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
Bulgaria has been a gigantic sledge hammer. It has swung fast towards my temple and knocked some sense into the grey cells behind it and pushed out all the blocks and doubts that have been clogging and festering for some time. I do have to add that my gratefulness towards Bulgaria is slightly dimmed by my slicing off the top of a finger making a Shopska salad yesterday, but, in time, I will forgive.
So what happened? I had an actually full blown epiphany. With a choir and trumpets, clouds parting and I’ll be damned if there weren’t angels too. I talk myself out of the things I want to do. I tell myself things won’t work or they’ll be stupid or pointless or rubbish before I even get to the loom. I tell myself I have to be an artist, despite, well, not being an artist. That until I know who I am as an artist I am never going to be the tapestry weaver I want to be. My Churchill Fellowship has given me the technical skills, but I need that artistic vision to put them to use.
I’ve made pieces like Maides Coign, Delia Jo and No Longer Mourn (above) that I am really proud of, but I needed to move forward and make full use of my Fellowship. I knew for one reason or the other, my Fellowship would change me as an artist and I would be leaving that work behind. It has just taken time to figure out how that change was to manifest itself. I had hoped the breathing space between events would lend some time to experiment, but I was not happy with what I was doing. They were not true to myself, they were derivative, they weren’t from within. I could not see how I could use them to tell the stories I wanted to tell.
The past has been an integral part of who I am since I was a teenager, it led to my career as an archaeologist. It is why as a weaver I am looking to the lands of my medieval predecessors to fully understand what tapestry as a medium could do. That I was denying myself what I really wanted to do became apparent when I was so blown away by the medieval wall paintings at Pickering. And I have tried, unsuccessfully to work out why they affected me so and to reflect that in my work since. The medieval tapestries I have studied I looked to as technical inspiration rather than an artistic one because, after all, what is the point in recreating something that has already been done, what is the point in pastiche?
But seeing all those medieval frescoes in Bulgaria has forced me to admit to myself that – somehow – this is where I am rooted as an artist, even if I don’t fully understand it. If I wanted to be true to myself, if I wanted to see who I truly was as an individual, then I had to be honest with myself for the first time and say, pastiche aside, this medieval imagery was my happy place and I needed to go back to it, and I needed to just weave for the hell of it, and not talk myself out of it before I even began.
I have been collecting online images, and of course I have an extensive resource now thanks to my Fellowship. I picked a face from a German tapestry I am hoping to see on the next leg of my research and I drew up a cartoon inspired by it and I just wove. It was an exercise in being a weaver instead of being an artist. And bugger me if I did not see straight away the way forward for me. I saw for the first time, how to use medieval imagery as an inspiration without it being just a recreation. I could use it as a vocabulary as it were, to tell the stories I want to tell. I also realised that it was the twee-ness and passivity that I was reacting against and that was something I could easily address.
I know the resulting tapestry is only a face, but to me it is not. It is a way forward, because I can see the rest of her in my head. I can see and sketch the dozen or so tapestries that are now stonkingly clear. I hope this will become ore apparent as I start moving away from samples.
I have always hankered after finding a way to be expressive in tapestry, perhaps because as such a rigid medium, that is the challenge and one managed by so very few. I gave up trying to find that expressiveness, I surrendered myself to the weft and the warp, I accepted that there were limitations and yet in that I found the most striking sense of freedom. I accepted tapestry for what it was, and this of course, was one of the fundamental aspects that led me on my Fellowship – I finally, absolutely, truly, got what tapestry was, to me at least. I understood it as a medium, what it could truly do. Interestingly this was no surprise to the textile artist Hannah Lamb who noted over on Instagram that among her students it was often those who needed structure to tame their creativity that leaned towards weaving rather than those who were inherently neat and regimented.
By resorting to the formal, the thing I had rejected from the get-go, I have in fact found my liberation. The huge, ginormous, momentous irony for me is that once I stopped trying to be an artist, I suddenly became far more confident than I have ever been as an artist. I know exactly who I am, I know exactly what I want to say, I know exactly where I am heading, I know exactly what I want to do and I know exactly what I have to do to get there. I have a straight back. I am content. And of course it all makes full and proper use of my Fellowship – everything comes together.
