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 am on the train to Angers (pronounced more like an-jay). I am desperately sad to be leaving Paris, not least because I am heading off a few days earlier than expected. But now I know how long it is possible for me to stand in front of a tapestry, I knew I needed longer in Angers, the home of medieval tapestries. But I am ahead of myself.
I knew from research that the Les Arts Decoratif had a few tapestries, as did the Louvre, but I was completely unprepared for the vast numbers on display. Obviously tapestries are delicate, and are generally displayed in rotation and it quickly became clear that there was some disparity in what the catalogue claimed was on display and what was on the walls, but all to my favour.
There were some spectacular tapestries, including the Woodcutters, woven in Tournai around 1460-1475. The detail, characters and vitality was simply wonderful, as was the quality of weaving.
This was also of note for the faded colours which left the most fascinating skeleton of slits and gaps, ghosts of hatchure and colour changes, no longer visible. I don’t know why I became so fascinated by these, perhaps it is the archaeologist on me, always fascinated by what is gone, rather than what survives.
I was not expecting the number of tapestries at the Louvre either, and ended up having to spend two days there. As well as the medieval tapestries they have a vast collection of Baroque and Neo-classical pieces on display, which alas I had to ignore. Many of the medieval tapestries were hung high and in near darkness, making access difficult, but seeing such a collection covering such a time span left me with an amazing picture of the development in the styles of tapestry, including those seeming infested with needless heads and shoulders, and many more millefleurs tapestries including the well known Noble Pastorale series.
It is always odd seeing things so familiar in books, in the flesh. Again one tapestry in particular stood out, and for the same reasons as the Woodcutters – the vitality and quality of weavings. The Repas de la Chasseurs was also possibly woven in Tournai at the end of the fifteenth century and had a plumpness to the figures and economy of colour and it put its faith in hatchure to do its job rather than bury them in the depiction of luxurious fabrics. It was a stark contrast to those tapestries where a more realistic depiction was attempted.
I am gong to be diplomatic and skip over the adventure that was getting into the Gobelins, because despite the tears, the self recrimination, the development of an alcohol and drug dependancy problem, the counselling, and for a brief period, turning to God, I did get in and the staff and guides were utterly marvellous. I will only add that I have worn many hats in my life, but in the community of weavers I have never come across such mutual support, friendliness and acceptance – you know who you are, thank you. Photography was not allowed so I have little to share, but over a couple of days I got to see the carpet, basse lisse and haute lisse workrooms. I have a bit of a crush on basse lisse looms at the moment, just before this trip I had been experimenting weaving on a low warp and the back ache has not yet deterred me. But seeing their magnificent haute lisse looms rekindled my love of my upright looms. With the low warp I wove from the back and I think I am going to try to do this with my upright looms when I get home, as they do at Gobelins, I can see the sense of it. Such a great experience to see these workshops, and how professional they were, it gave me a great deal to think about and bring back with me.
The visit to Gobelins also instilled a much greater appreciation for the role of weaver as interpreter of designs, something I had not fully considered before as I weave my own. This trip had been, in part, inspired by Jean Lurcat’s book on tapestries; he had not been terribly polite about Gobelins criticising what he viewed as rather wasteful ways. It was incredibly enlightening to hear their take on it, and I feel I have a much more balanced view, and can see his instance on weavers working solely from a coded cartoon without an original art work for them to interpret themselves, was to the detriment of their skills.
The plan was then to go to the workrooms at Beauvais and the National Tapestry Gallery there. This too had taken an extraordinary amount of phone calls made on my behalf, resulting in a ‘you shall not pass’ that would have made Gandalf proud. What anyone had failed to say, despite their website being so to the contrary, was the National Tapestry Gallery was no more, and a comment on trip advisor triggered my spider-senses and I was able to confirm this was the case, just in time before I set off. It meant a day unexpectedly free, I instead explored the narrow streets full of independent art galleries that surrounded my lovely apartment in St Germain.
As I said, it became clear as the week progressed that I would need more time in Angers that I had previously thought. This was also sparked by the fact that it was to Gobelins and Beauvias I was looking to to see some twentieth century tapestries, but that instead I hope to see in Angers.
When I set off from Yorkshire I set nine separate alarms, just in case, as you do. This morning, just the one. I feel I am growing as a person. I even managed to brave the Paris metro during rush hour and with a suitcase. I know many Churchill Fellows get to have great adventures in exotic places, but I now feel I can hold my head high amongst them.
When I left Angers I was crestfallen. It is without doubt one of the most beautiful towns I have known. The old medieval world blends perfectly with the modern, vibrant centre. Narrow winding cobbled alleys open into spacious plazas, filled with folk making most of the early-season sunshine. The centre is entirely pedestrianised apart from rainbow covered trams, making it a place one wants to be, no one was stuffed onto overcrowded pavements to make way for cars. Yes, I did check out the house prices.
This week has been the least frenzied, yet perhaps also the most productive and revelatory, perhaps in part due to there being more time and space to breathe and process, to think about how I can best use all this when I get home.
