Tuesday, 16 July 2013

'an apt and symbolic mural'

Chapter 6 of my thesis is concerned with the increasing number of large-scale, architectural tapestries at Dovecot in the 1960s. I may have written 12,000 words on the subject, but an old issue of Punch magazine sums it up in one image:

'This is the wall, Foster. We'd like you to knock up some sort of apt and symbolic mural - you know the sort of thing - The Chairman and Board presiding over the Twin Spirits of Art and Industry as the rise from the Waters of Diligence to reap the rich harvest of Prosperity while the Three Muses, Faith, Hope and Charity flanked by Enterprise and Initiative, bless the Corporation and encourage the shareholders.'

I'm afraid I don't know what year this is from - my proof reader sent it to me after reading chapter 6!

Thursday, 11 July 2013

The Final Countdown

The blog has been pretty neglected recently because of this:

I am on the final leg of my thesis. The picture above is of my printed draft - terrifying but also hugely satisfying. I plan to submit by the end of August.

But watch this space... News of forthcoming articles, conference papers and new reflections tapestry coming soon. Thanks for your patience!

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Finding the Unicorn: Tapestries Mythical and Modern

If you are in London before 1 June 2013 I would strongly recommend a visit to The Fleming Collection on Berkeley Street. The gallery is currently holding an exhibition, organised with West Dean Tapestry Studio and Historic Scotland, about the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries that have been reinterpreted and rewoven for Historic Scotland's James V Royal Palace at Stirling. The original tapestries hang in The Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Unicorn is Found, 330x340 cm, woven by Caron Penney, Katharine Swailes and Jo Howard
© Crown Copyright. Reproduced courtesy of Historic Scotland
The Unicorn is Found, 1495-1505, 370 x 380 cm, Metropolitan Museum

If you do not expect to visit Stirling Castle any time soon, this is your only chance to see The Unicorn is Found outside of Stirling. The exhibition also includes contemporary tapestries (including loans and new works for sale) woven by West Dean. Further information on the exhibition and works for sale can be found here.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Signed Tapestries (part 2): Weavers

The first part of this double-post looked at the inclusion of artist's signatures in tapestry designs and their subsequent weavings. This post will examine the inclusion of weavers' initials in Dovecot's practice.
Detail from Lord of the Hunt, 1912-1916 1919-1924, designed by William Skeoch Cumming, woven by John Glassbrook, David Lindsay Anderson, Gordon Berry, George Cribbes, Ronald Cruickshank, Stanley Ebbutt, Richard Gordon, John Louttit and James Wood.

Lord of the Hunt was the first tapestry to be completed at the studio, woven from 1912 to 1924 and interrupted by the First World War. It was the war that led to the poignant inclusion of the initials of master weavers John Glassbrook and Gordon Berry. Their initials are set behind a bobbin and shears on the lower border of the tapestry; not only do the commemorate the weavers, they mark the extent of weaving that had been achieved when war was declared.

Detail of The Admirable Crichton, 1927-1930, designed by Alfred Priest, woven by David Lindsay Anderson, Ronald Cruickshank, Stanley Ebbutt and John Louttit.

Detail of The Admirable Crichton, 1927-1930, designed by Alfred Priest, woven by David Lindsay Anderson, Ronald Cruickshank, Stanley Ebbutt and John Louttit.

Initials continued to be included on the front of tapestries up to 1939. The images above show the Head Weaver David Lindsay Anderson's initials on the lower border of The Admirable Crichton, with the weavers initials above the top border.

After the Second World War the practice remained the same, but at some point initials were moved to the back of tapestries. This was not a sudden change but happened gradually. The images below show the weavers' initials and Dovecot symbol (a subject for another blog post!) on the selvedge that is turned back on the tapestry.

As a researcher these initial serve a practical purpose. The archival information about Dovecot's history is patchy at best. Studio weavers are at risk of becoming anonymous if their names are not recorded in surviving archives or included on the physical tapestry. Some Dovecot tapestries do not include any initials!

