Churchill Fellowship 7 – Switzerland

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.

Love Garden with Tent woven c1490

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.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Churchill Fellowship 6 – Nuremburg and Munich

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.

Wild folk feasting and storming the castle of love, c1420, Strassburg
part of a funeral tapestry showing the last judgement woven around 1450 in Nuremberg

 

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.

Detail from the Legend of St Joseph 1450/1470 Nuremburg
Detail from Tapestry with Games of love c1400 ?Heidelberg
Detail from the Enthroned Madonna and Saints, c1440-1450 woven in Nuremburg, possibly St Catherine’s nunnery.

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 of a tapestry woven in Switzerland around 1380
Detail of a tapestry if two saints woven around 1460 in Franken. Note the embroidered face and blood
IMG_1564
Part of the Adoration of the Magi tapestry possibly woven in Bamberg around 1490-1500 – note figure of weaver at bottom edge

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.

Churchill Fellowship 5 – Halberstadt and Quedlinburg

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.

A scene from the Abraham tapestry

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 Apostles tapestry

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.

Detail from the Charlemagne tapestry

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.

Inside the choir with the hooks for the tapestries still visible

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.

Part of the Quedlinburg carpet
Detail of Quedlinburg carpet

 

 

Some navel gazing over inspiration vs imitation

Chrissie Freeth Woven TapestryIt 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?

Chrissie Freeth Sampling Medieval Hair.PNG

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.

ETA And of course just when one finishes a post, one finds another from a highly popular and well-established craftsperson who creates new work within traditional skills, and who is able to articulate the issues so much better! http://www.robin-wood.co.uk/wood-craft-blog/2014/03/27/imitation-sincerest-form-flattery/

Big strides at the tapestry loom

It seems to me I only ever post when grounded by something, this time a chest infection and stinking cold. I don’t trust my brain enough to allow myself anywhere near the loom but today at least I am going to trust myself at the keyboard.

When last we talked I had just finished the Lamentation tapestry. In an attempt to paint my life in as rosy a glow as possible as Pinterest, Instagram et al demands, what I may have failed to mention is that it totally messed with my head.

It was a throwback, I had to produce something ASAP and I had plenty of warp sleyed at the right sett. What I really wanted to do, of course, was get on experimenting with a new weaving style inspired by my Churchill Fellowship. But the Lamentation tapestry, I liked it, I enjoyed weaving it, and it has taken me time and angst to develop my own style of weaving – was I doing the right thing turning my back on it.

Despite my doubts next due on the loom was a ‘straighter’, less painterly tapestry, and so I dressed the loom with a warp wide enough to start expanding samples beyond just the faces I had done before. The cartoon was based on an earlier piece but I doubled the weft to try to to save time. I enjoyed the process of weaving her, it was a more considered and involved process. I wanted to get at the crispness of medieval tapestry and although everything is laid bare technique-wise, and there was no where to hide, I liked having to rely on just the warp and weft, none of the gimmicks I might have pulled before. It made me feel I rather bashed out my other work, able to hide behind the randomness of it.

As she progressed I could appreciate her technically, but I started to question where I could take work like this artistically. I just couldn’t see it in other work of mine, how I could take her forward into bigger, full-sized work. I couldn’t see how to make it relevant. Ever since I started my Fellowship I have been aware of the fine line between being inspired by the medieval skills of tapestry weavers, without going all doublet and hose in the production of my own, and I think I was fearful that was where I was heading and it froze me. And whilst I was embracing the formality of this type of weaving, there was still a part of me that questioned whether I missed that expressive element I thought I had finally found.The doubled weft hadn’t worked so I knew I needed to do another sample to rectify that and as there was enough warp I started another piece. It was a chance to be sure it wasn’t working, and to try a few other things like lettering.But again, it just wasn’t doing it for me on an artistic level. I started to wonder if there was a way to amalgamate this technical progress I had made with my darker creative leanings, and that seemed to go ok at the sketchbook, but by now I was heading into a complete creative implosion. Do I keep trying to make this ‘straighter’ style work, if so, how? Or do I go back to the bigger, blended, more painterly work I was familiar with and comfortable with

Fortunately, I know some great craftspeople and artists and there’s one in particular, Liz Samways, whose judgement and honesty I trust implicitly and I was able to browbeat her into meeting with me for a few hours mentoring over lunch in Salts Mill. What a privilege it is to be able to spill one’s brains on a table and have someone help you scoop them all up again. Together we were able to unpick how I’ve got into to my mess, and we were able to map a way out. It was, of course, all rather obvious in the end, I have actually got my weaving to do what I wanted to do, I just hadn’t seen it and a lot of that was a failure in me to commit to it.