Angers houses two famous tapestries, The late 14th century Apocalypse of Angers and Jean Lurcat’s 20th century Le Chant du Monde. The Apocalypse is one of the oldest, and certainly the largest tapestry in Europe, originally around 850 square metres. It was commissioned in the 1370s by Louis I, and woven in Paris within a decade and depicts the Book of Revelations from the New Testament. It has suffered during its lifetime, cut up as floor mats, walls stuffing, rubbing down horses, but is now hanging in a gallery specially built for it at the Chateaux D’Angers (above) curated by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux (something akin to the UK’s English Heritage).
I got there early and headed straight for the tapestry, I wanted it to myself for a few minutes before the crowds. Nothing can prepare you for pushing open the door and being faced with the first panel emerging out of the darkness and then turning into the room and seeing it down the length of it, then another corner, and more tapestry again. I don’t believe in any god, but it took me minutes to remember that what I was seeing was created on a loom, by the fingertips of people, that it hadn’t been handed down from above by some mystical force as divine and terrifying and those portrayed in the tapestry.
The tapestry is made of six sections, each headed by a principle figure followed by two levels of scenes with red and blue backgrounds, initially plain and later decorated.The room in which it was housed, is understandably very dark and visitors are kept at quite a distance, all essential for the proper curation of something so precious. But it was impossible to see the detail I needed as a weaver, but to experience the whole was something that was just as memorable. I had little idea, how close I would eventually get!
I returned a few days later, to meet with several folk from the Monuments Nationaux looking after the tapestry. They were so welcoming and friendly and knowledgeable, I had hoped for a bit of inside information about what was known about how it was woven, especially in the light of some recent work conducted on some of the tapestries. Instead I was invited into the storeroom, where some partial panels were taken out of storage for me to see. To have had this access was an astonishing privilege, and it is fantastic that as well as curating this tapestry so well, they also make it available to researchers, I can’t tell you how grateful I was to the WCMT that afternoon – it is something I will never forget.
The tapestries close up were, quite frankly, the most sophisticated weaving I have ever seen. And to imagine this was sustained across the rest of the tapestry was overwhelming, and a coronary episode may well have ensued had the whole tapestry have been available like this. In those fragments and partial panels, I saw every possible weaving technique I knew. And yet, no technique dominated, everything was done so subtly, so purely that the whole was in complete balance. This tapestry is the absolute pinnacle of the weaver’s art.
Jean Lurcat first saw this tapestry in the 1930s, and it was fundamental to his thinking, its limited palette, its monumentality, all elements he saw as essential to the successful design and execution of tapestry. This thinking manifested itself in his own response to the Apocalypse tapestries, Le Chant Du Monde, a massive series of tapestries depicting the journey of man, our own destruction and survival.
I must confess that whilst I am interested in some of Lurcat’s ideas, I have not always been so drawn to his work, but that has all changed. Le Chant du Monde, sadly unfinished, is now housed in a medieval hospital, a phenomenal structure in its own right.
In the size, the limited colours, the metres of dense symbolism, the influence of the Angers Apocalypse is clear, especially in the penultimate panel (above) which reflects the format of the originals. It is also in these latter tapestries that there is more variety in the weaving techniques used.
Le Chant du Monde is part of the Musee Jean Lurcat et de la Tapisserie Contemporaine and it was this latter part that was the most revelatory for me. I had expected very contemporary work (which was certainly there), but what I had not expected was the collection of mid 20th century tapestries on display and those of Lurcat’s contemporaries.
It is these that have always been the biggest influence on me, and to turn a corner and see the actual works I had admired from books was overwhelming. All the tapestries I saw shared an absolute respect and formality for the techniques of tapestry. I could spend hours looking at them and always saw something new, and I saw them in my work too, no surprise considering the influence they had on me. As someone who is so self critical, they have taught me to embrace what I do, to push it further, rather than find alternative directions which may well have been an unstated goal of this trip. I ended up returning repeatedly and I am exceptionally grateful to the incredibly helpful, generous and knowledgeable frontline staff. The whole complex is an astounding jewel in Angers’ crown. (Below are tapestries by Gromaire and Touliere, apologies for not labelling the images properly, I am still doing this on my iPad which is in severe danger of being thrown across the room).
I also had the great pleasure of meeting several weavers from Liciers Angevins who kindly allowed me to visit their workshop. It has done little to curb my crush on the basse lisse! But the visit was also interesting for seeing the challenges of keeping tapestry relevant as a living art from, and not just a tradition to be revered. I am eternally thankful to the very lovely tapestry artist Christine Pradel-Lien for introducing me and for helping make my stay in Angers such a pleasure. I hope to be back very soon!
It had been my intention at the start of the project to head off to Aubusson after Angers. The tapestries produced there post-date my period of interest, but the town has a long association with Jean Lurcat and as well as numerous current workshops, a major new centre, the Cite internationale de la Tapisserie, opened last year. Alas my emails went unanswered so when some cuts had to be made to squeeze the project into the budget available for this leg, I took the very difficult decision to cut it for now. For the same reasons I haven’t managed to get everywhere on my list, but I sincerely hope I have done enough to have justified this amazing privilege. On one hand it seems to have been a blur and yet also seems to have been an age! I am half way through, with a few weeks break before the next leg, I am pretty whacked, so I am glad I broke it up after all. I have decided to stay in fellowship mode, I want to experiment with what I have seen, as well as make a start on my report, and yet still get ready for some upcoming events so there will be some balancing to do, but I will keep reporting back on how things develop. Thank you so much to everyone for following this blog and for your comments here and on my Facebook page. It has meant a lot that I am not on this trip alone.
