Blog of Chrissie Freeth tapestry weaver, features writer for UK Handmade, weaving features editor for the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, Artist in Residence National Trust and trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association
I hope you are doing well wherever you are, during this lockdown. I am working on a new tapestry inspired by it, but I am taking a break to share a tapestry cut from the loom not long ago.
It was initially inspired by the story of two heiress sisters who ran off to marry two brothers in the fifteenth century (Culpeppers, a family of well known ne’erdowells, just ask Katherine Howard….). Their grandmother claims the sisters were abducted amongst much weeping and lamentation but academic reading of the situation suggests they eloped. I wanted to do one sister willing to go and one unwilling to reflect both interpretations of the story. The willing one went on to have 19 kids which was lucky as I would not be here if she didn’t, the other sister had none.
The story of the Wakehurst girls seemed a good allegory for Brexit, the Brexit voter on the left willing to go, cocky and defiant, the remainer not wanting to, but both entwined by the decision. The symbolism I’ve used hopes to reflect what we have lost by leaving the EU economically, cultural and for long term peace, there are also numerous references to the EU in the patterning of the frocks and elsewhere as well as reference to the threat of the break up of the UK. This tapestry was also a reaction to the formality of The Debt tapestry and others, I wanted to loosen up a bit in approaching figures. I had spent so much time working on developing faces, I had pretty much ignored the rest.
Understandably and rightly the exhibition at Ripon Cathedral has been postponed – I’ll pass on the new dates when I have them. Nonetheless it was nice to take a moment to see together some of the tapestries I’ve woven following my Fellowship, even if it was on a screen rather than medieval architecture! They take so long to weave it is easy to forget that there is a coherence forming which is incredibly satisfying.
It was also nice to see my work in the most recent issue of the fabulous Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, I can’t link to a little video I did, but it is over on Insta. I’ve taken the tough decision to streamline the posts in this blog, my work was getting copied and much of it is out of date anyway following the huge changes brought about by my Fellowship – some posts will re-emerge reformatted over on my website in due course. It was a difficult decision, and not one taken lightly. I’m looking forward to sharing the new tapestry though once it is done, its got eye balls and a dogs arse. In the mean time I wish you and yours keep hale and hearty in these strange times. x
Huzzah! My goal was to get another blog post in before next week cus then I can at least clock up two posts a year. I cannot apologise enough, but as I’ve said before I have pretty much moved over to Instagram, and it is over there that you can find me posting regularly and discussing in more detail the processes and decisions that have gone into my work and more importantly, how my WCMT Fellowship has been impacting my work. I’ve also benefited hugely from interactions and discussions over there which have left me with a lot to think about in what I am doing and why.
As for this year, room was limited at the Saltaire Arts Trail and I was allocated a room with a half a dozen fabulous other artists but sadly there just wasn’t room to show my work and so I had to pull out. I won’t be taking part in 2020 but will make sure this sort of last minute change doesn’t happen again, apologies to anyone who was disappointed. I had a marvelous time at the always fantastic Art in the Pen in Skipton. Thank you to folk who came and said hello. I’ve also been doing a fair few talks on my Fellowship, and again thanks to everyone who has invited me, there’s also an article coming out soon in the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. I’ve also been doing a lot of work on the Commission Which Must Not Be Discussed, but without doubt most of this year has been heads down at the loom working to weave pieces for my exhibition at Ripon Cathedral in May 2020. It has been strange focusing so much on an event so far off, but it has meant it has also been a year of building on my research and this has in no small way been helped by a follow on grant from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust which enabled me to purchase much needed materials.
I think I last left you with Hush on the loom. This tapestry returned to the theme I have often tried to get to grips with, the several generations of my family haunted by suicide, mental illness and incarcerations in asylums. On the left is my grandmother’s grandmother Jane who drowned herself int he mid nineteenth century. Of the three young daughters she left behind two ended up in asylums, as did her granddaughter here on the right. It was the first time building up to a proper full sized tapestry and which gave me the space to explore some of the techniques and influences from my Fellowship. It was the first real experimenting with pattern too, something I had always been rather afraid of.
This was built on in the next tapestry of St Catherine. She was one of the most frequently seen figures in medieval tapestries and it did occur to me that there was a lot in these young women, unafraid to stand up for their beliefs, in more contemporary figures like Greta Thunberg to mention one. There were also parallels in Catherine’s story with the MeToo movement, and of course the disparaging attitude towards women boosted about by those we are supposed to look up to. I focused on Catherine after she was scoured and put into a prison and left to starve. She was administered to by an angel and fed by a dove. The queen came upon then and converted and had her paps and head removed for her trouble. The ecclesiastical theme of the tapestry allowed me to experiment with metallic threads and more specifically with how shading and patterning work together. It was rather nerve wracking working on a tapestry that was based on a medieval subject, using medieval techniques and for a medieval environment but to still make it contemporary and relevant.