This sample is getting her first outing at the Ilkley Arts Trail. Over sixty artists will be exhibiting work across the town. I am in the old Manor House, a beautiful sixteenth century building. There are six of us in there and alas there was not as much room as hoped, a bit of a problem when one aims to work at a mural scale! One of my fellow artists, Ben Snowden, very kindly gave up some of his limited space and I am exceedingly grateful. And I was rather heartened too that my new girl had an offer made when she was only up for a few a seconds! Alas I need to hold on to her for a little while as a reference piece and cus, well, I just goddamn love her too much!
We open tomorrow and are open right through to Sunday. There’s a great programme you can download from Ilkley Arts website and see what is going on and where. I do hope to see you if you can make it.
I was all set to run off to Germany as soon as it is over, but in truth I have been struggling somewhat after coming back from Bulgaria energy-wise and it seems to make sense to delay the next leg of my Fellowship until early in the new year and I can do it justice. The folks at the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust have been staggeringly understanding and I am very grateful to them.
Early start over to Ilkley tomorrow so I had better go hit the sack. Ttfn my lovelies x
A few weeks ago a vacancy on an EU funded trip to the Devetaki Plateau to study traditional craft skills emerged before my awakening eyes. I leapt from the Ipad and my bed and straight onto the laptop. My WCMT Fellowship has taught me, a girl who nearly had a panic attack at the prospect of going to an unfamiliar coastal town last year, that I am far more capable of things than ever I thought, that travel and new horizons are essential to my practice and that I should grab every opportunity that comes my way.
It is not very often that I have a few weeks clear of commitments but I had an unusual gap in the diary which I had earmarked for some experimental work. But as someone who has a particular interest in the safeguarding and promotion of heritage crafts, seeing the celebration of traditional skills in a rural Bulgarian community where such skills are still intrinsically valued was not something to be missed. I also had a very personal reason for wanting to go. In my quest to better understand tapestry as a medieval art form, I have recently been exploring, both on and off the loom, medieval frescoes, especially Byzantine work, as another contemporaneous large-scale mural art form. Out in Bulgaria I knew there was a glimmer of hope I might, just might, get a chance to see some first-hand. Medieval frescoes of course were not the purpose of the wider project, the itinerary was clearly laid out taking in craft festivals and relevant museums. But I had a sneaking suspicion that out there I had better chance of clapping my eyes on Byzantine frescoes and those influenced by them, rather than in the industrial north of the UK. The trip seemed a perfect compliment to my Fellowship, it would mean I lost a couple of weeks in planning the next leg, but it seemed a worthwhile sacrifice. I was quite shocked and very thrilled when I got an email the next day saying my flights were being booked. And what luxury, no organisation to do myself, no travel arrangements, no itinerary to put together, no meetings to set up or accommodation to find, or documentation to produce. All I had to do was get myself to the airport.
Our first full day was spent in the capital, Sofia. This involved exploring the Roman city of Serdica, their ruins had been wonderfully incorporated into public spaces and buildings. Our first stop, however was the Rotunda of St George a Roman temple enveloped by a modern hotel and long ago converted into an Orthodox church. It was a Sunday so a mass was under way. No photographs were allowed, at least not without a fee. It was mesmerizing introduction to Bulgaria, the chanting, the intimacy of the mass, and yes, amazing ancient frescoes coating every surface of the tiny building.
We also visited the Church of Saint Sofia and its Roman necropolis and then onto the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The latter I had dismissed, it was relatively modern so of little personal interest to me. But nothing could prepare me for its size, its richness and of course the awe inspiring frescoes, very arts and crafts inspired. These frescoes very much marked the space as ‘other’, as something sacred, as something expressive (have a google for the interior).
Our final stop in the city was the Ethnographic exhibition where there was a wonderful display of traditional textiles and costumes. There I met a lovely tapestry weaver, Lydia Raeva who very kindly shared some images of her work. She used an amazing beater (sorry for the quality of the pic), made of iron, at least a hundred years old and passed to her by her teacher. At half a kilo, it was a wonderful weight. Stupidly I did not realise Bulgaria had a tradition of kilim making akin to that of nearby Anatolia. There was mid-nineteenth century example on display and Lydia was working on a piece inspired by such motifs for demonstration purposes.
We then hit the mountain coated roads to Gabrovo and the next day kicked off with a quick visit to a small monastery, Sokolski. Again coated in frescoes. It does not take long for them to get blacked over thanks to the candles and oils within the church and conservation work to remove such coatings have to be undertaken quite frequently.