End of week one of my Churchill Fellowship. I am sorry for not blogging throughout as planned, the truth is my time at the institutions I am visiting is pretty focused and my evenings are spent sorting photographs and writing up my notes. WordPress has also proved frustratingly uncooperative to use through my Ipad.
A week ago I was heading from Yorkshire towards my Eurostar train, the journey entirely easy and uneventful. My hotel in Brussels was easy to find and perfectly located near the Grand Place.
My first stop was the Cinquantenaire Museum. Obviously Brussels was a major place for the manufacture of tapestries, and the museum’s collection is one of the most prominent that exists. But last week I saw that the textiles were included in their list of galleries closed for renovation. Did it include the tapestries too? An email to clarify went unanswered, but in truth it was too late to change my plans either way, so I had to just go for it and hope for the best. Fortunately when I arrived and stated why I was there, the guide pointed me to the gallery circuit of medieval galleries. Phew!
I am quite glad I had an empty bladder, because what was waiting for me was utterly beyond any expectation. I had not expected so much of the collection to be on display, room after room was filled with gigantic tapestries. And this was only one circuit, there were others, although of much later works. I am hoping this video works, it has taken about twenty attempts to link it in WordPress, but it gives an idea of how overwhelming it was; my access to tapestries was so limited before, and now I was literally wallowing in them. I spent most of the day in the first two rooms, it was quite hard to focus initially and I was glad of my reference sheet to guide me. Access to the tapestries was much freer that I had expected and I was able to get very close up.
I went home when the museum closed with my brain rather overwhelmed and stalled and it was a good job it was closed the following day as I was able to use the time to make sense of what I saw the day before, to collate it all, assess if my approach was the right one, look at my notes and images and to try to see the best way to go forward (thank you Starbucks for the office overlooking the Grand Place). I had always thought about this adventure in terms of ‘the project’, the bigger picture was what was important, I hadn’t taken the time to think what I myself wanted to get from the experience. I also realised this was a marathon, not a sprint, and I had to act accordingly, I had to pick my battles, I wouldn’t be able to do everything.
I returned to the museum the following day, much more organised, much more able to focus and not let myself get overwhelmed. Whilst lots struck me in terms of how the tapestries were woven, what came to the fore was the ubiquity and technical excellence in the use of hatchure. Of course one is familiar with the technique, although I have never really used it much myself, but seeing it in tapestry after tapestry after tapestry, has installed a huge admiration in me for its versatility and what could be achieved with a line.
On Wednesday I went to the Brussels City Museum in the Grand Place. I knew they had some tapestries although I was rather unsure of what exactly. I also knew they were undergoing the restoration of a 16th century tapestry cartoon, the Martyrdom of Saint Paul.
As they were often made of paper and roughly treated, they are incredibly rare so I was keen to make use of the opportunity to see it and although the restorers were not at work that day, the staff very kindly allowed me in nonetheless.
The restoration was supported by an excellent and informative exhibition which included the history of the cartoon, the findings uncovered during the restoration, and wider topics around tapestry weaving and its creator. As well as windows into the workshop, there was a facsimile of the cartoon, a later tapestry woven from it, and very useful digital information panels. This was all a huge unexpected delight.
Of the five or so tapestries on display elsewhere in the museum, two in particular were of note, one being part of the series I had seen the day before at the Cinquantenaire, and another, Tristam and Morgain’s Shield woven around 1600 in Brussels which, although later than the period of my study, was noteworthy for the wonderful textures created using floating wefts.
I then left for Paris. I seem to have landed myself the most spectacular AirBnB possible, just off the Boulevard Saint Germain, right in the heart of the city, and with a wonderful host. On Thursday I headed off for Gobelins exhibition and workshop. I knew they would be the least straight forward place I wanted to visit, their website is a mine of misinformation, and absence of contact details. My host kindly tried to call on my behalf, but things were none the clearer due to the recorded message. I decided to go anyway and see what was what. What, was a handwritten note on the gate saying they were closed until the end of April. Disappointing for sure, but there is hope the cause is not lost. Watch this space, as they say……. I decided to take the opportunity to rest for the afternoon. I am struggling somewhat with fatigue and am trying to be sensible in managing it. I woke from a snooze, just in time to catch the last of the sunlight and walked along the Seine to have a nosey at Notre Dame. As you do.
The following day, a little worried about how tired I was, I decided to stay close to the apartment, and went to the Musee de Moyen Age, (or the Cluny as was) it is only a couple of minutes down the road. I have a meeting with one of the curators there next week, but I wanted an easy goal after Gobelins.
