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.

 

 

 

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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

 

 

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.

New tapestry underway – Two Marys, possibly three!

I hope you appreciate I am having to lift my fingertips from under my hot waterbottle warmed blankets to type this. As the UK welcomes(?) some early snow it seemed a good time to get comfy on the sofa and update this blog. I cannot apologise enough for yet another delay, but the truth is I have had my head down working on a brand new tapestry.

There has been an elephant in my workroom over the last year. As per my last post I feel I have made some strides and am looking forward to pushing things further, but it has been a year of samples and small tapestries, always in the shadow of my main loom and an abandoned project on it, the warp my older size and sett, so of little use in the direction I want to go. I knew I could ease it off the loom and store it but I suspected it would just get abused and unused and it seemed a bit of a waste. Fantastically my tapestry Might Have Been, on show at the Cartwright Hall Art Gallery as part of Bradford Open has sold (thank you, whoever you are, if you see this!). I had earmarked it for an exhibition I am doing early next year and needed to make a replacement piece and PDQ. I have only ever woven single figures before, but have always wanted to try to weave more; one figure is just a figure, but two is a story. Stylistically the resulting cartoon is a bit of a backward step for me, but it does enable me to use that warp and not waste it.

The narrative aspect of tapestry is what appeals to me and this got reinforced during my travels. Most medieval tapestries I saw were biblical in theme, and I came across a fair smattering of one or more Marys weeping at the crucifixion or its aftermath, and of course such images were rife in the Byzantine and more recent murals I saw in Bulgaria. I am in no way religious myself, but I felt a need to weave my own version but with a more defiant and accusatory stance, Mary the mother, and Mary Magdalene the follower or whatever she was, looking out of the tapestry at the viewer, at us the murderers. As historical figures we know so little about them, they are ephemeral, fragments, whispers, and I felt that might suit my old style of weaving, with the figures half transparent.

Biblical Marys were traditionally depicted in threes (there were loads of others in the entourage apparently) and although there was a third figure in my original drawing I decided to lop her off as the warp wouldn’t be wide enough. But I soon realised there was still a third Mary in there through me as the weaver; Mary is my middle name. Through these figures I too am looking out at the killer of my brother and whilst it always shocks me how personal my tapestries can become, I suppose if I don’t have part of me in them, there’s little point devoting the extraordinary amount of time they demand. Of course I didn’t intend for this to be yet another tapestry about that, but it has happened unconsciously. The time from the initial sketch, drawing the cartoon, colour sampling and pulling out the old tapestry on the loom couldn’t have been more than a week, so there was clearly little doubt that this was what needed to be woven.

I have just reached the half way point, pretty much working on a loom-bed-loom pattern as I did this time last year. I actually enjoy it, feeling sequestered and focused. But although I am putting ridiculous hours in I am surprised I haven’t got further, I am wondering if I am not as quick now as I was twelve months ago. Although I have been rubbish updating things here, I have been able to post updates on Instagram, so do find me over there if you are interested in seeing the project develop. There’s even videos!

In the meantime heaps of other things have been going on – did I say I had been sequestered? The Ilkley Arts Trail was fantastic. The Manor House was a bit of a squeeze but there was great camaraderie among the exhibitors and it was fabulously well organised.

I also got selected for the Craven Arts Christmas Exhibition which will run until 23rd December at the Exhibition Gallery in Skipton Town Hall. It is a great show, lots of really good quality pieces and it is certainly worth popping in. I did a stint there yesterday in the gallery and sold a lovely painting to a lovely couple. I got to put the red dot on, it was very exciting.

I also did a talk on my Fellowship so far to the Bradford Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, who are just about the loveliest folk you can imagine, and again I had a great time and it was good putting the talk together and reliving my trips, I am itching to get on with the next leg.

I also had a massive clear out of my workroom. I had always tried to make it a cosy space, somewhere I wanted to spend time, but after experiencing the calm and clarity of a weaver’s workroom in Bulgaria I decided to redistribute the tables, chairs and bookcases, and layers of nonsense that had accumulated on the walls to make it much more bare, so it is just me and the loom, and it has made a lot of difference being able to spread out when it comes to sorting yarns and drawing cartoons, and I suppose more focused on the job in hand. Although I do often get the feeling I am being watched……

Tomorrow I begin the second half of the new tapestry. But today I am on short-listing duty as one of the judges for the Heritage Crafts Association’s suite of awards. The HCA has been in the press a great deal this year with the publication of its HCA/Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts. The HCA is offering an award funded by the Marsh Christian Trust to safeguard crafts and the deadline isn’t until mid-January, so do have a look if you think you might be eligible.

Right, my hot water bottles need re-doing. Ttfn x

A tapestry epiphany

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.

Chrissie Freeth Tapestry No Longer Mourn

I’ve made pieces like Maides CoignDelia 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.

Chrissie Freeth Medieval Tapestry Face

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