In recent years the studio has been at pains to ensure that this does not happen in the future. There remain some projects that do not have an appropriate space for initials, such as quick, slow illustrated in the last post. However, in most cases it is possible, as in these small Peter Blake designed tapestries woven by Naomi Robertson - her initials are on the side of the mounts:

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Signed Tapestries (part 1): Artist-Designers

Whilst researching the 1950s at Dovecot, under the Directorship of Harry Jefferson Barnes and John Noble, I came across correspondence relating to the inclusion of an artist-designer's signature in a tapestry. The artist in question was Nadia Benois. On 5 November 1955 Benois wrote to Sax Shaw (Dovecot's Artistic Director) enclosing a copy of her signature. The studio was weaving a tapestry to one of her designs, Night and Day, and she expected her signature to be included on the front.

Just a few months earlier, on 7 August, Director John Noble had written the following to Shaw about Benois' tapestry:

I am entirely in favour of tapestries being marked to show designers and weavers. It is an old tradition and a good one, interesting for posterity. But I am not sure about the wisdom of signing them on the front. I feel that it suggests 'wool pictures' rather than tapestry and that the signature is apt to get in the way of the design to a much greater extent that it does in the painting.

These letters, found in the private archive of the Shaw family, illustrates that there was no 'correct' way of incorporating an artist's signature into a tapestry design - it was constantly up for debate. I thought it would be a good idea, therefore, to survey some examples from Dovecot's history and explore the debate from 1945 to the present day.

Detail from Marine Still Life, 1949, designed by Edward Wadsworth, woven by Richard Gordon, Dovecot Studios. Private Collection.
Detail of black and white photograph of Three Figures, 1950, weavers and location unknown.
After the Second World War, the Directors of Dovecot (then called the Edinburgh Tapestry Company), decided to invite famous contemporary artists to submit designs to the studio; the Directors then selected a number of them to be woven. The Directors (all members of the Bute family) were inspired by activities in France but also encouraged by the Council of Industrial Design. It was believed that collaborating with such artists would revitalise tapestry weaving, boost its profile and make the works easier to exhibit and sell. The name of the artist was an essential part of the marketing of the tapestries.

When Noble and Barnes became Directors in 1954 they decided to move away from using external artists as tapestry designers. Instead, they employed Sax Shaw as an in-house Artistic Director and tapestry designer. It was hoped that this change would save money (from artist fees) and make the tapestries more salable in a world that was increasingly aware of 'design' in the home. However, Shaw continued to include signatures on the tapestries he designed and, of course, in the Benois tapestry discussed above.

Detail of Still Life, 1950s, designed by Sax Shaw, weaver unknown. Private Collection.
Detail of Theseus and the Minotaur, 1956, designed by Sax Shaw, weavers unknown. Private Collection
The practice of including a tapestry designer's signature has continued to the present day. However it is not a consistent feature of tapestries at Dovecot. From the 1960s onwards signatures have only been included where necessary (e.g. if the artist or patron insists) or if it is able to fit comfortable within the design. Here are a couple of examples:

Aberdeen '64, 1964, designed by Archie Brennan, woven by Archie Brennan, Douglas Grierson, Maureen Hodge and Fred Mann. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collection.
Detail of Olive Terrace, 2009, designed by Barbara Rae, woven by Douglas Grierson, Naomi Robertson and Jonathan Cleaver. Private Collection.
There are some obvious examples of tapestries that have no appropriate space for a signature. This is especially the case when the tapestry is not meant as a simple wall hanging:

Tapestry woven for quick, slow, 2010 by Claire Barclay, woven by David Cochrane. Arts Council Collection.
Tapestry Circles and Green, 2011, David Poston, Bangle of welded stainless steel wire, tapestry woven cottons.Collaborative piece with Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh Jonathan Cleaver.
So far in this discussion of signatures the weavers have been absent. The second installment of this blog 'Signed Tapestries (part 2): Weavers' will examine Dovecot's inclusion of weavers' initials. Here's a taster of what's to come:

Monday, 18 March 2013

Tips for conference speaking

Maybe you've heard them all before, but here are some tips for speaking at conferences, put together whilst I was at the CAA 2013 Conference:

Powerpoint Presentations: label all images and include the names of key figures and places. It is so frustrating otherwise! Also, don't put all your captions at the bottom of the slide as people at the back will struggle to see.