I must confess millefleur tapestries aren’t my thing, I don’t really do twee, but of course the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries had to be included in my trip. I cannot express how utterly magnificent they were. I wonder if they suffer from overexposure, we think we know them, they are so familiar to us, but in truth I was not prepared for walking in and seeing those beautiful and majestic images. Their new presentation was first class. I spent several hours with them, again access was surprisingly easy and I am collecting a huge photographic resource, thousands of images a day. They are of course the epitome of the tapestry weaver’s skill. In fact I was so in awe of them, last night I finally cracked open Tracy Chevalier’s book, a gift from my AirBnB host. Of course the Lady and Unicorn tapestries are not the only works at the museum. There were three or four early pieces in just about every room, much of them millefleur tapestries, but not all.
Seeing so many tapestries in so concentrated a period and with such a focus does mean I feel like I am ‘plugging in’ to the vocabulary of these tapestries (if that makes sense), and tapestries woven at the height of technical skill. I need to think about how this is going to affect my own work, but even after a day it was clear to me that this experience will change me as a weaver for ever.
Today I head off to the Musee les Arts Decoratifs. It doesn’t open til 11 so it seemed a good chance to catch up with this here blog. Tomorrow I brave the crowds at the Louvre – wish me luck! In the mean time do follow me on Instagram and Facebook, I am going to try to be more organised with it this week.
I’ve discussed elsewhere what led me to apply for a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellowship but to recap, Jean Lurcat, the twentieth century French artist who instigated the modern revival of tapestry, argued that there were a number of elements that were intrinsic to the medium that became lost following the Renaissance when tapestry became a poor imitator of paintings. Reading his book Designing Tapestry, was a revelation to me. I had always favoured bold, large scale tapestries; at the time I was weaving Maides Coign at East Riddlesden Hall. I struggled to appreciate the small scale tapestries that are becoming the norm in the UK. Lurcat seemed to give me permission to weave the type of tapestries I wanted to weave, however unfashionable, impracticable and financially ridiculous they might be.
A visit to see the Devonshire hunting tapestries at the V&A hammered Lurcat’s points home, I saw in the flesh for the first time what tapestry could be. I also realised that in the absence of any formal training, I was a weaver sitting at my loom completely ignorant of an entire level of understanding. Yes one reads about a particular technique, one can do it at the loom, but I was missing that exposure to the centuries worth of how my predecessors had employed that technique, as well as the where and the why. I was a composer wanting to write a symphony having never heard music, I was a car engineer never having ridden in one.
To fully understand the techniques I had been using, to fully understand Lurcat’s intrinsic qualities associated with tapestry, I knew I needed to study tapestries, especially those that pre-dated the Renaissance. But this was immediately made difficult by photographic reproductions of tapestries online or in books. It is impossible to reduce several feet of intricate textile into a few inches and do it justice. Also, much of the literature about historic tapestries comes from an art historical approach, often focusing on subject matter, design context and patrons. As a weaver what I wanted to get at the hands of medieval weavers themselves, the choices they made when sat at the loom, and this I could only do by studying the tapestries themselves and close up. I also wanted to understand how those intrinsic elements identified by Lurcat were translated into his own work and those of his contemporaries, and I wanted to understand their relevance to weavers today, especially in the UK.
The most important part of this project, as with any Churchill Fellowship, is to share it. Most of that will be actively pursued once the travelling is done, but a lot will also be shared on the road both here in my blog, my Facebook page, Twitter and on Instagram. But as my own excitement builds, I wanted to share something of the preparations, and the where, and how, as well as the why.
Once I was awarded the Fellowship heaps of desk based research followed to track down where I could see tapestries that pre-dated the Renaissance. Obviously a lot of this work had been done for the application process, but now it was concrete and in earnest. I scoured the standard texts on the history of tapestry but also googled until my fingers bled, searching through the websites of museums and galleries, trying to identify who had what and where, often frustrated by an absence of online catalogues, but following whatever leads I could. Eventually lists began to form which had to be translated into an itinerary. Inevitably there was more I wanted to see than I could ever manage to do within the already generous time and resources of the grant. A rather ruthless selection process sought to produce an itinerary that was physically and practically possible from a travelling point of view, was public-transport friendly, kept destinations relatively clustered, but which would also enable me to study a broad range of work that spanned my time period of interest, the various geographical areas associated with tapestry, and which would also give an opportunity to see modern works as well.
Initially I planned to spend four weeks in Europe and a fortnight in the US; I wanted to use my time in the States in particular to engage with contemporary practitioners as well as studying tapestries, but it became apparent as my research continued that I needed more time in Europe and so I reduced my time to a week in the US. I had planned to do it all in one go, but came to realise after recent events I will need to break things up, have some time back in the UK to recuperate, but also useful as a time to reflect, and so will now be spreading my travelling across March, April and May.