Our main destination was Etar Open Air Museum of Traditional Crafts. It largely consisted of a recreated street, some of the buildings relocated from elsewhere, and each top and bottom floor houseing a traditional crafts person. These included wood turners, cow bell makers, potters, black smith, copper smith, icon painters, leather workers, wood cutters, and weavers and many more. Most pay rent and sell wares some, such as the the cow bell maker – and weirdly – the weaver, are sponsored as their crafts are so endangered. One weaver told me there are only 15 left, a figure I am struggling to believe and cannot be sure it is a translation issue as it just seems astounding. There are demonstrations at every corner and exhibitions too, including an International Craft Fair. One of the participants was a fourth generation potter with quite possibly the fifth generation either side of her. Bulgaria of course is signed up to UNESCO’s Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage, a stance demonstrating its commitment to safeguarding its heritage such as craft skills. The UK is one of the few who hasn’t.
Finally we headed to Gabrovo’s Museum of Humour. The town has a reputation of being misers, the Gabrovo Cat being one with its tail cut off so it does not take as long to get through an open door and thus let the heat out longer than necessary. The museum took self-deprecation to a new level, but also included a series of Adam and Eve inspired cartoon like tapestries and a large exhibition on nineteenth century frescoes. Of course I had long ago given up laughing at myself and my secret hope of sneaking in a look at a fresco, day two and already I had seen more than I could ever have hoped for.
The next day we started towards the Devtaki Plateau, stopping on the way at the medieval town and ancient capital of Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo. This was a change to the planned itinerary, one of the folklore festivals we had intended to visit having been rescheduled. The modern town was covered in public art and there was a street dedicated to craftsworkers. But a late night google had revealed a plethora of ancient churches in the area, one in particular within walking distance of the town. So while my fellow travellers headed for the ruins of the ancient fortress, I headed down the hill to the small church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
I was a bit peeved at the no photographs rule within churches. But the form of worship was very intimate, it seemed to focus on on personal interaction with icons rather than masses being done to a congregation at a set time, and I could appreciate that having tourists snapping away would be incredibly intrusive. But at the medieval church for a fee photographs were allowed and I had the whole place to myself. It was entirely awe inspiring, just as it was intended to be. There were three layers of frescoes. In the UK these would have been protected with plastic coverings, we would have been kept at a distance, but I was left entirely to my own devices, just me and the frescoes. I could not believe it.
Inside the church most frescoes dated to the early fifteenth century with a few dating to the thirteenth. More frescoes in an outer gallery dated to the sixteenth. It was engrossing to see in paint the very same images, motifs and details I had seen woven in wool and silk and precious materials during the course of my Fellowship. It was interesting to see actual textiles too, albeit painted, at the bottom of the paintings. I can’t wait to think all this through properly.
But it was, too soon, time to leave one paradise for another, namely The Herbal House in Gorsko Slivovo village. A huge gate from the road opened onto a magical garden and a beautiful guesthouse, freshly baked bread waiting for us on the kitchen table. Our hosts lived across the road and brought us our meals which were, quite frankly spectacular. I have never in my life eaten so well. In fact everything we ate in Bulgaria tasted differently, better, flavoursome, it made me realise how literally tasteless our food has become. Most households in the villages seemed largely self-sufficient and it showed in the sheer quality.
After a breakfast of a jam so sweet it was like the neighbour’s honey and doughnut like bread we headed to the spectacular Devetashka Cave and the Krushuna waterfalls. It was a great chance to see the impact the Devetaki Plateau Association, from which our week’s guide hailed had had on the region. Over the last few years they have branded together nine or so villages, offered training to guesthouse owners, promoted tourist attractions, organised first response, established wifi and organised festivals and much more and all seemingly with little central support. It was interesting waking one morning to read an article from the Beeb posted that day about the crumbling population in the villages of Bulgaria such as the one I was staying it. Every other house was abandoned, our hosts were the youngest we had seen. Its wide street was deserted apart from A4 sheets on every lamppost and doorway commemorating the dead like lost cat posters back home. I will confess it did seem that this small fight by the association against what seems an overwhelming tide, has a sense of inevitability about it, especially without political support which is clearly so lacking.
After the cave we stopped at the village’s cultural centre and its small museum. Once every house would have a loom, although wooden reeds seems to be all that remains of them now.