So it was snip, snip snip, off with the half-finished tapestry and a new warp was put on the loom, and a fresh mindset installed in me. Three things from our conversation in particular came to the fore as I sat at the blank pages of my sketchbook, 1) that whilst I want to weave with some expression, that was already there, just not in the way that I thought it was – it was in the figures themselves, not in the way I weave I them 2) that what I draw isn’t actually rubbish straight off the bat, it is doing what I want, if only I’d give it a chance 3) yes I have worked hard to develop a particular style, but if I am not going to be true to the findings of my research, then what was the point of doing it?A new cartoon emerged quickly, and interestingly I did it the old fashioned way, huge pieces of paper taped to the wall, and I worked with rulers and pencils, just as when I started out, rather than digitally, and it felt raw and satisfying. I began weaving a cropped area of the larger cartoon as a sample. I know it will seem to strange to anyone not intimately familiar with my brain, as they will be wondering how different this new piece really is from the tapestry I began this post with, but there has been a massive change in how I am approaching it intellectually and creatively as well as technically and I can see a future with it too, swimming with ideas, in fact.The first sample was just a sample, this new piece is the start of something. And whilst sitting in your pants on your sofa reading this the wood is clearly discernible from the trees, I assure you, when it is you all caught up in the brambles and with the wolves howling a few feet away, it is jolly difficult. Now I have committed I feel all parts of me come together, the academic, the medieval (wonderfully free of doublet and hose), the archaeologist, the artist, and the weaver, both technically and creatively – and it feels great.

I had made a good start on the tapestry when I had to go to London for the annual conference of the Heritage Crafts Association. I went down the day before to spend some quality time at the V&A and their tapestry collections on display.If I am completely honest, it proved rather emotional. I dashed into there a couple of years ago between meetings. I realised then I would never be able to call myself a weaver unless I learned more about the skills that went into those tapestries, that I would have to study tapestries first hand. Books just weren’t going to take me where I wanted to go as a weaver. It was a sad moment, because I knew I would never get to see such tapestries. I simply did not have the resources.
And yet there I was once again, having seen tapestries across Europe and the US thanks to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. I saw the tapestries again entirely differently, I was able to read them, understand them, work out the techniques at play, and learn from them, and I was able to see them in relation to my own work.I love that there is nothing in my new work that isn’t in the fifteenth century Devonshire hunting tapestries and without it being pastiche. Different wool, dyes and warp of course, and I as a weaver am still alive in my forties and have my own teeth (I would also say I was plague free, but that is a damned lie). In fact I can see that everything I have studied over the last year is in this tapestry. I love that to me it seems honest, I have finally found my peace with tapestry and with myself and that opens the door to exciting things in the future. I have grown up, I have graduated. What has certainly helped is a bit of space to experiment instead of having to make work for events without breathing. In a few weeks I’ll be on the plane to Germany and then Switzerland for the last leg of my Fellowship. Good god, I hope it doesn’t unbalance me as much as the first two legs! I suppose it will defy the purpose entirely if I go study more medieval tapestry through fingers over my eyes!

In among all this I have had the prepare the Lamentation for exhibition at the Platform Gallery in Clitheroe. I was awarded the Selector’s Prize for Innovation at last year’s Craft Open and part of the prize was to display my work this year. I took the tapestry over this week and got a sneak peak at the work destined for display and it is clear it is going to be a great exhibition. It opens on April 14 and runs til June 23. I am also pleased to say I got selected for Art in the Pen later in the year, and so this new body of work will be destined for that and I can’t wait.

I have heaps to do to get ready for Germany and Switzerland and of course this damn plague to get rid of, but I hope to get back to the new tapestry as soon as possible and finish it. It has been a couple of days now of self-imposed exile from the loom, and I can feel the ache for it in my marrow.

 

The Lamentation tapestry finished

I posted in December that I had a new full-sized tapestry under way. It was inspired by my travels and the medieval tapestries and frescos I saw depicting various Marys weeping over Christ down from the crucifixion. We the viewer are responsible for their plight, we, it seems , one way or another have his blood on our hands. I am not religious, I don’t believe in any god, I see them as very human figures. And it occurred to me one would not be caught weeping in front of the murderers of one’s loved one, but as an accuser one would look back with dignity and a spine of oak.

I was moved to do my own version, it held a personal resonance with me which I won’t bore you with again. I did struggle with the title, Two Marys, or, including myself in the mix, Three Marys. Fortunately it turned out that these depictions already had a standard title, The Lamentation of Christ, and so I think I have settled on The Lamentation for my own title, as a nod to the original source.

I got to cut it off the loom on Friday. Deadlines were approaching, ironically during a very busy week for some voluntary work I do, and so I was up to the small hours to get it done. I also needed to get it photographed, but as I am still to deal with the cut warps, weft ends, and sew up the slits as well as add a hanging mechanism, the only way I could photograph it was to keep it on the floor. I ended up on a pair of ladders with my ipad clamped to the end of a ginormous but sturdy rug shuttle and thanks to the timer was able to get a few shots. I was having flashbacks to photographing graves at a medieval abbey in the Midlands. Funny how such experiences eventually find a use . I’ve left my toes in one of them to get an idea of the scale – it is a fair size (168cm x 137cm), it is ecclesiastic in its nature and needs to be able to hold its own. It has taken three months stupid hours – excepting the glitch over Christmas – to weave this and inevitably there is a sense of loss and deflation now it is done.

