So as it turns out, that whole “let’s design a tapestry” thing was much harder than I thought it would be. It has taken over six weeks full-time; I jumped into a deep end without knowing it, but I am just starting to climb out and dry myself off, all the better for it, having learned a great deal and having grown a bit as a weaver.
I took for my inspiration (eventually!) an inscription scratched into the fireplace of the dining room. It is dated 1648, the year before Charles I lost his head during the Civil War and it reads “They Maides Coihn – INA –“. I really hope INA is a seventeenth century equivalent of LOL, but suspect it is not. The rest of the inscription, according to the guide book, relates to Psalm 144, which refers to women as quoin or cornerstones.
I looked at the original psalm in its entirety. It was very fitting for 1648, celebrating the strength to face war; it was popular in the medieval period for the same reasons. But the quote for the bit on the fireplace was not what I expected and of course dependant on how one translates it, basically refers to the hope that sons would grow strong like plants and that daughters would be as pillars to adorn a palace.
My own interest in the Civil War was rooted in the diaries, letters and biographies I had previously read of women during the period. I was interested in the fact that for a few years the world they knew was turned on its head, into hearth and home came war and death and hardship. Some even had to face armies to protect their property, others had to fight through the battlefields of bureaucracy to protect what was theirs. Rather than women growing to adorn a palace, their role was something entirely different; to protect rather than adorn, to support and keep together.
I could not help but wonder why the house owner made this reference to the strength of women, who were the ladies of East Riddlesden during the war? I did some digging into the Murgatroyds – the family who built the house. James was a staggeringly wealthy wool merchant – a man who twice refused a knighthood. He built each of his sons a house and although East Riddlesden was for John, the families of both James and John moved in when plague struck Halifax. The Murgatroyds were staunch Royalists. So much so, in Yorkshire, an area of firmly Parliamentary persuasion, they stuck a carving of the king and queen on top of the house in full view along with the caption “Vive le roy” basically a great big moonie. These people, whoever they were, were folk who didn’t back down, and I liked that.
James also had a daughter, Grace, and it was her son Edmund Starkie who eventually took ownership of the property. Getting hold of parish records at this tumultuous time is frustratingly difficult, but it became clear she married Nicholas Starkie, a Captain in his own right and the son of a Colonel, only it was the Parliamentary army which they served. Nicholas was killed in 1643 in an explosion at the siege at Houghton Tower. Here was one of the many families to be divided by war and I find it hard to imagine that the legal wrangling that took place to prevent Edmund’s claim on Riddlesden was perhaps not at least a little formed through the Parliamentary leanings of his family. Who knows. It has been suggested by a descendant of the Murgatroyds that Grace returned to East Riddlesden and her Royalist father and siblings, but according to the Visitation of England and Wales it looks like she had died the year before her husband in 1642.
My question about who the inscription referred to, if anyone, remained unanswered. Was it another woman of the household, James’s wife perhaps, or John’s very young daughters? Or someone else? Did they do something to deserve the honour? Alas if they did, it is unrecorded except for those strange words scratched into the stone. But I had found what I needed, real people I was interested in, real strife, real stories and I found something I could connect with and which I wanted to explore, namely the role of women/daughters within families, the strength they provide as supports, cornerstones, lynchpins, and also something of the pressures and suffocation and claustraphobia that this role can bring.
The finished tapestry will be an abstract figure, holding up something unseen beyond the edge of the tapestry and also being weighed down by it. The background will be blended blacks, browns and red, her dress will be reds and rusts, her face hands and legs a leathery ginger and the areas of her plaited hair will be in different shades of blended browns, all hand-dyed, of course! There are going to be wide spaces of weaving and so lots of opportunities for texture. I had initially planned to outline each shape in black but have decided instead to define each area with soumak and to use it to break up the areas of her hair, and to create some sort of pattern on the dress. The cartoon which will sit at the back of the warps and will be my guide is currently 6ft 5 by 5ft in size; the edges of the tapestry will be up against the figure, there is some extra on the cartoon to aid with positioning and attaching it to the loom. Hopefully she will be quite bold and striking, something I can sink into.
All this sounds quite simple and straight forward and I have brushed over entirely the other two cartoons that came before this one, and all the wrong turns and dead ends I took! So what have I learned?
The tapestry had to be inspired by East Riddlesden. In that sense there was a brief, like a commission. But it was a goodly while through the process that I fully realised the importance of finding something within that brief that I could relate to personally. Even if there was no residency I would still weave her. Other ideas and sketches were superficial and naive. I may think I am a romantic, but I’m not at heart. It is quite black in there!
I wanted the residency to be a chance for folk to see tapestry weaving and have a go at it themselves. But as friends pointed out during an evening of Darning and Gin (no, really) I wasn’t there as a demonstrator, I was there to produce a work, something that would explore my response to my surroundings, that it wasn’t a few months ‘out’, that my residency should actually help propel me where I want to go. I had assumed I was heading somewhere more figurative, that I wanted to tell stories through my weaving, and whilst the latter aim may be fulfilled, perhaps this process will take my practise forward but just not in a way I thought it would, rather somewhere more exciting and individual to me.
I also learned the importance of listening to the advice of friends you respect, even if it is not what you want to hear. It is a very, very precious gift having folk who feel they can be honest with you. Trust your gut when it tells you something is not right.
I also learned that I can’t draw. Or paint. But I’ll do it anyway. Same with singing (apols to neighbours).
I had a major loss of faith in myself half way through but I knew the clock was ticking and that I still had to get on with it nonetheless, and it was this persistence (albeit fuelled by panic) that got me through. I am reminded by something Agatha Christie once said – “There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t writing particularly well”
I also learned that you need to keep everything in one place, in a book, not computer files, Pinterest boards, and samples in baskets. Once they were in a consolidated location, something tangible, I could flick through and see the whole picture and the whole journey, not just snippets here and there. It is a place to play and record and explore. And I owe a great deal to the friend who did a late night mercy dash during one of my “oh god oh god oh god” moments with her project books.
I also realised I think with words. I tell stories in words, explore things with words. But I can’t, I have to turn things into images. I also needed to put aside the epic-ness of things, and hone down what interests me to a single thought, a single image. A poem instead of a novel. This may seem obvious, but I can be a bit thick for a bright bird. Of course it doesn’t mean my starting point can’t be the written word and research and records.
I ended up doing the sample blends sat on the sofa with a small frame on my lap rather than at one of the big beasties, it seemed a more intimate thing to do, less hurried and threatening, I could take my time over it and not get cross if I spent more time thinking than weaving or that I was wasting warp. When sitting at the loom it can be ‘all business’ and I had to step away from that and just explore. I guess I learned I couldn’t rush things!
So there we are. Personally I feel I have already learned so much from this process and I am not even through the door yet. The lovely folk at East Riddlesden seemed to like her and hopefully she will be a way for visitors to engage with tapestry weaving and with East Riddlesden Hall itself and its history. Now most of the prep work is finished I can really start to look forward to it and hopefully get some work done on the Hanging Tree which has alas been abandoned whilst I had to focus on this. So that is where I have been and I am sorry as always for not posting more regularly. I will be posting weekly if not daily during the residency itself – brace yourselves!