Volume: when you ask 'Can you hear me ok?' make sure you get a response from people at the back, not just the front row.

Badges: make sure your badge is visible. Nothing more awkward than starting a conversation with someone you've met before and realising they have no idea who you are.

Handouts: if you are discussing complex theories or data it might be worth distributing handouts, budget permitting.

Engage with your audience: get to know your paper really well so that you do not have to read verbatim. Look at the audience, make eye contact, gesture with your hands. If people are spending  7 hours in a conference room you need to make yourself stand out. Of course, if you are speaking in a second language this is a bit more difficult.

Scan the programme for people you know: it's good to network but if you're in an unfamiliar place it can also be nice to catch up with a colleague or fellow student.

Prepare: scope out the venue before hand so that you know where you need to be. Take a bottle of water with you - buying bottled drinks in a hotel is expensive. Work out if there is wifi access and how to connect.

Connect: our session organisers at CAA organised for us speakers to meet for a drink the night before the panel. This was such a good ice-breaker and helped lessen my nerves on the day.

Don't do everything: pace yourself. Yes you've paid $100 to be there but make sure you take a break for lunch etc otherwise you won't make it to the last day.

Clothes: if you're speaking, wear something memorable (but not tooooo memorable).

Monday, 11 March 2013

Wedding Dresses galore at the Fashion Museum

In February I was fortunate enough to take part in a one week CPD course at the Fashion Museum, Bath. Rosemary Harden, manager of the gallery, had designed four packing fortnights spread over one year. The idea was to allow museum professionals keen to develop their skills to spend one week in the museum, packing objects. The museum would benefit from some extra pairs of hands and we would gain experience and knowledge in the handling and packing of dress and costume. In teams of two, we were allocated a specific area of the collection. I was paired with the lovely Heather Audin, Curator at the Quilt Museum and Gallery, York. We headed into our packing room and were faced with this:

Courtesy Fashion Museum, Bath and North East Somerset Council
Courtesy Fashion Museum, Bath and North East Somerset Council
Plus boxes and boxes of veils, headbands, tiaras, trousseau, going-away outfits and yet more wedding dresses. It was gorgeous yet daunting. A substantial number of dresses were already packaged in store. Our task was to use the accession numbers to match up veils, dresses etc from the same bride and package them together - something that had not been done before. Then we had to package the remaining items into new boxes.

As well as offering us a chance to get to know a specific area of the collection, we also learnt about the museum's unique approach to packing. The museum prides itself on the accessibility of their collection. It is there for people to see and research, not to remain locked in store for decades. As a result dresses need to be packaged in way that makes them easily (and quickly) accessible to staff. The photograph below shows how the dresses are laid on a 'stretcher' of tissue that can be easily lifted out of the box.

Courtesy Fashion Museum, Bath and North East Somerset Council
To those outside of museums and galleries this experience may not seem like much, but for individuals like me it was fantastic. The work was exhausting and physically hard - in total Heather and I packaged 79 boxes, most of which we had built ourselves. But you cannot beat hands on experience. I went into the course as a novice and can now confidently pack a late-18th Century wedding dress into a box! It is also through courses such as these that professionals from museums around the UK are able to share ideas and knowledge about collections management and practice. What particularly impressed me about the Fashion Museum was how a small team of people with a finite amount of space manage to host an ambitious exhibitions schedule, build a world-class collection (over 80,000 objects and counting) and allow consistent access to that collection for research purposes (whether you be studying 19th Century kimonos or would simply like to see your grandmother's wedding dress from the collection).

For more information about what is currently showing, click here. For the fashionistas out there,  Bath in Fashion is a festival of events and exhibitions taking place in the city.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Tapestry and Reproduction: a useful research structure?