Just finished yesterday is a new tapestry. My grandmother was a remarkable woman intellectually and a huge inspiration to me. But I am conscious that the dictates of the time meant of course, that when families came that often marked the end of other aspirations. Motherhood is a choice for my generation, and the opportunities so much more and I wanted to articulate that somehow. There was a belief in the medieval period that pelicans fed their young with their own blood. It was a motif that was used to celebrate Christ’s self sacrifice and one I first saw in a 14th century tapestry in Switzerland and have since seen often and I wanted to use it to acknowledge the sacrifices of motherhood. The tapestry was meant to be very different, another figure representing my generation, but I soon realised that figure was already in the tapestry in me as the weaver and the opportunities and paths I have are evident in the freedom I have to weave it and in all that came before to get me to this point.
I suppose looking back this year has been about consolidating and honing down my skills as a weaver, really making use of the photographic archive at the loom, building up to do things I saw on my travels and said to myself I’d never be able to do that and then sitting at my loom and realising I can. It has also been about becoming increasingly secure in my methods and by that having the confidence to make things up at the loom and finally to strengthen my voice and my vocabulary as an artist. A lot of that has been introspection into what it is about the medieval that hooks me and in turn that has made me less afraid about exploring it in my work. Again I am sorry that these processes are something I’ve articulated elsewhere rather than here. But today is the first day in a long time I’ve sat on the sofa with a keyboard and the time needed to write. And with that I do hope you had a great Christmas and a wonderful New Year x
I have tried numerous times to update this blog, but it has proved impossible, how can I articulate all that has happened in this last year? It is of course my fault for not keeping on top of it, but to be honest there has been very little time when I have been off loom. I wonder if instead of trying to go over everything, I might just start with the last tapestry I’ve finished and hope that that will give a sense of what has been going on and the progress made.
I cut off The Nook (above) just before Christmas. Last time we spoke, I was coming to terms with the decision to turn my back on my old way of working and embrace the more formal ways of weaving more familiar to the medieval weaver, hoping that the expressiveness I have always been looking for will materialise in other ways.
However, I knew that before I moved back up to full sized tapestries like this, I would need to focus on samples and initially I focused on some experimental archaeology at the loom, trying to work out how the Halberstadt tapestries had been woven the way they were (below). I loved the results but as I tried to scale them up into a mural tapestry, pastiche took over and that is always something I have been petrified about.
One of the experiments I had long wanted to do was to see see how small I could go to work out if I could comfortably weave full figures within the width of my loom. Girl with Flowers (below) began as a quick sample to experiment with scale, I was reweaving an earlier cartoon at a smaller size, and that’s why the frock is so plain and the hair short. I found myself wanting to keep going with her and rummaged about in the photographic archive for the flowers and leaves. This was a turning point for me, as simple as it sounds, I was responding to the figure on the loom, making things up as I went, instead of having it all planned out and sampled before I started as I usually do. Remember, with tapestry you cannot undo something that has been woven over unless you take all of it out, it is not really a medium that endears itself to winging it, but that is exactly what I did. I realised that I had the skills now to do that, there was no problem I could not work out on the loom.
I realised then it was time to move back to a full sized tapestry, I drew out a cartoon for The Nook, the figure based on one I had abandoned earlier. The cartoon only initially consisted of the first half and I began weaving not having a clue what colours I would be using or how I was going to turn a drawing outline into a tapestry, all those decisions would be made at the loom and in response to what was already growing beneath my fingertips. Some details are below.
Now I am not going to say there wasn’t a great deal of reweaving every now and then, but the difference was that I was not in a panic about it, I didn’t see it as a failure but as all part of the process, I knew in my bones that I would figure things out. I could not be happier with the result and the whole process felt far more engaging, it was about me and the loom, not just turning into tapestry a painting I had done earlier. In fact there was no original image for The Nook tapestry, it is not based on anything that pre-existed. I was able to draw upon, from my mental toolbox, all the techniques I had seen and could use them with ease and confidence, I had a mirad of possibilities at my fingers. It seems, dear reader, I now know what I am doing.
The Nook is still relatively small for me and a new tapestry the full width of the loom is well on the way, but one which again I am developing on the fly (above). Apart from vague positioning of its elements and colour distribution, all likely to be tossed out of the window at any minute, I have no idea how it will look, and I love it. The happy accidents far out way the occasional re-weaving when things go a little bit pants.