Apart from being amazing cooks, our hosts were also craftsfolk too. In the afternoon we had a demonstration in wire wrap jewellery. Most of my friends are jewellery makers but it is not something I have ever done myself and it is all a bit of a mystery so it was good to have a bit of insight now. It is fair to say we were all utterly gutted to leave The Herbal House.
En route we stopped off at a retirement club in Kramolin village in the corner of which were more textile implements on display including shuttles, swift, reeds and combs. This can’t have been for the benefit of the tourists, it was just evidence of the respect traditional crafts were held on a day-to-day basis. Some original costumes were on display, as they had been in just about every museum we visited and our guide and others we spoke to also had costumes in their wardrobe and they were used.
We had a picnic lunch in the ruins of a Byzantine town, Hotalich. Not all of it is excavated, but the houses we saw had belong to craftsmen, pottery still left in the kiln, suggesting its occupants had to flee. We had earlier that day seen some of the artefacts excavated from the site in the museum at nearby Sevlievo and which included loom weights.
By afternoon we had reached the the Guest House Eco Art in Drashkova Polyana. Here we were invited to take part in a ceramics workshop, and striclty between you and me it only took one series of the Great pottery Thrown Down for me to want to unceremoniously ditch my looms for a kiln, so a chance to have a go was something I was looking forward to hugely but I found myself suddenly empty of all energy and with heaps of regret I had to retreat to my room and rest. However I did get to see the work of my fellow travellers. Perhaps it was the work of the Loom Gods at play, realising how fickle I am and preventing me from getting my hands on some clay.
The following day we headed for Troyan Monastery, one of the largest in Bulgaria. A mass was underway to we couldn’t get in, but it was clear the extent of damage the frescoes suffer, half of them were almost completely blacked over, the other half were being cleaned. They were mid-nineteenth century and made by one of the most celebrated icon painters of the day. On a tanoy the priest sung the mass. He seemed to have a cold and every now and then a cough boomed out, but even that did not lessen the magic of it all.
Our next stop was the National Museum of Craft in Troyan. It was understandably focused on the ceramics on which the town is famous but there was also much to see in the way of textiles. Interestingly some of the decorations on the posts were inspired by the monastic paintings. The textiles included traditional costumes and rugs – woven as well as hand-tufted, and an exhibition on felted carpets.
We stopped briefly at a Roman fort on the way back to Sofia and the airport. All of us incredibly sad to be leaving and vowing to return.We all came to Bulgaria with our own interests and aims and inevitably I ended up focusing on the textiles, but to be honest it was all around me, all the time, it was impossible not to. I arrived home exhausted, overwhelmed, at 4.30am on Saturday morning and it has taken until now to write this post. There is so much for me to digest and already it is making me rethink the directions I am heading in and of course I’ll share all this as it happens. And I for one will never forget the quiet, the calm, the beauty, the history, the weather, the landscape, the goddamn food, the traditions and the friendliness. This project was part of PRIDE: Partnership for Rural Improvement & Development in Europe. One cannot help but feel devastated that we as a country are turning our back on Europe, and inevitably they are turning theirs on us. How ridiculous we are. This trip has had a huge effect on me and I know it did on the others too, quite significantly in fact, and in different far more profound and personal ways as well as professional. How tragic that such an amazing opportunity as this may now very likely be denied to others in a couple of years.
It has been a tremendously fruitful time not having any events since the Saltaire Arts Trail, it has given me the space to experiment and try to consolidate my ideas and at the same time make new pieces for Art in the Pen in a couple of weeks, and to try to deal with all the things I have seen on my Fellowship so far.
The first thing I did was to decide not to try to squeeze in a new large piece for Art in the Pen. It was a tough decision, but I would have lost months to making something for the sake of it, and I knew what I needed to do was samples, samples, samples. I re-wove some of the tapestries that sold at the Saltaire Arts Trail. I wanted to make sure they weren’t a fluke. It was an interesting experience weaving on a cartoon I had already woven, but it meant I could change a few things I wasn’t happy with. My experience at the Arts Trail confirmed the sort of tapestries I want to make, and key to that is being able to weave figures and so I decided to try to push these face samples further.
When the time came to push them further and scale them up, I found myself hesitating, not trusting the designs enough to spend precious warp on either of my main looms, but my simple frame loom was too small to scale things up. There was an issue too with my ceiling falling down but the loom in the living room escaped by an inch.