The amount of juggling this has taken, the amount of virtual travelling, researching accommodation options, scouring of train and bus timetables has been legion and how anyone ever managed to organise their Fellowships before the rise of the internet is beyond me. I am a control freak and I have a Spreadsheet Of All Things, outlining my trip day by day almost. But I accept that in all likelihood it will be thrown out of the metaphoric window within days. The Churchill Trust encourages us to be flexible in our planning, and in fact only arrange our accommodation for the first few nights, we need to be ready and able to follow leads on the ground. The process has also involved engaging with museum curators, gallery owners and tapestry weavers and this is a process that is still ongoing. Folk have been very welcoming and having this dimension to the project is what makes the Churchill Fellowships so special.
I still have a phenomenal amount of reading to do, and a language to learn (!), as well as all the practical things any trip like this will involve, and to identify routes and accommodation options and to make sure everything is in place with my own practice, this is a busy time of the year for applying for events, for example. But my itinerary is now confirmed, my Eurostar tickets and flights are booked, and accommodation in Paris and New York secured. It is very hard when someone tells you they will pay for you to travel around Europe and the States to study medieval tapestries, and take them seriously. The nature of my profession means frugality is a prerequisite so I am also petrified of spending money, even worse when it is someone else’s. I suppose I should also confess I am a little unsure of myself following recent events, not entirely clear of what I am physically capable of. So actually clicking on buttons to commit to bookings, has proved itself to be the hardest part of this whole process, but it is done. I really am going. No more second-guessing, no more prevaricating. I. have. tickets.
So where am I going? As I said the aim is to be flexible, but will rotate around some meetings as fixed points but I will generally follow my nose from Brussels, through France and at some point either in this leg or another, head over to Switzerland. There will also be a trip to Germany and another over to New York. Loosely the plan is to visit:
Musees Royaux d’art et d’histoire, Brussels
City of Brussels Museum, Brussels
Manufacture De Wit, Mechelen
TAMAT/Museum of Tapestry. Tournai
(Would be great to get over to Oudenaarde if there’s time, but alas suspect not)
The Louvre, Paris
Musee d’Cluny, Paris
Musee des Arts decoratifs, Paris
Musee d’art modern, Paris
Galerie Chevalier, Paris
Manufacture des Gobelins, Paris
National Tapestry Gallery, Beauvais
Manufacture nationale de Beauvais, Beauvais
Palace de Tau and other museums, Reims
Angers Castle, Angers
Jean Lurcat Contemporary Tapestry Museum, Angers
Liciers Angevins, Angers
Church of Notre Dame, Saumur
Although the tapestries produced at Aubusson post-date the period I am interested in, it has strong links with Jean Lurcat, and houses a new tapestry centre as well as smaller galleries and museums, and contemporary weavers, and the Ateliers Pinton is at nearby Felletin, and so if there is time to visit here I will certainly try.
Jean Lurcat Museum, Saint-Laurent-les-Tours
Museum fur Geschichte, Basel
Thun Castle, Thun
Bernisches Historisches Museum, Berne
Quedlinburg Abbey, Quedlinburg
Cloisters, New York
Metropolitan Museum, New York
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Vojtech Blau, New York
Studio visits to Erin Riley, Archie Brennan and Susan Martin Maffei
Of course this project is not a whistle-stop tour to cram in as many medieval tapestries as I can. I won’t get to all the places on my list, that is not what is important. This project is to study first-hand the techniques of my predecessors, it is about taking the time to have the most constructive conversations I can with weavers who died five hundred plus years ago, and to learn from them. To that end a huge part of the preparation for this project has been working out the best way to get at those hands and minds, a systematic methodology I can employ when standing in front of their work, a guide for myself on how to study a medieval tapestry as a weaver within the restrictions of how they are curated.
I am not asking to see tapestries held in storage, it is wholly impractical and impossible for a project like this. But from the get-go I had to accept there would be limitations to studying tapestries on show. Tapestries during this period were woven from the back and ideally that is the side you want to read from – outrageously museum and galleries generally display tapestries showing the front. Tapestries were woven on the side, and again, museums tend to hang them the other way up. There will also be issues regarding how close I can get. I haven’t yet resorted to licking tapestries, but I suspect it is clearly only a matter of time. How tapestries are hung and their eye level will also be a restriction.
I am a scientist, I like forms, I like order, I like a nice strict methodology. But I realised this is a project that demands a more organic approach. Much of the recording process will be photography where permitted and practical, but this will not always be so. I will be taking a plethora of notebooks, to record sketches and thoughts. But at my side will be a reference sheet I’ve devised, something that will force me to really look and see what is in front of me, a visual excavation of the surface as it were. Not all points will be answerable, some information will only be available from printed sources, but it is at least a start, and I can adapt it as I go. Much of it is in shorthand for me, but I’ll explain more what it contains as the project progresses and publication looms (seewhatIdidthere).
So there we have it. How grateful am I to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust? I think you can imagine. The amount I have learned is legion, and I haven’t even got on the train yet.