I am finally taking time to digest the papers of the 'Tapestry and Reproduction' CAA conference session. First I'll give a round up of the papers, then reflect on the value of 'tapestry and reproduction' as a means of inquiry for 20th and 21st Century tapestry practice.

Lorraine Karafel from Parsons the New School for Design spoke about 'reproduction and change in Raphael's designs for tapestries'. Lorraine explored the changes and alterations made to the borders of subsequent weavings of Raphael's Acts of the Apostles tapestry designs for the Sistine Chapel. These new borders were often designed by an artist contemporary to the new weaving and could be personalised with the iconography of the patron. Jonathan Kline, of Temple University, also discussed the Acts of the Apostles but focusing on three sets of tapestries all of which deviate significantly from Raphael's original cartoons. Jonathan questioned whether these sets would have been valued for their connection to celebrity artist Raphael, or for their own material, style and subject matter.

Susan Wagner of Columbia University moved the session forward in time with her paper on Boucher's 18th Century tapestry designs. Susan reinforced the fact that at least two of Boucher's oil paintings were made specifically for reproduction in tapestry. She asked: 'In what ways can we consider these works as being at once paintings and tapestries?'

Virginia Gardner Troy's paper examined the critical reception of the tapestries commissioned by Marie Cuttoli in the 1930s to 1960s. This subject provided the perfect paper with which to precede my talk as Dovecot would never have made tapestries designed by famous contemporary artists had it not been for Cuttoli's work in France.

As is often the case in conference sessions, the most exciting element was question time. I felt that the questions at the end of this panel were particularly astute and brought up many more issues than had been answered by the papers. Particularly, was the notion of 'tapestry as a means for reproducing painting' a valuable method of research and investigation? My response would be that it is limited. Though it is of great use for the Renaissance period up to the nineteenth century, There are many more centuries for which I do not consider it relevant. It is unlikely that Coptic tapestries were woven from paintings. It implies a hierarchy in which a painting holds the higher ground - but was this the case in the Medieval period? For example, were the painted cartoons of the Lady and the Unicorn held in higher esteem than the paintings? I suspect not. It is also problematic as we enter the twentieth century. Dovecot's collaborative activities with artists as designers has in many ways sustained a connection between painting and tapestry as many of these artists are indeed painters. However the relationship between each painting and tapestry is far more complex and nuanced than a simple reproduction. In the case of independent artist-weavers, I suspect for many the idea of reproducing a painting of tapestry does not play any part in their practice. There are of course some for whom painting and tapestry go hand in hand, but there are also others who do not paint at all. This is not a criticism of the CAA panel. The purpose of the session was to explore this very issue and the papers selected were all really well written and covered a rich and varied selection of topics.

My conclusion therefore is that there is no 'one-size-fits-all' method for studying tapestry. Each researcher has their own subjective views, and each weaver their own way of working. If I were to put forward what I think is most important, it would be to approach the topic with an open mind and begin, always, with the tapestry itself.

Monday, 25 February 2013

El Anatsui at Brooklyn Museum

When I emailed a friend to ask for any tapestry-related exhibition suggests to see when I was in New York, her first choice was Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui at Brooklyn Museum. When I first looked the artist up online I wasn't really sure why she would suggest someone who make's large installations using found materials such as bottle caps and can lids - in other words, rubbish. But having visited the exhibition I now completely understand.

Born in Ghana, Anatsui now lives and works in Nigeria. The work in the exhibition is outstanding, beautiful, moving, mesmerising... you see where I'm going. The installations are so akin to textiles that you often don't realise their true materials until you look closely. The surfaces of the wall hangings undulate as if moving against the walls. Other installations rise up from the floor like waves. For those of you that won't make it to Brooklyn, here are some of my favourites:

Coming soon: the Tapestry and Reproduction session at the CAA conference.

Friday, 1 February 2013

RIO Reviews

Keep an eye out for some more reviews on the RIO Magazine website soon. I'll be writing about Modern Languages at the Lighthouse Glasgow, Wendy Ramshaw: Rooms of Dreams at Dovecot and Wendy Ramshaw: The Inventor at The Scottish Gallery Edinburgh.