The overall design of these tapestries, the cartoon, I won’t lie, remains a challenge, but I feel I am getting my vocabulary firmer. It helps too that the place they will come to life is on the loom, not the paper before me. I’ve brought up into my workroom am old drawing board that was decomposing in my cellar and it has proved invaluable. I have also learned to accept I can spend a month on these cartoons, then abandon it for another that materialises fully formed in an afternoon. I suppose it is all part of that process, of letting things marinate and letting them spurt out when they are done (feel free to remind me of this statement when I am bitching about designing cartoons on Facebook). One thing with The Nook that I find so interesting, is that I have always here spoken at length of the inspirations behind my tapestries, yet with this one I feel no need to explain it, I know what it draws on, I think I know what it means, but for once this is a tapestry I have made which can speak for itself, it needs no bolstering and blustering from me; that can only be progress too.
The strides I’ve made have been helped in no small way by not having to hit the ground running when I got back from Switzerland and Germany. Normally I have events peppered through the year and that has usually meant making more sellable smaller pieces, and pieces I knew would work, there was not the time for experimentation, there was not scope for things to go wrong. But some breathing space has really helped me to start to explore all I have seen and learnt. But that is not to say I have been completely cloistered. I did Art in the Pen in August (above) and as always it was fantastic, I love it so much, such wonderful visitors (including the lovely lady I bored to death talking tapestry when she ended up sitting next to me on the plane to Berlin!!!!) and of course it was lovely talking to fellow artists, and one in particular who really helped me break some barriers on the design front. I’m such an overthinker, it really helps for someone to see your body of work and just go, Have you thought about this, this and this. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have made the progress I have without her insight and her willingness to share it and I am more confident than ever of being able to draw on my medieval inspirations without my work being pastiche.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, someone from Ripon Cathedral (above) saw my work at Art in the Pen and a couple of months later I was invited to have an exhibition there in May next year. This is, as you can imagine, a wonderful opportunity for me, and to see my work in a cathedral such as Ripon is incredibly exciting, and wonderful to keep the tradition of the church supporting artists and artisans. The theme of the exhibition will be storytelling and it is going to be great to be able to showcase this new work and the influence the Fellowship has had.
The way I now work, not least because my sett and materials are so much finer, takes longer and so I am having to work all hours to make enough work to do the space justice. It has been a difficult decision but the need to focus on larger pieces for Ripon also means I am unlikely to be out and about at events this year, but it will pay off I am sure. I’ve also been working on proposals for a commission which may or may not happen, and I can’t say too much, or in fact anything, but if it does come off I will of course let you know all about it. There is a price to pay for such a productive year. I’ve been having physio for months for a dodgy shoulder, and an injection into the joint the other week, but nothing seems to have worked, but at at least it seems it won’t get any worse. Well apart from today which is why I have banned myself from the loom and have been able to catch up on my chores and emails. Lastly I will confess that I have been using Instagram quite a bit, which may also explain why this blog has been abandoned a little. It has provided me with a way of articulating what is going on at the loom whilst I am at the loom, rather than having to wait until some part of my musculature has gone ping, forcing me to take an admin day and fire up the laptop. I will, however try to be more mindful of this blog going into the future. I accept this post has been a bit of a catch up and a few folk had commented on its lack of update, and again, I apologise and will try not to let it happen again.
I have been enjoying an unusually clear block without events and this very very precious time has given me the space to focus on my research and making it manifest on the loom. And so I am very sorry for the extended cliff hanger from the last post.
I had only planned a few days in Switzerland, not least due to the expense (I think it was about £16 for a fast-food burger – soon to come to a certain little post-Brexit island near you). I was also conscious that the largest collection here, housed at Berne was still undergoing conservation and would be for some time to come. My other destination was Basel which was incredibly welcoming with free public transport for visitors, and my accommodation, above a restaurant, was far more comfortable than I was expecting and across the square it overlooked was my reason for being here, the museum in a converted church and now housing a large collection of Swiss made tapestries. Now then, a lot of planning goes into this, and I try to coincide travel with when museums are closed. But it had escaped my notice until I was in Germany that there was a bank holiday in Switzerland on one of days I was there, there was no hint of this online, and it promised to be a bit of a spanner being as I was only in Switzerland for a few days as it was. Fortunately it turned out the holiday was only recognised in some parts, and I changed my itinerary and headed to Bern first.
It was raining, in fact it was pissing it down, so I was in a bit of a mood. I had also by now literally worn a hole in the sole of one of my shoes so I had a wet foot. And the tapestries on show were a little limited, which is what I was expecting, and I couldn’t really engage with them aesthetically. There was however a mahoosive millefleur tapestry, and I saw how awe-inspiring a tapestry like that might be, lit by candles. I left after a few hours and stood on the steps of the museum. I could allow my soggy sulk to continue and head home, or I could head over to Thun. It was on my itinerary because the town had been brought to my attention by a fellow weaver. But it was kinda in pencil, as I really didn’t know what was there and there was naff all online, it would be a place I would go to if I had time, which was going to be unlikely. But I am exceedingly proud to report, I straightened my back, I pushed back my cagoule hood, I embraced the rain, I whipped out my europass and to Thun I went.
