Conversations with Dead Weavers: Churchill Fellowship Countdown

I’ve discussed elsewhere what led me to apply for a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellowship but to recap, Jean Lurcat, the twentieth century French artist who instigated the modern revival of tapestry, argued that there were a number of elements that were intrinsic to the medium that became lost following the Renaissance when tapestry became a poor imitator of paintings. Reading his book Designing Tapestry, was a revelation to me. I had always favoured bold, large scale tapestries; at the time I was weaving Maides Coign at East Riddlesden Hall. I struggled to appreciate the small scale tapestries that are becoming the norm in the UK. Lurcat seemed to give me permission to weave the type of tapestries I wanted to weave, however unfashionable, impracticable and financially ridiculous they might be.

A visit to see the Devonshire hunting tapestries at the V&A hammered Lurcat’s points home, I saw in the flesh for the first time what tapestry could be. I also realised that in the absence of any formal training, I was a weaver sitting at my loom completely ignorant of an entire level of understanding. Yes one reads about a particular technique, one can do it at the loom, but I was missing that exposure to the centuries worth of how my predecessors had employed that technique, as well as the where and the why. I was a composer wanting to write a symphony having never heard music, I was a car engineer never having ridden in one.

To fully understand the techniques I had been using, to fully understand Lurcat’s intrinsic qualities associated with tapestry, I knew I needed to study tapestries, especially those that pre-dated the Renaissance. But this was immediately made difficult by photographic reproductions of tapestries online or in books. It is impossible to reduce several feet of intricate textile into a few inches and do it justice. Also, much of the literature about historic tapestries comes from an art historical approach, often focusing on subject matter, design context and patrons. As a weaver what I wanted to get at the hands of medieval weavers themselves, the choices they made when sat at the loom, and this I could only do by studying the tapestries themselves and close up. I also wanted to understand how those intrinsic elements identified by Lurcat were translated into his own work and those of his contemporaries, and I wanted to understand their relevance to weavers today, especially in the UK.

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Screenshot of a V&A catalogue entry for a medieval tapestry

The most important part of this project, as with any Churchill Fellowship, is to share it. Most of that will be actively pursued once the travelling is done, but a lot will also be shared on the road both here in my blog, my Facebook page, Twitter and on Instagram. But as my own excitement builds, I wanted to share something of the preparations, and the where, and how, as well as the why.

Once I was awarded the Fellowship heaps of desk based research followed to track down where I could see tapestries that pre-dated the Renaissance. Obviously a lot of this work had been done for the application process, but now it was concrete and in earnest. I scoured the standard texts on the history of tapestry but also googled until my fingers bled, searching through the websites of museums and galleries, trying to identify who had what and where, often frustrated by an absence of online catalogues, but following whatever leads I could. Eventually lists began to form which had to be translated into an itinerary. Inevitably there was more I wanted to see than I could ever manage to do within the already generous time and resources of the grant. A rather ruthless selection process sought to produce an itinerary that was physically and practically possible from a travelling point of view, was public-transport friendly, kept destinations relatively clustered, but which would also enable me to study a broad range of work that spanned my time period of interest, the various geographical areas associated with tapestry, and which would also give an opportunity to see modern works as well.

Initially I planned to spend four weeks in Europe and a fortnight in the US; I wanted to use my time in the States in particular to engage with contemporary practitioners as well as studying tapestries, but it became apparent as my research continued that I needed more time in Europe and so I reduced my time to a week in the US. I had planned to do it all in one go, but came to realise after recent events I will need to break things up, have some time back in the UK to recuperate, but also useful as a time to reflect, and so will now be spreading my travelling across March, April and May.

The amount of juggling this has taken, the amount of virtual travelling, researching accommodation options, scouring of train and bus timetables has been legion and how anyone ever managed to organise their Fellowships before the rise of the internet is beyond me. I am a control freak and I have a Spreadsheet Of All Things, outlining my trip day by day almost. But I accept that in all likelihood it will be thrown out of the metaphoric window within days. The Churchill Trust encourages us to be flexible in our planning, and in fact only arrange our accommodation for the first few nights, we need to be ready and able to follow leads on the ground. The process has also involved engaging with museum curators, gallery owners and tapestry weavers and this is a process that is still ongoing. Folk have been very welcoming and having this dimension to the project is what makes the Churchill Fellowships so special.