Wendy Ramshaw: The Inventor

Modern Languages

Wendy Ramshaw: Rooms of Dreams
In the meantime, why not browse some of the most recent RIO reviews.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Conference News...

Being an academic can be hard sometimes - but not when it involves a trip to New York!

In a few weeks I will speaking at the College Art Association 101st Annual Conference (13-16 February). I will be giving a paper as part of a session entitled Tapestry and Reproduction. Here are the details:

"Tapestry and Reproduction"
Panel Co-chaired by K. L. H. Wells, University of Southern California; and Barbara Caen, The Frick Collection
College Art Association (CAA) 101st Annual Conference

Friday, February 15, 2013, 2:30-5pm
Sutton Parlor North, 2nd Floor
Hilton Hotel, Midtown New York

"Border Zones: Reproduction and Change in Raphael’s Designs for Tapestries"
Lorraine Karafel, Parsons The New School for Design

"Raphael/Not Raphael: The Curious Case of Loreto’s Acts of the Apostles Tapestries, and the Similar Sets in Zaragoza and Bryn Athyn"
Jonathan Kline, Temple University

“'Painting, with Silk and Gold'”: Boucher’s Intermediality"
Susan Wager, Columbia University

"Critical Reception of the Marie Cuttoli Tapestries, 1930s–1960s"
Virginia Gardner Troy, Berry College

"Reproduction/Interpretation/Transformation: Postwar Tapestry Making at Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh"
Francesca Baseby, University of Edinburgh
I feel so fortunate to be part of such an exciting looking panel and cannot wait to hear my fellow speakers. Online registration for the conference is now closed but details of how to buy tickets on the day can be found here.

Most readers of this blog are unlikely to be in New York just waiting for something to do on 15 February so I'll be sure to do a follow-up blog post about some of the ideas and issues that arise out of the session.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Tamielle - a social enterprise

For Christmas, and as an early wedding present, my Mum gave me this:

It is a beautiful hand-embroidered handkerchief with a print of an Edwardian bride.

It was made by a company called tamielle. Initiated by designer Tamar Kovner who works with developing communities to create ethical and highly desirable handmade products. One such series of products is the Handkerchief Club. Each handkerchief is made in a workshop in a deprived area of Bulgaria near Veliko Tarnovo. The boxes are made by hand by a man names Elijah and within each is a small note inscribed with the name of the embroiderer. Tamar does not simply send out her designs, but has formed a personal collection with the women of the workshop, spending time in their homes getting to know them. It was such a special gift, in more ways than one.



Tuesday, 8 January 2013

New Year - New Tapestry?

I intended to write something here about the past year in review but when you're working in academia the calendar year has less meaning than the academic one. I feel that, with 2013 just beginning, I ought to have completed some things and be on the brink of beginning others. Instead I find myself in the middle of the trickiest year of my PhD so far: THE FINAL YEAR OF DOOM. I am writing and editing and writing and editing and getting feedback and editing. It seems an endless cycle further complicated by the niggling voice in the back of my head reminding me that when the cycle finishes I will need to find a job.

So instead of moaning here are some uplifting tapestries for January:

2009 and 2010 Diaries, Tommye McClure Scanlin, image from here.
2012 Diary in Progress, Tommye McClure Scanlin, image from here.
 I have only just discovered the blog of Tommye McClure Scanlin. Tommye is based in the US and for the past few years have woven a tapestry diary for each calender year. Alongside her usual tapestry weaving projects, she weaves a small section of tapestry every day, reflecting her thoughts or mood. This has struck me as a fascinating idea. To commit to such a project means allowing yourself time, every day, to disconnect from your daily work or chores and tap into what you have been feeling. She is not the only weaver to create tapestry diaries but I enjoy seeing how they have changed in style, colour and form from year to year. The tapestries look so beautiful and tantalising - I only wish I could see one in person.
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