It was here I saw my very first alp. An actual alp with snow on it. The town was surrounded by them. The rain had stopped and it turned into one of those grey skies that highlights the colours of everything beneath it, including the fast running river, sapphire blue. The tops of the alps were cloud covered, adding to their enigmatic beauty. High above the town was a castle straight out of a Disney movie. It was magical and needless to say my mood was entirely gone. There were some steps through the town up to the castle. When I say some steps, I mean a coronary inducing trek that makes people who fuss about K2 look a bit silly. I made it, and without medical intervention.
There were three tapestries in the castle. The smallest collection I visited, but also one of the most fantastic. The Duke of Burgundy did a runner at the Battle of Grandson in the fifteenth century leaving behind a war booty including the tapestries that makes up the bulk of the Berne collection. There was at Thun a heraldry tapestry that formed part of this booty, part of it was at Berne, but a massive part here. It was fantastic, obviously rather repetitious, but the rendering of the creatures was fantastic. It was also interesting to see the differing damage over time caused by the different colours, much of the brown areas now little more than warp.
There was also a fifteenth century altar front which was woven in Basel and provided a hint of those waiting for me behind the currently closed doors of the museum. This tapestry was once mistakenly thought to belong to the war booty hence its survival.
The third tapestry was another altar front but woven more locally and was used in the parish church in the town. Dating to around 1300, it was one of the oldest I got to see and consisted of medallions flanking St Mauritius, the patron saint of the town. The tapestry was remarkable for its boldness and for the the use of stitching to render some of the design and detail. I’m not normally a fan of embroidery on tapestries but here the boldness of the tapestry and the delicacy of the stitching worked incredibly well together.
I went home to find there had been an anti-fascist rally in the square outside my window, the museum had a huge spray painted banner across it and there were still a few remnants of stalls being packed up, as I searched for a source of wifi. I have to say the hotel’s was rubbish as was the Starbuck’s, my usual go to place for uploading images. Matters were somewhat sticky as my iPad was playing up, the screen switching off when I touched certain areas of the casing, there was clearly a screw loose, and in the iPad too. Getting the images somewhere secure was a priority and I was glad for a memory stick I could use with the iPad and get a back up there at least. The infallibility of the iPad was the one thing I had not prepared for.
The following day I readied myself to make the trek across the square to the museum. It is fair to say that I entered tapestry heaven. There were heaps and heaps of tapestries in the specially designed gallery. It was, quite frankly, overwhelming. Most had been woven in Basel and it was astonishing to see such a homogeneous collection. The tapestries were relatively narrow being as they hung above furniture rather than having to decorate a whole wall. They were also notable for their secular nature, and the intense patterning over every inch. Also breathtaking (you can see now I was heading for some sort of dyspnonea event) for their astonishing use of demi duite, in some cases it was used as a small highlight, in others it covered whole areas, they were also interlocked. The time and skill that went into these tapestries, was, well, breathtaking.
But understandably the lighting was very low. The glass that once protected the tapestries had been removed and replaced by alarms that were incredibly sensitive. I couldn’t get anywhere near enough to the the tapestries to see them in any detail, it was fine for the casual visitor, but I just couldn’t get close enough to see the weavers’ hand. I had by now also attracted the careful eye of one of the security guards. It was incredibly frustrating. I had been in contact with the curator but had been reluctant to arrange a formal meeting as I was so unsure of what my itinerary would be and did not want to mess anyone about, but I did email her regarding my plight and with astonishing kindness she met me in the gallery with the promise I would not be arrested should I set off the alarms. Even more, the following day, before the gallery was opened to the public she would disarm the alarms and arrange some decent lighting. I spent the rest of the day with the tapestries doing what I could and was invited to make use of their library as well. The next day I returned as arranged. I cannot tell you how lucky I was, how privileged, what a fabulous chance it was to see these tapestries under lighting. The detail and life in these tapestries was utterly astounding. Talk about leaving the best til last, an experience I will never forget.
It marked the last day of the travelling. It had been a very hectic few weeks. Nonetheless the feeling of this leg was different, I was able to spend longer with some collections, and the tapestries I saw here were very different to those I saw in France, Belgium and New York. And when I have returned from these trips before I have usually had to hit the ground running to get ready for an event or other. But this time I have been able to properly digest all I have seen and allowed myself to experiment at the loom and this has resulted in me finally becoming the weaver and the artist I have always wanted to be, and I will talk about that in the next post. But what I will add is that of course this blog is merely a report from the ground as it were, a more formal and detailed report about the research was due and this too has taken up some of my time. It took a while to figure out the best way to write it, a place by place account not unlike having to sit through some aged relatives holiday slides, yet something entirely technique focused robbed this experience of its breadth. Instead, not least because I picked up a copy of de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts in Nuremburg, I have focused on a selection of tapestries and used those to jump off and explore the themes raised by this research. Anyway, that is now all done and submitted I will be sure to let you know when the WCMT make it available.