I would like to say thank you for your good wishes after my last post, it is much appreciated. I think it was in preparation really, for trying to think how I might start slowing things down, something I am trying to put off until I come back, but this plan has now been scuppered by a rather lovely surprise. I was super pleased to take part in the Craft Open at the Platform Gallery in Clitheroe a few years back, it was my first event off my home turf. This year I was delighted to be selected again, it was a great chance to see several of my tapestries hanging together. In the end we couldn’t fit them all into the car and a smaller one had to be substituted, for which I am very grateful to the Platform Gallery for accepting. With much regret I wasn’t able to get to the opening, but learned the other week I had won the Selectors Prize for Innovation, which includes an exhibition next year running alongside Craft Open 2018. I feel terribly proud and honoured. To get enough new pieces designed and woven in time will take a phenomenal amount of work but I was quite shocked to find myself instantly up for it. I think it was just the kick up the bum I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself, to brush myself down and plan ahead more positively. Craft Open 2017 runs until 22nd April. After that I am pleased to say I have been accepted for the Saltaire Arts Trail Open Houses, always a great event and I’ll talk about that nearer the time. How I ever thought I would be taking things easier is starting to look really rather ridiculous!
We have always been honest, you and I, warts and all. And so I find myself unable to return to this blog without being straight. This blog for me is a place to order my thoughts, so I hope you will indulge me. I look over old posts and see they have dwindled, and I read of my ridiculous bravado about being so tired. As an ex-academic, it is not so much a badge of honour, but rather proof you are just pulling your weight. I have also hinted my health has not been so good, but have been vague, I’ve lost a large amount of weight, blood pressure is stupid, lots of tests followed, GP saying don’t worry, we’ll just be sure, it’ll blow over. And you believe them, as I did when at my final appointment in November they said I had the all clear, no idea about the tiredness, but my thyroid was ok. The abnormal liver tests, just a blip, the anomaly in the ultrasound, nothing to worry about.
I was glad it was all over, even when you think there is nothing wrong, just having tests makes you think there might be. As you know I delayed my fellowship plans and now I had the all clear I brushed myself down and finalised the itinerary which was long overdue for submitting to the wonderful folks at the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. I would still have a sleep midday, if I got up at all, and was generally clock watching from teatime to see if it was too early to hit the sack, but the tiredness had to be in my head, nothing was wrong, I just needed to pull myself together. My itinerary was approved, and I was really going. But early December I came out of a meeting to find a few missed calls from my GP. It turns out some blood tests had only just been completed and were showing some antibodies – it was all out of his sphere of knowledge, he couldn’t tell me anything, but I would have to be referred to a liver specialist.
When he told me what the antibodies were though, I already knew what was going on. I am an intelligent and curious girl, as soon as there were hints there was something up with my liver, I of course did what everyone would do and went through all the possible diseases to see what my google and House trained eye could spot. I managed to convince myself I had PBC or Primary Biliary Cholongitis, an autoimmune disease that destroys the bile ducts in the liver, the backed-up bile causing cirrhosis and eventually liver failure for some. One of its main manifestations was chronic fatigue. When the GP told me I was clear for it in November, I was actually surprised. But also, obviously, relieved. The fatigue for some becomes so great, many are forced to give up work. That wasn’t going to happen to me. I’ve just found my place in the world, stopping isn’t an option now or anywhere in the near future. There is no cure for PBC, but a drug could slow the progress in some, but not all, and I didn’t like the odds. Besides I’m me, I’m not someone who has a chronic illness, this is not the future I envisaged for myself.
But those antibodies, I knew, were the diagnostic clincher for PBC. I was trapped in a period of limbo over Christmas. I knew I had this thing, there was nothing I could do about it. The appointment with the consultant was within weeks of when I wanted to leave, should I still be planning to go, should I be booking accommodation, arranging meetings, should I put it off until later in the year, what if I was too poorly then, what tests and follow ups would I need, could they wait. And it was here my brain would generally liquefy. It has not been a happy time. But I have tried to be practical, if this fatigue is here to stay, what can I do to adapt to it? It is something that will have to be managed. I investigated further other weaving techniques that are slower, less physical. I even joined some PBC support groups – quite a step for a misanthrope! It was here I was advised to see if I could get an earlier appointment with the liver consultant, especially when my appointment got cancelled to swap me from one clinic to another, delaying things further. There was a clinic the day after my birthday, so I rang, and the birthday fairies got me a cancellation appointment. The diagnosis of PBC was confirmed, but travelling was no problem, they could work round my plans. So there I was, newly diagnosed with a rare, stupid and incurable autoimmune disease that was going to do its best to relieve me of one of my organs, but I actually have to say a weight was lifted. I had already gone through the shock, and the tears, and the duvet-hiding, I could now plan, work out what to do. I can take the disease on the chin, but the uncertainty was driving me out of my mind.
I am not thinking too much about the future right now. I have accepted that is no longer something I can control, I may well be fine, I might not. No point worrying about it now, I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. I am not going to give up on weaving, that’s for sure. I’ve not hidden that I’ve had depression in the past and according to the consultant because of the fatigue I am at risk of it again and that is not a road I am going to ever travel down again, so no more bravado, if I am tired I am going to admit it. I will adapt, but I absolutely will keep buggering on, but it may not be at the pace it once was. And I have to really, really mean that.