I still have a phenomenal amount of reading to do, and a language to learn (!), as well as all the practical things any trip like this will involve, and to identify routes and accommodation options and to make sure everything is in place with my own practice, this is a busy time of the year for applying for events, for example. But my itinerary is now confirmed, my Eurostar tickets and flights are booked, and accommodation in Paris and New York secured. It is very hard when someone tells you they will pay for you to travel around Europe and the States to study medieval tapestries, and take them seriously. The nature of my profession means frugality is a prerequisite so I am also petrified of spending money, even worse when it is someone else’s. I suppose I should also confess I am a little unsure of myself following recent events, not entirely clear of what I am physically capable of. So actually clicking on buttons to commit to bookings, has proved itself to be the hardest part of this whole process, but it is done. I really am going. No more second-guessing, no more prevaricating. I. have. tickets.

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Image taken during a visit to the tapestry shown above, of the figure on the right, showing the type of detail I want to see as a weaver, the methods of outlining, the use of small slits to create detail, subtle colouring techniques on chin, nose and cheeks, eccentric weaving, the use of hatchure to model the face.

So where am I going? As I said the aim is to be flexible, but will rotate around some meetings as fixed points but I will generally follow my nose from Brussels, through France and at some point either in this leg or another, head over to Switzerland. There will also be a trip to Germany and another over to New York. Loosely the plan is to visit:

Belgium

  • Musees Royaux d’art et d’histoire, Brussels
  • City of Brussels Museum, Brussels
  • Manufacture De Wit, Mechelen
  • Cathedral, Tournai
  • TAMAT/Museum of Tapestry. Tournai
  • (Would be great to get over to Oudenaarde if there’s time, but alas suspect not)

France

  • The Louvre, Paris
  • Musee d’Cluny, Paris
  • Musee des Arts decoratifs, Paris
  • Musee d’art modern, Paris
  • Galerie Chevalier, Paris
  • Manufacture des Gobelins, Paris
  • National Tapestry Gallery, Beauvais
  • Manufacture nationale de Beauvais, Beauvais
  • Beauvais Cathedral
  • Sens Cathedral
  • Palace de Tau and other museums, Reims
  • Angers Castle, Angers
  • Cathedral, Angers
  • Jean Lurcat Contemporary Tapestry Museum, Angers
  • Liciers Angevins, Angers
  • Church of Notre Dame, Saumur
  • Although the tapestries produced at Aubusson post-date the period I am interested in, it has strong links with Jean Lurcat, and houses a new tapestry centre as well as smaller galleries and museums, and contemporary weavers, and the Ateliers Pinton is at nearby Felletin, and so if there is time to visit here I will certainly try.
  • Jean Lurcat Museum, Saint-Laurent-les-Tours

Switzerland

  • Museum fur Geschichte, Basel
  • Thun Castle, Thun
  • Bernisches Historisches Museum, Berne

Germany

  • Cathedral, Halberstadt
  • Quedlinburg Abbey, Quedlinburg

USA

  • Cloisters, New York
  • Metropolitan Museum, New York
  • Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • Vojtech Blau, New York
  • Studio visits to Erin Riley, Archie Brennan and Susan Martin Maffei

Of course this project is not a whistle-stop tour to cram in as many medieval tapestries as I can. I won’t get to all the places on my list, that is not what is important. This project is to study first-hand the techniques of my predecessors, it is about taking the time to have the most constructive conversations I can with weavers who died five hundred plus years ago, and to learn from them. To that end a huge part of the preparation for this project has been working out the best way to get at those hands and minds, a systematic methodology I can employ when standing in front of their work, a guide for myself on how to study a medieval tapestry as a weaver within the restrictions of how they are curated.