Once you are a Churchill Fellow, you are a Churchill Fellow for life. And I have to say I know this experience will stay with me for ever and will be feeding into my practice for the entirety of my weaving life. There is much more work to do, not least the cataloging of the archive of around 14,000 images of the 170 tapestries I got to see. I have also learned so much about myself and what I am capable of. I am incredibly grateful to the WCMT and to folk who travelled along with me, including the readers of this blog and all those who have supported me along the way.
These posts have been far more retrospective than I thought they would be, but quite frankly I have been having too much fun at the loom, but more on that later.
A friend of mine had gone inter-railing around Europe with her family and as I realised how much travelling I’d be doing during this leg she inspired me to get a rail pass, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made, more so even than the purchase of a travel kettle, so that’s saying something. Aided by the accompanying app, the freedom to just hop on and off whatever train I wanted was totally liberating, and without having to mess with ticket machines and kiosks. And so after saying a rather hard good-bye to Halberstadt I zoomed at 268km/h from towards Nuremburg. I was also self congratulating myself at this point for treating myself to some loose tops back in the UK, it was unseasonably hot and sunny.
Nuremburg was a delight. A modern vibrant city, teeming with life, and yet easy to navigate and possible to cross by foot in a few minutes. It was hard not to be moved by what had been lost in the allied bombing; like Halberstadt, so much had been destroyed.
My destination was the Germanisches National Museum. The museum was full of jaw dropping art and artefacts from pre-history to the twentieth century, but I only ever got to power walk through the galleries not immediately relevant to my work, otherwise it would be too easy to lose focus. The main gallery which held the medieval tapestries was, as expected, low lit. The tapestries were behind glass which gave good access when they were at eye level, and a few tapestries were displayed horizontally, which again meant they were easy to study. Shadows and reflection were a bit of an issue, especially from a distance.
I won’t lie, the German tapestries I had seen before were somewhat crude, and I was expecting more of the same, that was why I wanted to see them, as a contrast to the workshop-produced tapestries I had already seen. But whilst they were very different, they were every bit as accomplished. The bulk of the collection were woven in Nuremburg, although two Flemish tapestries illustrated the changing tastes of those who could afford it. Little is known about the workshops, but some tapestries were attributed to a nunnery, St Catherines, in the city, the ruins of which are extant. The tapestries were a lot smaller than the Flemish pieces, often elongated strips.
There was a preference for bold areas of colour rather than the delicate hachure that dominated the tapestries during the first two legs of my travels, and a palette dominated by reds and greens. Dovetailing featured heavily, but oversewing of slits were less prevalent, presumably because the weight of the smaller tapestries were less of an issue in opening them up. I felt a lot more affinity with these German tapestries in how my own practice has been developing. There was a cleanness and crispness to these tapestries, aided by the limited palette and the limited use of pattern (apart from the three woven in Strassburg where there was not a centimetre unadorned). Faces were simplistically rendered, and there was much repetition in features which made them relatively indistinguishable. As with other German tapestries I had seen, some faces were left blank, but I am still none the wiser as to why, in the same piece some were drawn in, some stitched, others part woven.
I spent several days here, and at the end of one when my brain has the elasticity and absorption of a bowl of blancmange, and my feet had the sting of burnt out stumps, I thought I would dash into another gallery before heading home, only to come across rooms of other tapestries I didn’t even know about. I did swear, and I believe I even huffed. I have since done my penance to the tapestry gods for my ungratefulness and gave then due attention the following day. They included the most amazing tapestry of fanciful creatures, alas much of it hard to get at due to the placing of furniture and reflection in the glass. Nonetheless my head nearly came off in a double-take when I saw one tapestry clearly woven from the exact same source as one I saw in Paris last year. At the GNM is also the largest fragment of one of the oldest weft-faced fabrics in Europe, the Cloth of St Gereon, helpfully(?) cut up in the nineteenth century and distributed around various museums. This piece and other near contemporary pieces were well beyond the scope of my research, but it was an honour to get to see them.
