Churchill Fellowship 4

I have been back from New York a few days, and pretty knackered, hence the slight delay in this post. My experience during this leg of the Fellowship has been very different to my time in France and Belgium, more of a smash and grab, there was less time to reflect, every day something was on. Whilst it was lovely to meet weavers in Angers, this week had far more face-to-face meetings with folk, so it wasn’t just me looking at tapestries, which again made this feel a very different experience. When I am able to keep my eyes open for more than two minutes at a time, I am looking forward to reflecting on it all properly! Again there is a gazillion photographs to work my way through.

I flew over on American Airlines, the reviews I had read were pretty poor, so I was braced for a bad experience, but it was fine, the only real pain the hour+ queue to get through customs and the internal battle that would make the fall of Carthage look like a minor spat, about whether or not to declare my tea bags. I was in two minds about forking out for a taxi to get into Manhattan or to brave the subway off the bat. The subway of course being the natural habit of vampires, cockroach humanoids, digital agents fighting re-awoken human batteries and murderous presidential wannabes. I will grant you that my perspective may be slightly marred by movies, but still……

The packed lift in the airport got stuck, and as many responded like they we were about to plummet to our deaths, a fellow Englishman and I shared a droll eye roll, and on our release joined forces to take on the Airtrain and the subway and whatever it threw at us. All rather uneventful in the end. The YMCA was very easy to find. Its location was excellent, although its lack of facilities a bit of a shock initially. I did end up with a spectacular view across Central Park though. Can I just say I love my travel kettle? Is that too weird?

Anyway, tapestries!

My first stop was Cloisters, a Frankenstein structure built from elements of medieval structures shipped to the US and rebuilt. The result is an abbey in a stunningly beautiful park, high-rise blocks of the city in the background. It houses the medieval collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, colloquially known as the Met. The tapestries on show included two sets which were of particular interest.

The Unicorn Hunt series will be familiar to anyone who has been following West Dean’s recreation of the set for Stirling Castle. I wasn’t expecting their luminosity, which no photograph can reproduce, they were stunning of course, and woven beautifully, but if I am honest they were the hardest for me to engage with aesthetically and I couldn’t tell you why, perhaps the use of stock figures rendered them rather too formal? Perhaps it was because they were already familiar? But as I said they were wonderfully executed; there was a red velvet jacket that was impossible to believe it was woven and not actual velvet. The colours were spectacular. The stewards were lovely, even thought I kept setting off the alarms!


The second famous set were the Nine Heroes. These were woven around 1400 and it was thought for sometime they were produced in the same Paris workshops that wove the Apocalypse at Angers, although it may be the similarities are rooted in the weavers, the designers, or conventions of the time.

They were outstanding, full of interest, and the use of slits, like the Apocalypse, created incredibly characterful and spectacularly rendered figures.

However of all the tapestries on display, the one that I loved the most was the Falcon’s Bath woven around the same time. It was much more naive and simplistic, but in that lay its perfection.

The weaving was incredibly neat creating a crisp surface, beautifully preserved. The background was filled with stylistic flowers which all shared thin leaves creating a sense of unity – I am not a huge fan of millefleur tapestries, but felt this worked.

In amongst the flowers were beautifully woven small birds. The human figures were also created wonderfully, contoured wefts and slits were used so simply, but the result full of charm.

The Falcon’s Bath tapestry was also fascinating because after viewing it one could step into sun filled cloisters, the gardens full of the same flowers and the same birds, which no doubt inspired it.

I had planned to spend a second day at Cloisters, but made an off the cuff decision to go to Church first. The recently conserved 17th century Barberini tapestries which were damaged in a fire and which were re-hung in the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, had been in the news recently.

They were too late for my project so I hadn’t intended to include them in my itinerary, but I was interested in their being hung traditionally, as a set, rather than high up and separately like in a museum. I wanted to see a group of tapestries in their ecclesiastical context; I hadn’t, as hoped, managed it in France.

A fragment of one of the tapestries destroyed by the fire

I had expected this to be a flying visit on the way to Cloisters but it became apparent that the laboratories in which they had been conserved was on site and very kindly the conservators allowed me to visit and showed me the tapestries themselves, although it was all unplanned.

It was fascinating to see the workshop, and wonderful to talk with folk who were as passionate about tapestry as I was. They have worked for years over these tapestries, bringing them back to life.

The tapestries themselves were on the cusp of the naive and painterly tradition, and in particular I loved the map of the holy land as it reminded me of the Sheldon tapestries woven in the Midlands.

Also hanging in the nave were four Mortlake tapestries based on Raphael’s cartoons for the Acts of the Apostle now in the V&A. Go team UK!

I had wanted to visit the Jane Kahan gallery as they had a great collection of mid-century tapestries, but alas all my emails in the run up to the project went unanswered. The next day I girded by bobbins and decided to just turn up anyway. The staff were lovely and although there weren’t too many tapestries on show, there was a Chagall woven by Yvette Cauquil-Prince.

It was the most spectacular weaving I have seen during the entirety of this project. If I could have one tapestry, this would be it, even more so than the Apocalypse. I suspect I am a few million short. Cauquil-Prince used every technique in the arsenal of the weaver; it seemed so expressive, so easy, so free of the restrictions of the loom. Yes it was a Chagall, but it was also a tapestry in its own right, it was a big lesson in how tapestries interpret a work instead of just reproducing it.