I ended up with a sudden notion to make my own frame loom, it would cause much less loom waste and thus easier to justify trialling larger pieces. Perhaps a little crazy considering I never used a drill before and the use of anything with a sharp edge usually results in a visit to A&E. Nonetheless I girded my bobbins and headed down the canal tow-path to the local DIY shop. I brought two lengths of rough wood and chopped one in half to make the sides and cut from another length two pieces for the top and bottom. I joined the pieces using brackets although I do now have an urge to drill holes in everything. I added a paper ruler to the bottom and top and added a heddle bar hanging from clamps. I hitched the first set of leashes on and they were a pain in the a**e, whenever I wanted to move the heddle bar they got stuck and had to be guided up the warp one by one. I reverted to split rings the second time and they were a marvel. It took some time to find the right position to sit at the loom, but by the second warp I had got it down pat, and it is risking becoming my favourite loom and not least because I can get the tension just how I like it, rather than being at the mercy of the position of the teeth on the more complicated looms.
The first piece I made was a bit of a chore, partly because of the leashes and the uncomfortableness of the level of the fell and my seat.
During all this time I had been living off diplofenac, codeine, cold tea and multiple tips to my fabulous dentist for an abscess that was not there and it looks like I may or may not have damaged a nerve into my face instead. The truth is I have been doubled up with the pain, suspecting at one point my eye was going to come out. Just imagine having every tooth on one side of your gob being drilled at the same time without anaesthetic and you’ll be pretty much there. Quite pee’d off that this was going to be a long game rather than solved with the whipping out of a tooth, I drew something a little darker, loved it and got it onto the DIY loom. This has taken a good few days to weave too, but it has been an utter delight, working well past midnight and not minding it a jot. I do feel this is much more me, darker and less twee and harks back to the blending techniques that I used in No Longer Mourn, but with some of the things I have learned during the preceding samples thrown in.
I am having to abandon the loom for a couple of weeks to do all the practical things necessary to get ready for Art in the Pen. It takes place in Skipton on the 12th and 13th of August and is now easily one of the largest art events of the north with just shy of a couple of hundred selected artists exhibiting under one roof. The cattle stalls of the auction market are given over to the artists to turn into micro galleries. It is in no way a stuck-up event, there is absolutely no pressure to buy , so it makes a great and very different day out, so do come along.
I am also very pleased to say one of my tapestries got selected for for the Bradford Open 2017 at the Cartwright Hall Art Gallery. It runs until November 12th and is a great opportunity to see the new Hockney Gallery there that has just opened. Anyway, hope to see you in Skipton, do come say hello! x
Since getting back from New York things have been pretty manic and I am only now managing to grab some time with you, so I am sorry this is a bit of a round-up post.
I was, alas, too jet-lagged and exhausted to make it to the Heritage Craft Association’s launch of the Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts at the House of Lords. The HCA has been undertaking magnificent research identifying UK crafts most at risk. The resulting database is an amazing resource and overview; I do encourage you to have a look. I’m terribly honoured to be one of their trustees, but have been too wrapped up with Winston Churchill to get involved myself, but did witness the amazing hard work and dedication that went into the project and the launch. For such a small organisation I am incessantly in awe of all they do.
A few days later was the HCA’s conference in London, I went down the day before and meant to visit the Dovecot’s new tapestry at the National Gallery but in the end got to the hotel and slept – the bed was rather good! There was an amazing line up the next day including the key note speaker, Kaffee Fassett, a man who can find the most amazing palettes everywhere as his colourful slides showed (below). I first went to one of his talks twenty or so years ago, so it was wonderful to hear him again.
All the talkers were exemplary, and I learned heaps. Of particular note was the Queen’s wheelwright, Greg Rowland talking about some of the challenges craft practitioners face taking on an apprentice. It was incredibly interesting – and yes, moving – to see their relationship develop and someone bloom into a young man and spectacular craftsman in their own right. Lisa Hammond’s apprentice and Instagram super star Florian Gadsby gave a fascinating talk on the importance of social media to practitioners, and especially Instagram, a platform perfect for crafts folk. He stressed the importance of not just sticking up a picture and fleeing, but rather to take time to explore and share one’s thoughts and processes regarding one’s work. I have been inspired to try to do the same, posting daily and being more explicit in what I am doing and why. If you follow me on Facebook, I am sorry for the relative silence of late, but this is where you can find me. I floundered during a week of meltdown (see below) but have found the experience very useful and rewarding.