Tapestry contemporary with the above, clearly based on the same original source on display at the Cluny in ParisI spent several days here, but also headed out to Munich for a day. It was quite strange seeing from the train window the exact landscapes, woodlands, and churches I had seen in tapestries in Nuremburg. My destination was the Bavarian National Museum. There was a huge variety of tapestries here, and although they were behind glass there was much less spot lighting so access was the best I’ve yet enjoyed. Some tapestries were relatively crude, squared heads and stitched faces, but others, including one depicting the adoration of the Magi, were beautifully woven, and towards the lower edge in this particular tapestry was a weaver, possibly a reminder to the viewer of the human toil that has gone into its production. That a tapestry such as this could have been woven in a nunnery, as has been suggested, was a real eye-opener as to the skill and training open to their makers. I had to confront a lot of my own prejudices.
Detail from the Adoration of the Magi 1490-1500 ?Bamberg
Wild people hunting, Strassburg c1450
I had hoped to get to Bamberg but also recognised I had to pace myself. My days were not just filled with studying the tapestries themselves, but also, back at the hotel, reviewing and uploading images, as well as making notes. By the end of my time in Nuremberg I was dreaming of Unicorns at night and getting very itchy for my loom during the day. As I traveled to Frankfurt and then into Basel in Switzerland I welcomed the downtime, but of course had no idea, the best was yet to come.
I just got back the day before last, from the last leg of my travels as a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellow studying the techniques of medieval tapestries in France, Belgium, New York, Germany and Switzerland. Most Fellowships are conducted in a block, but for practical reasons I had to break mine up, but I feel it has served me well, for in the intervening time much development has taken place both academically and artistically, and I found myself undertaking this last trip with new eyes, vigor and questions. My days were very long as so keeping up to date with this blog and social media proved rather difficult so I hope you forgive me that these next few posts will be done retrospectively.
I feel it is not too much of an injustice to say that a visit to the German town of Halberstadt (above) would not feature on the bucket list of many tourists. It suffered hugely during the war and today it consists of a very nice and clean modern shopping precinct, a smattering of timber-framed buildings in the old town, plenty of renovated housing blocks and, alas, a fair few structures slowly rotting, a legacy from the town’s previous inclusion in the East German state, owner-less since unification. But what it also has, is a Cathedral, and what that has – bizarrely, amazingly, astoundingly – is its treasury, the paintings, the silverwork, the sculpture, the carpentry, the glass, textiles, more textiles and some more textiles that were collected and used by the cathedral over the centuries. And in that treasury are two twelfth century tapestries and one from the early thirteenth.
They are often mentioned, albeit in passing, as the oldest complete tapestries in the world, this fact alone, and their aesthetic appeal from the little I could find of them online meant that from the outset I wanted to include them on my travels, but it seemed hard to justify the detour for only one site and I dropped it off the plans before I applied.
But when in France the importance of the Nuremberg collection became apparent, and as I was somewhat perplexed how tapestries such as the Apocalypse of Angers and the Nine Heroes at the Cloisters, could seemingly come out of nowhere in the fourteenth century. The inclusion of Germany now seemed justified and I am grateful to the WCMT for their incessant patience and flexibility regarding my plans.
The new itinerary quickly formed, flying into Berlin, then trains to Halberstadt and nearby Quedlinberg, then down to Nuremburg, also as a base for Munich and Bamburg, and then more trains down to Basel and Bern in Switzerland and flying back home from there. I am a rather anxious user of public transport at the best of times, and just as I set off I discovered that as I was to fly into Berlin, a world war bomb was to be detonated near the train station, shutting down the rail network.
In the run up to these trips an astounding amount of practical and mental preparation takes place and as I was in fact ready for the plane going down, ending up on the wrong train, having to sleep in the open somewhere in the black forest for a few years and changes to the space time continuum, actually I was rather unphased by World War II in the end. And perhaps only in Germany can they shut down the most important train station and evacuate half a city and then have the trains running again flawlessly within half an hour. I arrived at Halberstadt in the evening, my hotel in the old town a bit of a trek from the station but a relay of locals walking me along the way whenever I looked lost. (Word to the wise, Germany, if you put street signs on the street, it means folk can find out where they are and where they are heading, other countries do it, it isn’t difficult, sweetie).
Anyway, tapestries. There were a pair of two early sixteenth tapestries in an anti-chamber depicting the life of Mary which no doubt I would have swooned over had I not already caught a glimpse in the room beyond of the tapestries I had come to see. It is difficult to get across the feeling on walking into these silent, dark galleries and, as your eyes adjust, the faces emerge from the wall, woven centuries ago. The largest two, the one depicting scenes from the life of Abraham, and the other depicting the Apostles, are long strips set at right angles. They and a third tapestry depicting Jacob since lost but with tantalising images of it extant, hung in the cathedral choir, where their hooks were still visible. They had in fact hung in the same place for centuries.