I have to go off for an MRI just now so will stop. But it is my sincere hope that in my next post I will start the countdown to my fellowship and share some of the details of what it is I will actually be doing and how. This trip has been, I will confess, a source of some anxiety these last couple of months. But one thing I have realised this week, whatever the future holds for me, here with this fellowship is a chance for me to live, and I am not going to miss out on that.
And after all, all things are still possible, one just has to be open to change……..
Long overdue, I know. Truth is I’ve had my head down enjoying an incredibly creative and productive few weeks.
I know I am exceedingly privileged to be doing what I am doing, but I also feel a big responsibility to make the most of it and to be accountable. For this reason everything I do has to have a set purpose, an end goal. I find it hard to let myself experiment, play or just try things out, even though I know this is an integral part of any artist’s practice.
This has made me drive myself into the ground more than once including a couple of weeks into September, when I came to a complete stop physically and mentally. Rescue was on the way in the form of an unexpected holiday in Whitby with my aunt and uncle. I cannot begin to say how fabulous a time I had, we stayed in a beautiful cottage a stone’s throw from the beach.
We explored some amazing places including the ruins of a castle in a wood; coming across massive buttresses and walls in amongst the trees is something I will not forget, more like something a 1930s South American explorer would come across and very different to the clean landscaped castle ruins in towns and parks one is used to.
I used to work at a Cistercian abbey, Bordesley, so I had always been aware of Rievaulx but had never visited before and the ruins were utterly spectacular aided by some fantastic late summer sunshine. Someone should paint it, no really, they should.
As a break, as a change, as a laugh, as access to the sea and fresh air and exercise, it was a marvellous and much-needed reset. But it has lingered with me since and not least because of one day we decided to escape some coastal fog and headed for the town of Pickering.
I have a particular interest in medieval wall paintings, not that I had ever seen any beyond the pages of a book. I am very curious by the relationship of medieval tapestry to their contemporary art forms. For example the relationship between illuminated manuscripts and the Apocalypse of Angers and the Halberstadt tapestries are well known and I always assumed frescos and wall paintings too must hold some relevance considering their shared mural use. Being so interested in medieval tapestries – which have so rarely survived – I am forced to try to draw inference to what the tapestries may have looked like through other forms.
So I was very excited to see on the Pickering high street a small sign pointing to a church and its wall paintings. But nothing could have prepared me for pushing open the church door and being looked down upon by a gigantic St Christopher across the nave.
All the walls were coated in figures depicting the lives of the Saints, the Passion and Resurrection, the descent to Hell. I was mesmerised. It was not just their liveliness and vibrancy, it was a communication, a link with the ancestors they were based on, the hand that drew them and the centuries of church goers who looked upon them until they were covered up during the Reformation. It was a reminder too of how much has been lost.
My interest in the relationship between medieval tapestries and other art forms is not just academic, I have spent time wanting to explore this artistically too, but I could never figure out how to do it, I could only ever envisage a pastiche, something quite pointless to weave, and so it had drifted to the background. Before Whitby my plans were to make a start on a landscape as discussed elsewhere in this blog.
But when I got home seeing those wall paintings made me all the more determined to respect my intuition. There was something there I wanted and needed to explore. The only way I was going to get it out of my system was to give in.
I let myself weave whatever I wanted, and with no end-game in sight, and without talking myself out of it. I followed my whims, experimented, played. The result has been the formation of a stratigraphy of ideas on the loom, half-finished, half thought-out samples and trials. I was right, initial samples based on the wall paintings were silly pastiches, but as the weeks evolved so did my ideas and so did my realisation of what I was trying to achieve as a weaver, a more honing down of my focus as an artist and an acknowledgement of how I can push the techniques I have been developing this year even further. I feel I know myself better. The result is a new design for a tapestry, far more complicated and colourful than anything I have attempted before, but potentially rather fab.
I love the tapestries I’ve been weaving this year, and that I’ve found something unique to me as a weaver, but I have been conscious that there were limitations with how far I could go with it and the extent to which it would give me scope to explore what I want to narratively. I’m super pleased to have broken through that barrier. The cartoon is drawn, the colours selected the samples woven and recorded. All that is left is to get warped up and to get on with it. I need to finish it before I start my Fellowship so I suspect I am going to have to keep my head down for a while to get it done. I’m not trying to be a tease about the nature of the new tapestry by showing the samples, I just thought it best to talk more about it and the ideas behind it once it has properly got going.
I ‘ve also made some changes to how I work, whether I will stick to them or not I don’t know. The most significant is that I have started to ban myself from the workroom at the weekend. Whilst I am not yet spending the time running through flower-filled fields and basking in the sunshine, it has given me the space to try things I wouldn’t have allowed myself before, exploring off-loom weaving techniques, blowing the dust off my sewing machine and mucking about with free-form embroidery and more drawing and sketching.
In amongst all this I am happy to report the 1in4 exhibition (above) discussed in my last post was fantastic. The quality of work was phenomenal and I was really proud to be amongst them. I have just learned that several of my tapestries have been selected for an exhibition at the Platform Gallery next year – more on that later. I also had a great day with the Bradford Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers talking about tapestry, I was made to feel very welcome and really enjoyed myself. And I was thrilled to take part in Crafted by Hand in Masham (below), always a wonderfully organised event and a great opportunity to get young folks weaving. Much work has also been done getting plans together for my travels in the Spring.