I also headed up to Blackburn in Lancashire. A manufacturer of rug making looms (Cobble van de Wiele) is interested in using some of my designs to make some show-pieces to demonstrate the versatility of their looms. I was invited up to the factory to discuss it and see what the looms can do. If you are a regular reader you will know I am a bit of a tapestry purist, but it was clear that the resulting textiles would be entirely different to my hand woven tapestries, something in their own right, rather than a cheap knock-off, and actually it is going to be incredibly exciting to see how my techniques might get translated by the looms. They were things of absolute beauty, the mechanism was like a ballet of needles and thread. I love the idea of the mixing of the modern and ancient techniques. My grandfather was an engineer and I couldn’t help thinking how much he would have loved it. Anyway, fingers crossed we can make it work!
I also headed up to the Platform Gallery in Clitheroe with my long suffering friend who mistakenly once offered to help move some tapestries around and has been paying for it ever since. I needed to pick up some pieces that were on display during their Craft Open exhibition, it was also a great chance to see again the space I’ll need to fill for my exhibition running alongside the Craft Open next year. Eeeeeeven better it was a chance to spend my voucher which I won as part of the Selectors Prize. I treated myself to a pair of ge-orgeous earrings by Kate Rhodes. I am swinging my hair about quite a bit now to show them off. I love the colours and shapes. I don’t usually wear jewellery, so it is quite nice to feel like a girl after all! I did try to take my own picture, but it is very hard to take a selfie of one’s ear!
Of course in amongst all this I had to get ready for the Saltaire Arts Trail. I love this event, I’ve grown up with it as an artist, and it is such a great privilege to chat to visitors. If you haven’t been, houses and other venues across the World Heritage Site are opened as mini galleries, there’s also a makers fair, events and exhibitions and workshops. I have been very lucky to have been selected to do it pretty regularly, but a big part of that is having new work to show, a big ask when it takes months to make a tapestry.
Whilst I hadn’t shown Delia Jo before, I knew I had make new work. I was also conscious that I needed to find a way to digest all I had seen in New York. I have written up my notes and I’ve been sorting through the photographs but I also needed to interpret it all on the loom. I don’t like weaving small, but there was no time to do anything else. One answer was to start working on some samples for a larger piece. Obviously an overriding element of medieval tapestries is their narrative nature, and this is something I have been keen to explore and not least because thanks to my Fellowship I am much more confident that I can weave whatever I choose to draw.
I decided to kick off with some faces, my theory being if I can manage those then anything was possible. I still wanted to keep an element of the techniques I’ve been developing in my previous work, and there was as much unweaving as weaving to try to make it work, but I did feel much more liberated and unshackled at the loom. I suppose a big part of that was being more relaxed when it came to working with the original design, being more disposed to interpret it as I saw fit, rather than just copying it. Before I would have to weave big to capture every nuance of the original, but now I should be able to get full figures on the larger loom.
I couldn’t just stick a small tapestry on the wall, for me tapestries are mural. I thought if I put them in a frame I wouldn’t be pretending they were anything other than samples. However by this time, a week to go, I had also decided that the samples were rubbish, and I was rubbish, and tapestry was stupid and I was wasting my life (it was a bad weekend). I was making the frames myself and managed to successful muck up totally the sawing of the wood. Without the frames I couldn’t show them. I would be saved the ridicule.
I spend most of the week with my head in the sand, the Arts Trail looming. I suppose part of me was reliant on the thought that panic would be the mother of invention. The only other answer I could come up with was a new pair of jeggings. I was walking back from my shopping expedition when I bumped into another artist in the village and berated them for being so organised in the run up to the trail. They promptly offered me some spare frames they were in two minds about using and which might do. SAVED – they were perfect!!!!! I didn’t have time to do the backs of the frames so wouldn’t be able to sell them, but at least I wouldn’t have an empty wall. Now I wasn’t feeling so sorry for myself I also realised I had some smaller archaeology-inspired pieces that I hadn’t shown before, and I could also throw in No Longer Mourn in the hope no one would remember it from last year.
I was in a lovely house, beautiful, large and high dark walls, perfect for my work – I was incredibly lucky! It was the home of Jolly Bean Roastery and I was showing with an artist I already knew through a mutual friend, the wonderful print maker Cath Brooke. I began to think that I shouldn’t show the two faces after all, thinking perhaps they were too rubbish, but there were a couple of spaces that needed filling.
