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:

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