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.
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.