Although both were labelled NFS, they did gather quite a bit of attention, and requests were made, despite the framing, to buy them. They were both sold before the morning of the first day was out. They remained on show though and continued to generate interest and comment, and it became clear that I needed to get over myself and that the way forward for me was glaringly obvious.
The Arts Trail is fabulous for connecting with fellow artists. I don’t usually get out to see other work as one feels one ought to be with one’s own work, but this year I was determined to see the other venues. Of particular note was Hannah Robson who weaves with metals to create spectacular sculptural pieces, I loved the juxtaposition of the more formal woven elements with the more open areas. One of my favourite artists is Paula Dunn (and frame offering hero), who has been working in cold wax and it was great to see her eye for spectacular landscapes translated this way. Ian Burdall creates very evocative maritime paintings and is again defo worth a gander. Textile artists Claire Wellesley-Smith and Hannah Lamb followed up their work last year, Lasting Impressions, by using weaving to archive some of the findings. It was great to see a row of beautiful Harris Looms in the spinning room at the top of Salts Mill and to see folk weaving on them. The results looked lovely. Such a great idea.
I am determined to have the weekend off (blog posting and the reading of some meeting papers excepted). I knew if I don’t fill it with something I’d just end up weaving so last night blew the dust off my needle case and transferred one of the tapestry designs I’ve been working on this week onto some cloth.
One thing I did do in that week before the Arts Trail was to set up a workbench just for sketching – why I never did that before is a mystery, but it is making a big difference having a dedicated space with everything I need at hand. It is good having this space away from the looms too, gives me space to think just on the sketching and not the weaving.
Art in the Pen in Skipton in August is the next event, I am working on designs for that and am very excited by the possibilities. I could do with an extra month though! I also need to get my Fellowship trips to Germany and Switzerland organised. But for now, needle and thread in the sunny yarden is calling. Ttfn xxx
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?
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.
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……..
In truth my return has been a bit bumpy. I was so chuffed with how well I had managed while I was away, it was a bit of a shock to find myself so tired I could hardly function at all, and it has taken a good fortnight to start punching my way through. It has been incredibly frustrating.
I was also welcomed home by a laptop that wouldn’t work – a cracked motherboard, apparently. I tried to tell myself I would manage with just an iPad but it soon became clear that was nonsense. I am going to unashamedly do a shout out for the extremely lovely and talented jeweller Catherine Woodall, who had a laptop she wasn’t using, and has quite frankly got me out of a massive hole. It was quite a thing to realise that when such things happen, one is not alone.
All this does not mean I have done nothing, although *ahem* I am yet to fully unpack. When I started my PhD someone told me to start writing it from the get-go rather than waiting to the end, some of the best advice I ever received, and I have done the same here and have written up my notes, slowly building up my report. I’ve also started sorting through my images, no mean feat as there are thousands of them.
As for weaving, it had been my intention to take my time. I was only half way through my Fellowship after all, there was lots more to see. But by the time the first week was out I was working on a cartoon for a new full-sized tapestry, which I am hoping may be ready for the Saltaire Arts Trail in May, but certainly for Art in the Pen in August.
I’ve also started on some technical studies, like piano scales, experimenting with the techniques I have seen (above). This has included a finer sett and using some dovetailing and cut backs, and weaving over a single warp, which had always turned out rather pants before. The key was to hold back, stop with the gimmicks and just let the warp and weft do their job. Ironically the result has been far more control, something I always lacked before, and I do feel the world is now my weaving and drawing oyster. I might now be able to weave what I draw, instead of drawing what I can weave. This is a massive step and the implications are vast and very, very exciting. This is a very different style of weaving for me, but I love it, and I never saw it coming. It has been interesting to compare this piece with the failure I did after seeing the medieval wall paintings at Pickering – they go to show how much this Fellowship has already pushed me and the importance of seeing the tapestries in the flesh.
I had hoped to go back to Europe before I head off to New York at the end of the month, but my brain has been cheese and I haven’t trusted myself to put it together, but plans for New York are well under way and the Met museum have been fabulous and I cannot wait.
I am going to make myself some very strong coffee and attempt to catch up with my inbox, but hope to spend some time this afternoon with my sketchbook and some pie. Ttfn xxx
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.