I am not asking to see tapestries held in storage, it is wholly impractical and impossible for a project like this. But from the get-go I had to accept there would be limitations to studying tapestries on show. Tapestries during this period were woven from the back and ideally that is the side you want to read from – outrageously museum and galleries generally display tapestries showing the front. Tapestries were woven on the side, and again, museums tend to hang them the other way up. There will also be issues regarding how close I can get. I haven’t yet resorted to licking tapestries, but I suspect it is clearly only a matter of time. How tapestries are hung and their eye level will also be a restriction.

I am a scientist, I like forms, I like order, I like a nice strict methodology. But I realised this is a project that demands a more organic approach. Much of the recording process will be photography where permitted and practical, but this will not always be so. I will be taking a plethora of notebooks, to record sketches and thoughts. But at my side will be a reference sheet I’ve devised, something that will force me to really look and see what is in front of me, a visual excavation of the surface as it were. Not all points will be answerable, some information will only be available from printed sources, but it is at least a start, and I can adapt it as I go. Much of it is in shorthand for me, but I’ll explain more what it contains as the project progresses and publication looms (seewhatIdidthere).

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So there we have it. How grateful am I to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust? I think you can imagine. The amount I have learned is legion, and I haven’t even got on the train yet.

Chrissie Freeth Tapestries at Platform Gallery

I would like to say thank you for your good wishes after my last post, it is much appreciated. I think it was in preparation really, for trying to think how I might start slowing things down, something I am trying to put off until I come back, but this plan has now been scuppered by a rather lovely surprise. I was super pleased to take part in the Craft Open at the Platform Gallery in Clitheroe a few years back, it was my first event off my home turf. This year I was delighted to be selected again, it was a great chance to see several of my tapestries hanging together. In the end we couldn’t fit them all into the car and a smaller one had to be substituted, for which I am very grateful to the Platform Gallery for accepting. With much regret I wasn’t able to get to the opening, but learned the other week I had won the Selectors Prize for Innovation, which includes an exhibition next year running alongside Craft Open 2018. I feel terribly proud and honoured. To get enough new pieces designed and woven in time will take a phenomenal amount of work but I was quite shocked to find myself instantly up for it. I think it was just the kick up the bum I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself, to brush myself down and plan ahead more positively. Craft Open 2017 runs until 22nd April. After that I am pleased to say I have been accepted for the Saltaire Arts Trail Open Houses, always a great event and I’ll talk about that nearer the time. How I ever thought I would be taking things easier is starting to look really rather ridiculous!

Awarded Churchill Fellowship

Time to let a cat out of the tapestry-woven bag – there’s a reason this blog has been a bit quiet of late. Something rather spectacular has been in the offing and I’m sorry I’ve been so coy about it up til now.

As an archaeologist I’ve always tended to take a long view. There’s not much I see without wondering how it came to be as it is. As a textiles practitioner I am also very much rooted in the past, I started mucking about *coughs* twenty-five years ago, as a result of working in a textile-related museum, and I’ve been mentored and supported by conservators since. As I’ve moved into tapestry the work of medieval weavers has been at the core of my work. I don’t mean that I am trying to replicate their work, but there is a link to the past, an inheritance, for me weaving is a way to connect with those that came before me. Their work is also of major relevance to contemporary weavers whether they are conscious of it or not. Jean Lurcat, the artist responsible for the French Revival in tapestry during the mid twentieth century, and who rescued it from shepherdesses and turned it into a contemporary fine art, was himself directly inspired by pre-Renaissance work.

I’ve studied early tapestry veraciously, albeit through online museum collections and the few texts that are out there. But when this time last year I went to the V&A and saw the Devonshire Hunting tapestries and others I realised that nothing could have prepared me for the vivacity and the skills on display. After all, how can you really transpose tapestries 100 feet long into the few centimetres afforded in a text book? Even online I only know of one image were you can zoom in close enough to see the work as a weaver would, to get close enough to the bead of the weaving, to see how the weavers laid down the weft, to see what they did and why, to explore the decisions they made, the techniques they used, the technical choices they had to make.