I am looking forward to visiting the Knitting and Stitching Show in Harrogate this week and very glad to see a weaver has been included amongst the gallery exhibitors, the very innovative tapestry artist Cos Ahmet. I can’t wait to see his work in the flesh. Of course I’ll tell you all about it. Until then, ta ta for now xx
It is funny isn’t it, the lies we tell ourselves. Or rather how we want to portray ourselves to others. I’m conscious that I have a persona online, in this blog, in social media. I guess I try to make sure I appear professional, sharing perhaps, but accessible too. In control, that I know what I am doing, throwing a bit of self-deprecation into the mix. My Facebook friends might think perhaps I can be funny, that I am having the time of my life, exploring this new world I am in as a weaver and an artist. But there is something about myself that I’ve never really hidden but up until this evening, as I sat down to write this post, I didn’t realise that I am in fact ashamed of it. It has been a bit of a slap in the face.
I do quite a bit of voluntary work with folk with mental health problems. I’m a hospital manager under the Mental Health Act, for Bradford District Care NHS Foundation Trust (BDCFT), sitting on an independent panel to which folk who have been sectioned can appeal their detention. I’m also an Appropriate Adult, supporting vulnerable adults who have been taken into custody. I’m also one of the trustees of a local charity, The Cellar Trust, that helps people with moderate to severe mental health problems back onto their feet and into work. And it was in their corridors that I saw a poster on a noticeboard asking for entries for an exhibition organised by BDCFT to be held at Salts Mill and open to anyone with experience of mental health problems.
It was on my doorstep, the venue rather prestigious, and I worked for the Trust, so off I sent my application, proffering them my voluntary roles as justification of my experience of mental health issues. In the blurb that accompanied one of the images I submitted, No Longer Mourn, (below) I made reference to the fact that I had had a period of depression after my brother was killed in 2000, that the tapestry was of a fractured figure sinking into the blackness but emerging from it too, it was an image of hope, not despair.
Happily the tapestry was picked to be included. No Longer Mourn has been on show at the marvellous Weave exhibition, and it was touch and go as to whether I would get it back in time, but it arrived today and I took it down to the Trust HQ based here in Saltaire.
I mentioned the exhibition on my Facebook page when I learned I had been accepted, giving as an excuse for my inclusion my voluntary roles, but as yet have failed to update my website page. Why? Perhaps, secretly, I didn’t want people to know I was doing it. People would wonder what I was doing in an exhibition aimed at people who have had mental health problems.
This was supposed to be a blog post about my amazing holiday, an unexpected fabulous time in Whitby with my aunt and uncle. I was going to throw in at the end a brief mention of the exhibition as I ought to do, but I was going to mention my voluntary work alone. I suddenly felt very uncomfortable, and that was when I realised how embarrassed I was, how ashamed I was to say, I have had a mental health problem. I am one of the 1 in 4 who will be affected by mental illness, a statistic from which the exhibition takes its title. The utter ridiculouness of this is astounding to me, not least because I have alluded to it before, here in this blog. Friends and colleages know. And I’ve had no qualms about making public the generations of women in my family who, rightly or wrongly, ended up in lunatic asylums as was, and who have provided an endless source of inspiration to me as an artist, thank you very much. And yet, I could not type, could not confess to people who do not know me, to people to whom I suppose I wish to portray myself in a certain way, that I have had depression, that I have had a mental illness. And not just once. I had depression too when I was a teenager, no idea why, even tried to take my life, a call for help I suppose, rather than serious intent.
I am exceptionally well now, have been for fourteen or so years, and in the last leg weaving has been a massive part of that, I know who I am in the world, I know what I was built to do, I know where I am heading, I have amazing opportunities before me. I do struggle with anxiety and self-esteem, I don’t perhaps give the attention I should to my well-being, but I live, I am forceful for others, I have goals, I am more than able to work. And I work with people in desperate, awful situations, people, who despite that, want to fight, have the will to fight and I have nothing but massive admiration for them all. Yet here I was trying to sweep under the carpet that I myself was once lost, was once ill too. Perhaps I feel it is ok to confess I have had depression, it can be read a number of ways, it is common enough, I was grieving. But perhaps to say I have had a mental illness, which of course it is, made me wonder if folk would think that I was somehow not in control, that I am not a professional, that they might think less of me. The aim of the 1in4 exhibition is to break the stigma, is to get conversation going, how could I possibly take part if I was from the outset trying to fudge why I am part of it, to maintain that stigma and to stifle the conversation?
So go and see the exhibition, Gallery 2 Salts Mill here in Saltaire, West Yorkshire, 6-10th October, coinciding with World Mental Health Day on the 8th. My name is Chrissie Freeth, I am a tapestry weaver, I work with people with mental health problems, and I have twice suffered with depression, I have had a mental illness. It happened, it wasn’t my fault, and I shan’t be ashamed. Would I be ashamed of a physical illness? No. Except that one time I dropped a loom on my foot and ended up in A&E..That was totes my fault.