I was immediately struck by the harmony and balance created by a very limited palette in both tapestries, I counted less than ten colours (and I am sorry for the quality of images, it was all that could be done in the darkness without a flash for obvious reasons!). The figures of the Abraham tapestries had been woven with heavy eyes feeding into thin noses and bat like lips and doughnut shaped cheeks, I am no expert on medieval art of course, but I can’t remember ever seeing anything like this before. I hate to use the word as if it is a concept that gives them their value, but in their abstract way they were incredibly modern. The two tapestries are clearly related but I was told that the apostle tapestries where there is a more traditional sense of realisim are seen as some as better or more advanced, but there is nothing ‘backward’ about the Abraham tapestries, the unusual faces, the disproportional bodies, the elongated oversized hands were clearly a stylistic choice, the contemporaneity of this with other work clearly shows the tapestry could have been rendered more realistically had they chosen to do so.
There was a modesty of technique in these tapestries that I was to find across Germany. Solid blocks of weaving prevailed, blended bobbins only used as highlights. The use of slits and dovetails created a crispness to the tapestries that was striking. Alternate passes of colour created a quiet pattern to hair and other details in the Abraham tapestry abandoned in the Apostles in favour of solid colour. Despite the simplicity, something I had been foreshadowing in my own work of late, there was an abundance of interest. There was also the double telling of narrative in the Abraham tapestry, on the face of it the story of Abraham, Sarah’s unexpected pregnancy announced, a supper given to the angelic messengers, Isaac’s carrying of wood for the pyre of his intended sacrifice, his eventual saving, and yet also the story of the Annunciation, the Last Supper, the Passion. It’s intended audience was clearly an educated one.
The apostle’s tapestry features Jesus returned as the Judge of the World, flanked by angels and the apostles. In the second half the figures are crowded, architectural features representing the heavenly Jerusalem omitted. It seems during the production of this tapestry the Cathedral for which it was intended was razed to the ground. The dimensions of the new choir of the replacement church meant the size of the tapestries had to change, For the Apostles it was a change of design, for the Abraham one, the snip.
The third tapestry, also woven in the Harz region was a fragment of a portrait orientated piece, Charlemagne portrayed surrounded by four other figures, a traditional layout usually reserved for religious figures. It was interesting for having been woven on a vertical warp, and the ability this provided to use contoured wefts to render the faces and other features was used to the full. Only a few decades after the Abraham tapestries, it yet again reinforced to me the uniqueness of their weavers and cartoonists, if the two were indeed separate. Alas little is known about the workshops that produced these tapestries, but clearly they had been produced by highly skilled weavers in a long established medium. How the Apocalypse of Angers came about was immediately much more clearer to me, I am not drawing lines of course, what I mean is the skills that produced it were clearly in place centuries before. There was less of a gap in my mind between those pieces that might be considered archaeological and those that are at the pinnacle of the form.
The Halberstadt tapestries deserve to be celebrated as much as the Apocalypse of Angers, or the Unicorn tapestries of Paris or the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries in New York, but I suspect their location off the tourist map means they have been denied that. A comprehensive forthcoming publication on the Halberstadt textiles will no doubt help spread the word regarding this amazing collection, and not just the tapestries. I’m saving up already.
Nearby is Quedlinburg, which fared much better in the face of allied bombing during the war than Halberstadt. The medieval town survived to such an extent it is now regarded as a World Heritage Site, but Pah! Who doesn’t live in one of those? In the treasury of the church that dominates from a rock outcrop is the earliest known European carpet, made in the 12th century, like the Halberstadt tapestries. The five fragments aren’t woven, but knotted on a warp, and so although not strictly within the remit of my project, it gave a chance to compare the tapestries with a contemporaneous and similar medium. It was also interesting to see in the crypt of the church the twelfth century wall paintings that covered the ceiling and how similar they were to the carpet. I am fascinated by the relationship, or the hints, that other mural mediums can give us regarding tapestries when they no longer survive, so I did a little dance. I also did a little dance when I found the most darling little enamel mug in one of the shops, but perhaps I ought not confess that being as I was there to work, I only nipped in for a second, honestly.
After Quedlinburg another day with the tapestries at Halberstadt followed and a highly informative meeting with their curator. It was very hard to leave the tapestries and their weavers. But Nuremberg and Munich were next, so in the early sunlight of the following morning I headed back the train station, my little wheeled suitcase bobbing off the cobbles. Halberstadt and Quedlinburg had been an excellent start to the trip and again I could hardly believe how lucky I was to get to see these things and the meet the people I did. So, as they say, the story is to be continued……But I will also just add, to all my friends who told me not to worry about my lack of German, that everyone would speak English, to go kick yourself in the chins, because that was a complete lie, and if it wasn’t for the Google Translate app I wouldn’t have eaten for five days.
It was an interesting time a few weeks ago. I finished the tapestry I had been working on and shared it in a few places and was rather taken aback by various folk stating they were going to copy it or parts of it. It pushed me into some serious self-reflection, about the difference between influence and imitation, and what the uniqueness of my work means to me.