The Met museum proper was nearby. Again many tapestries were on display; my favourite was from the Courtiers in the Rose Garden series. Beautifully created figures, with lovely costumes woven just using hatchure stood before a striped background and roses. I loved the background, as I had with the bear tapestries in the Louvre, it seemed to give instant vitality to the design. I also loved how the formality of the hatchure and stripes contrasted with the more free-flowing and stylistic roses.

I had a whizz round the museum itself, it was a strange experience turning a corner and always seeing something that was already so familiar, whether it was a Van Goh self-portrait or the Nimrud Ivories. There was much inspiration there that will keep me going for a few years!

However I was at the Met to visit the Antonio Ratti Textile Centre. Very kindly I was invited before my arrival to choose some tapestries that were not normally on display to view. I selected pieces that would be of a size to be practical and would give me access to work of a type that I had not seen before. Alas the Crucixion was not available, sad as it was one of the earliest in the collection (around 1325-1350) and I had been particularly keen to see it. Nonetheless I was able to see the Madonna and the Eight Saints, sixteenth century so much later, but clearly related to an earlier tradition. The level of access was fantastic – I even got to see the back.

This was another tapestry with the faces left blank, this time they were embroidered rather than painted. Interestingly there was very little hatchure, but there was some double interlocking. The colours and preservation were spectacular.

One of the conservators popped in to see if I would like to see a tapestry they had in the laboratory. When she mentioned it was the Crucifixion, I had to stop myself doing a little tapestry dance. It was spectacular to see, I couldn’t take photographs as it was being worked on, but what a privilege! (the one below is from their website) .

I already had an appointment the following day at the Met’s Textiles Conservation Laboratory, but they asked if I would like to join them in the morning for a talk being given by another visitor, it was great to be able to join the conservators and to be made so welcome – I felt I was amongst my tribe! Over coffee and the most fabulous cake ever, we listened to attempts being made to safeguard traditional Japanese dyeing techniques. I was then given a tour of the laboratory, which included a demonstration of how the latest digital photography techniques are being used to better understand how weavers of the past made tapestries. I cannot wait to see how this develops further. I also got to see a gigantic door curtain from an inner chamber of the Kaaba at Mecca and more Mortlake tapestries.

The following day I was scheduled to meet with Simona Blau of Vojtech Blau gallery. I arrived slightly late having discovered my bank cards weren’t working, and had to contact the bank whilst simultaneously trying to figure out how I was going to walk back into Manhattan and live under a bridge in Central Park for the rest of my life as the two dollars cash I had was going to have to last me for ever and ever. I was very sad that I was never going to get to see Yorkshire again. It all worked out in the end, and Simona was very understanding following my slightly flustered arrival! It was interesting to see her tapestries in a domestic setting, showing how relevant they still are to modern interiors.

I learned a great deal with Simona, and learned of more artists that I had not come across before. The tapestries too were spectacular, especially one designed by Lee Krasner and again woven by Yvette Cauqill-Prince, and with the same energy and vitality as the Chagall (detail below). Interestingly it was woven with the warp running top to bottom.

In the afternoon I had an appointment at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, a branch of the Smithsonian Institute. One of the conservators at the Met had told me about a thirteenth century tapestry they had in their collection. It is normally stored off site but fortunately it was at the museum’s labs and I was granted access. It was only a fragment, but something I had not come across before, having been woven in Moorish-Spain. It was woven in silk and gold and incredibly fine. There were lots of slit weaving and plenty of eccentric wefts. It is known informally as the Beautiful Ladies and it is clear to see why.

The following day was a big highlight for me, meeting with artist Erin Riley in Brooklyn. She is someone who has almost single-handed brought tapestry to a new generation, her subject matter making the medium relevant, whilst at the same time providing a fascinating juxtaposition with the tradition of the form. She also engages brilliantly with folk through social media such as Instagram and I felt I knew her studio already, it was strange being on the other side of the iPad screen.

It is easy to think one knows her work through her online presence, but in the flesh her tapestries popped from the wall with lovely colours and interesting surfaces, and beautifully woven. She was flipping lovely to boot! It was interesting to hear her talk of her tapestries in the same context as the Unicorn Hunt, that they shared the same subject matter, those five hundred years ago disguised by metaphor, hers more explicit. It provided a wonderful bookend to a great trip.

It was my last full day in New York, so I played hooky in the afternoon. I felt I hadn’t seen New York, I had been flitting from one meeting to another, and had spent so much of it underground on the subway. It seemed rather ridiculous to have come all that way and not get a feel for it!. From Brooklyn I headed to the Staten Island ferry and did the statue thang, and I strolled around the south of the city, including the tourist coated Charging Bull and Fearless Girl (it is in there, honest) and I also a nipped to the 9/11 memorial, a rather uncomfortable experience, seeing folk sitting on the names, taking pouty selfies.

Also at various points in the week I was able to dart into the Museum of Modern Art and into the Museum of American Folk Art and in the latter saw a great exhibition of Carlo Zinelli. I think I am allowed to be knackered, aren’t I?

Well no, is the answer, I am heading to London tomorrow for the Heritage Craft Association’s Texture of Craft conference on Saturday, sadly I had to bow out of the launch of the Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts at the House of Lords but it would have been the death of me. I also need to start weaving like a demon to get ready for the Saltaire Arts Trail at the end of the month. And there’s the WCMT report to write. I also need to start planning the next leg……..

Flip, better get on with it! x

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