Another thing I have also finished – and a big hurrah for me – are the plans for the next stage of my Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. In the Spring I’ll be heading to Halberstadt and Quedlingburg, then down to Nuremberg, also Munich and and Bamberg and then on to Basel and Bern. It took a huge amount of work and, bizarrely, nerve, but hotels and flights are now booked.

I have heaps of admin over the next couple of days, but hope I emerge from it ready to get going with the next project. I know where I am heading but haven’t let myself think about it too much until this one was done. It is hard going from knowing what one has to do every day, to entering the foggy period before the next project makes it onto the loom. I don’t know why but this work – research, sketching, designing, sampling, making cartoons – doesn’t always seem legitimate, perhaps because it is a much more organic process, it can seem less like ‘work’ than my time at the loom, although in fact, for me, it is the hardest work of the whole process.

A new tapestry and some morphine hanging from a loom – a slightly adventurous Christmas

I think I would have mentioned before that however much I enjoy doing events, I do feel I am cycling backwards in order to make work for them, especially last year when sales have been so good. The downside is I just do not have the time or space to experiment. I’ve also felt it keenly as I have had a year of exposure to such wonderful things and my mind is swimming with ideas and things I want to try. When such experiments can take months, the risks are obvious.

I don’t usually do Christmas, my family are in the Midlands and I tend to just work through. But as the holidays approached I found my productivity slowing, I am loving the tapestry I am working on but was barely weaving in a day what would normally take a few hours. I accepted a break would do me good and as the rest of the nation were sitting on the sofa in their pants, their face dropped into a tin of Quality Street I, goddamn it, would do the same. I banned myself from the workroom for two weeks. Not to step across its threshold. Oh no. Banned from the loom. I could only look upon it from the hallway, lovingly, longingly, but we were to be parted.

I ain’t got no PhD for nuffin. After a couple of days of spring cleaning and fighting through brain fog to amalgamate my to dos I suddenly realised, yes I was banned from the workroom, but I could set up a sample loom in the living room. I know, total genius. Whilst I have been comfortable in the medieval techniques I have been working on this year, high up on my list of things I wanted to do was to apply those techniques to a more modern design rather than the faux-medieval visages I had been doing. I already had a cartoon, although it had been intended for the more darker, blended style, and after an hour to rejig it I ran into the workroom for a handful of yarn and warp and set up the sample loom downstairs. It was mid-sized, and actually one I would have used as an undergraduate; I was the very happy custodian of various textile equipment from my archaeological department.

The frame was just the right size to rest against the arm of the sofa and my lap and so I worked on it horizontally. This was a new experience for me, as I usually work on a vertical warp and it took time, each warp needed to be picked out by hand, but it was enjoyable. The only issue was some abdominal pain, which I assumed was my bent over posture, William Morris’s weavers I remember reading somewhere were plagued with it. Oh how I laugh.

It is still hard to let go of the ‘fuss’ of my old style and to embrace the simpleness and crispness of this type of tapestry, but I do rather love it, and I am dying to have the time to get beyond these small samples. I am working on a design inspired by a line from my great-great-grandmother’s records from the asylum she was kept in, something she said, it is like hearing her voice, I think it is a reference to a Victorian song.

I had a few more attacks of pain under my rib cage, one on Christmas night when I was so convinced I was going to die I got dressed for the sake of the poor sod who was going to find my body once its whiff paraded down the street. I didn’t want to make a fuss this time of year, the NHS is overwhelmed afterall and booked to see my GP in January. But eventually I ended up being taken to hospital by ambulance with suspected pancreatitis or a gallstone jammed somewhere it shouldn’t be. My biggest regret is not getting a snap of the IVF and morphine drip hanging off the dismantled scaffold loom in the living room. Also, irritatingly, my ASBO neighbours were very helpful getting the ambulance and I am still not entirely sure of the etiquette – do I owe them a thank you card or can I just pretend it never happened?

It all turned out to be down to a stoopid liver condition I found out about last year. I am a bit peeved as I had no idea this was part of the deal and decidedly want my money back. But a few days in hospital and rest at home did mean I got, afterall, a break over the holidays. Except I did manage to do my tax return. What can I say, I am a bloody hero.

It did mean though I was massively behind on adminy things and once up to it I had to clear the decks of all that before I could creep back into my beloved, much missed, abandoned workroom. I know many weavers see it as a contemplative, meditative act, and yes I can find myself ‘zoning out’, but to me it is work – I do it to produce a piece of work, not for the act itself. But it has shocked me how much my loom contributes to my sense of wellness. Getting to the point where I could just sit at it and work has been like a tiny island in a vast sea. I’m there now, this blog and some planning for the next leg of my Churchill Fellowship aside, and it feels good to have my bum planted firmly in the sand under the shade of the solitary palm tree. Whether it is that meditative aspect, or the repetition, or the familiarity, or the structure, or the sense of purpose, alludes me, but I do know we are wedded now (to be clear, in a metaphorical way, not a pervy way) .

I’ve learned a lot, my friends rallied around marvelously and I now acknowledge I do need to accept help more often than I tended to do. I have also realised I have to get on and weave what I want to weave, rather than live in a panic about making things I feel have to, otherwise, really, what is the point? Life is too goddamn short.