Initially I was rather confused by this. Moral and legal issues of copyright are well established, so why would folk be so bold about their intentions? What was it about my work and my practice that made folk think it was ok? And what was it about this tapestry that provoked it – it has never happened with any of my other work.
There is a clear difference between being influenced/inspired by something and copying it. My pre-Churchill work was influenced by Johanna Schutz Wolff; the sense of transparency in her work resonated with me as a metaphor, no idea how she did it, never seen her work in the flesh, I found my own path, but no one could say I copied her work, they are two very distinct styles and narratives. My post-Churchill work builds on it, and I love the simplicity and starkness of Jan Yoors, and of course the narrative and technical aspects of medieval work, and Yoors was himself a proponent of the same principles of Lurcat that have been an influence on me, in the sense of boldness, scale and juxtaposition etc, themselves emerging from pre-renaissance tapestry. But again my work is entirely distinct from Yoors, Lurcat or my medieval predecessors – again, the difference between influence and imitating/copying. I have of course copied bits and pieces from medieval tapestries and blogged about it, it is what apprentices of old did to learn, but they are technical samples, studies, a means to an end, not an end in themselves.
So why do folk think it is ok to say they are going to replicate my new work or some aspect of it? The only thing I can think of is its apparent simplicity, because it looks simple, perhaps folk think it is easy, or not much effort has gone into it and so they have a right to appropriate it, and be so open about their intentions to do so? Ironically it is the most technically difficult piece I have woven, although my pre-Churchill work may appear more complicated to the uninitiated by virtue of its busyness, it is in fact far simpler to do. But I am not talking here of technique which is of course open to anyone who cares to put the time in to study it, but rather what one does with it, as an artist, as an individual.
I have obligations to share the fruits of my Fellowship and that is something I wholeheartedly embrace and although I have done that already to some extent it will be continued more formally once it is over, in various reports, publications and talks. That will focus on the medieval techniques I’ve been observing, something I feel missing from the literature, and really only available to folk willing to study tapestries themselves, an option not available to everyone. But that is different from my own work and style that has emerged from it. But because my new work is based on medieval techniques and I have been so open about that, is that why it is thought of as fair game? Is my work considered derivative and thus available for appropriation? Of course, it is not actually as simple as that. I have observed techniques, I have spent months experimenting at the loom, trying to find a way to use them in a way that achieves what I want them to, as an artist. Some parts have been easier than others, in the latest tapestry, the shading on the sleeve and arms is through stripes, a technique lifted from something I saw in the Apocalypse tapestry at Angers and another tapestry in the V&A, techniques open to anyone to observe and study and interpret and use. The hair, between you and me, was a pain in the arse, but it has always been a prominent feature of my work and so it had to be right. It took bloody weeks to find a way to do it in a way I was pleased with, there’s little like this in medieval tapestry, but the principles are there, the two tones, the stripyness of it. I’ve also done things that you won’t see in medieval tapestries to render finer detail in the face more prominent. It is based on medieval techniques, but I have brought my own interpretations to it – I have found what works for me and I guess that is what stops my work just being a medieval pastiche and it is also what will make my work, by its very nature, different to another artist’s approach. This has been at the root of my struggles since I embarked on this research, it is not about just weaving like they used to, it is about finding a way to make it relevant to today and to make it relevant to me. And in a way it is the legs paddling under the water. Perhaps if I share an image of some of that paddling you’ll see why these don’t get posted. But in not sharing all this, and instead just moaning about it more vaguely, do I, as a friend suggested this morning, make things look too easy?
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know how much work it has taken for me to get here, as an artist as well as a weaver, and it is my sincere hope that, as folk have been kind enough to say, my sharing of that provides some encouragement and inspiration for their own unique paths. I myself have been the beneficiary of such encouragement. But I am conscious, as I feel I have hit my stride as a weaver and an artist, that all of who I am has gone into this last tapestry, very personal things, things unique to me, my experiences, my grief, my aspirations, my background, my upbringing, my research, my experiments, my intellect, my creativity and massive personal sacrifice domestic and financial, and it does make me feel soiled and exposed that folk think that is up for grabs.
Ironically as I write this an email has arrived discussing the potential for an exhibition that will explicitly marry the findings of my research with the development of my own work and it is something I am incredibly keen to do, and in fact, proposed. So perhaps, what niggles at me is the copying of my work whilst being dismissive at worst, or unaware at best, of the techniques, the work and thoughts and processes that have gone into it. That is something I want to share in my own way, rather than have it taken. In a world of Pinterest, Instagram and other social media, is that still a realistic notion, or is the loss of ownership of one’s work the price one has to pay if one creates something that strikes a chord? The alternative can only be retreat or paranoia, and neither are a place I intend to visit.