So although I walked out of that gallery inspired and thrilled, I was also a little deflated. I realised I would always be stunted as a weaver unless I managed to study firsthand early tapestries and those that were inspired by them. There would always be a lack of depth and context to my own understanding and work. I also realised that with the dearth of formal training in tapestry, I wouldn’t be the only one.

The only thought I could comfort myself with, was that if I was ever given six months to live, I would sell my house, buy a camper van and trundle off to the museums and abbeys of Europe to study them. But then along came Winston Churchill. After his death in 1965 a living memorial was established – the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. They provide travelling fellowships to individuals who wish to study abroad and bring back findings of relevance to all within their field. These Fellowships were established to perpetuate and honour the memory of Winston Churchill and their joy is that they are not restricted to academics attached to a university, and in fact anyone can apply regardless of their qualifications. They announce ten categories each year and for this round they included a Crafts and Makers group in partnership with the Heritage Crafts Association.

Here was a chance to fulfil my dream and without the shadow of a terminal illness. I would also be able to put to use what I saw and share it with others. Here was a chance to grow up as a weaver, to see things that would change me and my practice forever and to pass that knowledge on. I had to go for it – no question.

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Detail from a 15th century tapestry at the V&A

It meant turning away from my loom and hitting the books. I had to flesh out my original inspiration into a comprehensive research project. I may have slightly over worked this part, partly because that’s just what I generally tend to do, partly because, ahem, I didn’t realise there was a word limit. But it was to pay off in the end. I also had to identify places and collections that held the work I needed to see and which would give me an overview chronologically, geographically and technically, and which would answer my questions and all still be do-able within the confines of the Fellowship. In the end I identified places in Belgium, Switzerland and France and in the US including New York. I also had to select places that would give me the best opportunity to engage with practitioners, curators, historians and gallerists. I also had to identify how best I could disseminate this learning when the time came. Yee gads it all sounds so easy written like that, but it was a lot of work. I was able to console myself at the time that if I didn’t get the Fellowship I had at least learned a tremendous amount during the course of the application process and was perhaps pushing myself in a direction I hadn’t thought about before.

Fabulously, I was shortlisted. I had to provide further details about the project, which is where all that extra work came in handy and not least because this was precisely when I contracted the pox for several weeks and which may have put all this in jeopardy had I not done the bulk of the work beforehand.

I had my interview a few weeks ago, at the end of January. Obviously one tries to convince oneself that it doesn’t really matter if one doesn’t get it, but I knew I would never fulfil my potential if I didn’t. It also turned out that I knew a couple of Churchill Fellows in my grown up job, and their support and encouragement just made me want to be part of the fold even more, I liked that you became a Churchill Fellow for life, I liked the idea that I would have a responsibility to encourage others to do it too. As my interview was in the afternoon I had time to nip back to the V&A to see some tapestries I hadn’t seen last time I was there (pictured above), and it only made me realise how utterly crucial it was for me to do this. There was just no way I could be a weaver without seeing the work of my predecessors. The interview panel were incredibly supportive and friendly, in fact the whole process has been tremendously smooth and well-organised and professional. I left the room as high as a tapestry kite, but knew there was a long wait for the decisions to be announced. That was supposed to be the 19th Feb, well it turned out it wasn’t, it was today. And I got it and I am utterly thrilled and very proud, and not quite sure what to do now. Except it may well involve fish and chips and Saltaire brewery. Apparently just shy of a 1000 people applied, 236 were interviewed and 150 Fellowships were awarded across the 10 categories. I’ll get to meet the others in my group in March, which I am really looking forward to. Oh, and the title of my project is Exploring early European tapestries and their relevance to contemporary practice.

I will explain in more detail in future posts what the specific aims of the project are and where exactly I will be going and when, and how I will be sharing what I have learned with others. I just wanted to share this news with you now and as a bit of an explanation for my absence. Can I add I also totally bossed it at life drawing today? Right. Beer.