibition. The Designing Women exhibition was restrained and simple in its design and layout, allowing the textiles to speak for themselves and have room to breathe. I had encountered many of the designs in books, but nothing compares to seeing them in the flesh, printed on different types of fabrics and reproduced in multiple colour-ways.

The exhibition at the V&A had, not surprisingly, a large budget for design. I know that some people prefer to steer clear of exhibition design which is too striking due to a concern that the design will overpower the displays. My personal response to the British Design exhibition was that the design complemented the objects, creating a unified exhibition which also clearly demarcated the three distinct sections of the exhibition. The project was undertaken by Ben Kelly Design, with graphics by Graphic Thought Facility.

Ben Kelly Design

Ben Kelly Design

Ben Kelly Design

One of the speakers at the V&A conference was Christine Lalumia, a former curator at the Geffrye Museum. Her paper concerned the 1965 Living Room at the Geffrye Museum, one of a series of period rooms recreating homes from particular eras. As the curators decided how to put together a 'typical' living room of 1965, they had to consider whether to go for a 'modern' and 'contemporary' style, or a more traditional sitting room.

Living Room, 1965, Geffrye Museum
Lalumia spoke of how this brought up issues about access to, and interest in, modern interior design. The exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum displayed wonderful colours and edgy patterns, but how many members of the British public actually wanted to live with them? And how many could afford these textiles, or the cutting edge furniture which accompanied them? As Lalumia stated, many preferred a traditional interior, with older fashioned furniture and knick-knacks on the mantelpiece. Those who did interact with modernism were usually middle class, with an academic background.

To me, this relates to Dovecot activities of the 1950s, during which the so-called 'Contemporary Style' in fabrics and interiors was emerging in exhibitions and magazines. Dovecot hoped to compete within the domestic interior market with smaller, design-led tapestries. The problem was, who would want them? And, how could they compete, wither financially or stylistically, with mass produced textiles? The ultimate answer is that they couldn't. Tapestry suffered from an old-fashioned reputation, associated with the Arts and Crafts. It was also well outside the ordinary person's budget. It was in the 1960s, with the increase in opportunities for large-scale, architectural commissions that Dovecot's tapestries really came into their own.

Friday, 18 May 2012

A Woolly Jubilee

I spent some time in London last week for a V&A conference on British Design... more on that later. In the meantime, with the Queen's Diamond Jubilee looming, here is what I found at Reading Museum.

Beautiful original architecture of the Town Hall
A Wendy Ramshaw installation above the entrance foyer
A fantastic display of Jubilee memorabilia

I grew up near Reading and never knew it had a museum. I often find that local museums can be over-looked in favour of major national museums, especially when you live within easy access of a major city such as London. What the Reading Museum proved was that, if you take the time, you can find some real gems right on your doorstep. Whilst at the museum I heard a curator mention that they were applying for HLF funding to renovate the ground floor galleries - something which is really needed, though staff have made the best of what they have.

In an upstairs gallery was a revelation: a whole room devoted to the pots of Alan Caiger-Smith. Caiger-Smith set up a collaborative pottery at Aldermaston in 1955, which continued to operate until 2006. His own work makes beautiful use of lustre-ware. Not only were the potters' works outstanding, but it was a rare opportunity to experience a gallery entirely devoted to one artist/maker.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Stained Glass Without a Window

How can stained glass operate without a window? When we see stained glass in a museum collection, it is with the understanding that it previously was part of a building. The two windows before are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Apartment Window (The Engagement Ball) was previously in a bay window in the Knickerbocker Building, Fifth Avenue, New York. Autumn Landscape was commissioned Loren Delbert Towle for his Gothic Revival Mansion in Boston (source: Unlike the Apartment Window, Autmn Landscape was gifted to the museum in its original wooden frame, made at the same time as the window. Of course, having been taken out of their original settings, both windows are now lit by artificial light. This is a necessary alternative, but means that they have lost the fluctuations in colour and tone which would have occurred as the quality of light changed during the day.

Apartment Window (The Engagement Ball), 1885, cartoon by Luc-Olivier Merson, executed by Eugene Oudinot, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Autumn Landscape, 1923-24, Tiffany Studios, design attributed to Agnes F Northrop, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

What about stained glass that isn't intended to fill a window? In 1983 Sax Shaw was commissioned by the Scottish Development Agency to create a 'free-standing' piece of stained glass, which is now in the National Museum of Scotland.

Camargue, c.1983, Sax Shaw, National Museums of Scotland.

Shaw's notes in the archives of the SDA reveal the difficulty he had in designing a panel which was not site specific. When designing a piece of glass for a window, the artist always considered the direction of light coming through it. Shaw felt that designers of stained glass windows should set aside their own egos and create a design which truly complements the building. Because there was no guiding directional light, Shaw had trouble when deciding how to create shadow and form in the figurative imagery. Shaw eventually came up with a solution: create your own light. He commissioned a light box from in front of which the glass would stand. In this way, wherever the panel went, it always had sufficient light behind it.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

A Didactic Tapestry in New York

In its hundred year history Dovecot has woven a number of tapestries for the USA. These include the major collection of works designed by Frank Stella for PepsiCo and collaborations with Robert Motherwell, Louise Nevelson and Helen Frankenthaller which were instigated by tapestry editeur Gloria F Ross. Pre-dating all of these, was a 1956 commission for an altar frontal, to hang in St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, New York. The tapestry is no longer on permanent display, but I was able to view it during my visit to the city.

Gould Memorial Tapestry, 1956, designed by Canon Edward Nason West, woven by Fred Mann and Harry Wright.
The tapestry was commissioned by Mrs Ethel Gould in memory of her husband, William Stocking Gould. It is a beautiful tapestry, full of rich colours and patterns. Because it is no longer on permanent display the colours of the yarns have survived well. This has also been helped by the low light levels in the church, which is surrounded by skyscrapers. There is only a one-hour slot each day to get enough light to fully appreciate its awe-inspiring stained glass windows.

What interests me is not just its quality and beauty, but its religious significance. The tapestry was designed by Canon Edward Nason West who was a member of the clergy at the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, New York. Canon West was considered to be an expert on church decoration:

'West always said "Do things decently and in order" so that you can communicate clearly and powerfully through clear visual symbols, "because the worshipper is entitled to understand what is going on".' (Obituary, Episcopal Church Archives,

The tapestry is contains a number of heraldic shields, each containing a symbolic representation of a religious figure. At the centre is Christ, represented by a cross, surrounded by the Virgin Mary (a winged heart pierced by a knife), John the Baptist (a Maltese cross), the Four Evangelists and a number of Apostles. The tapestry is a didactic image, using recogniseable visual imagery. The tapestry's composition, Christ surrounded by important figures, reflects the large sculptural reredos on the wall immediately behind the altar.

St Thomas Church reredos sculpture, image from here.

The tapestry was woven to fit into a particular place in the sculpture. The image below includes a pale yellow rectangle which indicates where it would have hung. Also below is a black and white image of an old postcard in which we can see the tapestry in its sculptural 'frame'.

The Gould Memorial Tapestry is a great example of how tapestry can be used in religious settings, not as simple decoration, but as a meaningful contribution to the message of the church.
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