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
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.
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.
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 from the Adoration of the Magi 1490-1500 ?Bamberg
Wild people hunting, Strassburg c1450
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
Musees Royaux d’art et d’histoire, Brussels
City of Brussels Museum, Brussels
Manufacture De Wit, Mechelen
TAMAT/Museum of Tapestry. Tournai
(Would be great to get over to Oudenaarde if there’s time, but alas suspect not)
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
Palace de Tau and other museums, Reims
Angers Castle, 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
Museum fur Geschichte, Basel
Thun Castle, Thun
Bernisches Historisches Museum, Berne
Quedlinburg Abbey, Quedlinburg
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).
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.
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!
Long overdue, I know. Truth is I’ve had my head down enjoying an incredibly creative and productive few weeks.
I know I am exceedingly privileged to be doing what I am doing, but I also feel a big responsibility to make the most of it and to be accountable. For this reason everything I do has to have a set purpose, an end goal. I find it hard to let myself experiment, play or just try things out, even though I know this is an integral part of any artist’s practice.
This has made me drive myself into the ground more than once including a couple of weeks into September, when I came to a complete stop physically and mentally. Rescue was on the way in the form of an unexpected holiday in Whitby with my aunt and uncle. I cannot begin to say how fabulous a time I had, we stayed in a beautiful cottage a stone’s throw from the beach.
We explored some amazing places including the ruins of a castle in a wood; coming across massive buttresses and walls in amongst the trees is something I will not forget, more like something a 1930s South American explorer would come across and very different to the clean landscaped castle ruins in towns and parks one is used to.
I used to work at a Cistercian abbey, Bordesley, so I had always been aware of Rievaulx but had never visited before and the ruins were utterly spectacular aided by some fantastic late summer sunshine. Someone should paint it, no really, they should.
As a break, as a change, as a laugh, as access to the sea and fresh air and exercise, it was a marvellous and much-needed reset. But it has lingered with me since and not least because of one day we decided to escape some coastal fog and headed for the town of Pickering.
I have a particular interest in medieval wall paintings, not that I had ever seen any beyond the pages of a book. I am very curious by the relationship of medieval tapestry to their contemporary art forms. For example the relationship between illuminated manuscripts and the Apocalypse of Angers and the Halberstadt tapestries are well known and I always assumed frescos and wall paintings too must hold some relevance considering their shared mural use. Being so interested in medieval tapestries – which have so rarely survived – I am forced to try to draw inference to what the tapestries may have looked like through other forms.
So I was very excited to see on the Pickering high street a small sign pointing to a church and its wall paintings. But nothing could have prepared me for pushing open the church door and being looked down upon by a gigantic St Christopher across the nave.
All the walls were coated in figures depicting the lives of the Saints, the Passion and Resurrection, the descent to Hell. I was mesmerised. It was not just their liveliness and vibrancy, it was a communication, a link with the ancestors they were based on, the hand that drew them and the centuries of church goers who looked upon them until they were covered up during the Reformation. It was a reminder too of how much has been lost.
My interest in the relationship between medieval tapestries and other art forms is not just academic, I have spent time wanting to explore this artistically too, but I could never figure out how to do it, I could only ever envisage a pastiche, something quite pointless to weave, and so it had drifted to the background. Before Whitby my plans were to make a start on a landscape as discussed elsewhere in this blog.
But when I got home seeing those wall paintings made me all the more determined to respect my intuition. There was something there I wanted and needed to explore. The only way I was going to get it out of my system was to give in.
I let myself weave whatever I wanted, and with no end-game in sight, and without talking myself out of it. I followed my whims, experimented, played. The result has been the formation of a stratigraphy of ideas on the loom, half-finished, half thought-out samples and trials. I was right, initial samples based on the wall paintings were silly pastiches, but as the weeks evolved so did my ideas and so did my realisation of what I was trying to achieve as a weaver, a more honing down of my focus as an artist and an acknowledgement of how I can push the techniques I have been developing this year even further. I feel I know myself better. The result is a new design for a tapestry, far more complicated and colourful than anything I have attempted before, but potentially rather fab.
I love the tapestries I’ve been weaving this year, and that I’ve found something unique to me as a weaver, but I have been conscious that there were limitations with how far I could go with it and the extent to which it would give me scope to explore what I want to narratively. I’m super pleased to have broken through that barrier. The cartoon is drawn, the colours selected the samples woven and recorded. All that is left is to get warped up and to get on with it. I need to finish it before I start my Fellowship so I suspect I am going to have to keep my head down for a while to get it done. I’m not trying to be a tease about the nature of the new tapestry by showing the samples, I just thought it best to talk more about it and the ideas behind it once it has properly got going.
I ‘ve also made some changes to how I work, whether I will stick to them or not I don’t know. The most significant is that I have started to ban myself from the workroom at the weekend. Whilst I am not yet spending the time running through flower-filled fields and basking in the sunshine, it has given me the space to try things I wouldn’t have allowed myself before, exploring off-loom weaving techniques, blowing the dust off my sewing machine and mucking about with free-form embroidery and more drawing and sketching.
In amongst all this I am happy to report the 1in4 exhibition (above) discussed in my last post was fantastic. The quality of work was phenomenal and I was really proud to be amongst them. I have just learned that several of my tapestries have been selected for an exhibition at the Platform Gallery next year – more on that later. I also had a great day with the Bradford Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers talking about tapestry, I was made to feel very welcome and really enjoyed myself. And I was thrilled to take part in Crafted by Hand in Masham (below), always a wonderfully organised event and a great opportunity to get young folks weaving. Much work has also been done getting plans together for my travels in the Spring.
I am looking forward to visiting the Knitting and Stitching Show in Harrogate this week and very glad to see a weaver has been included amongst the gallery exhibitors, the very innovative tapestry artist Cos Ahmet. I can’t wait to see his work in the flesh. Of course I’ll tell you all about it. Until then, ta ta for now xx
Art in the Pen was fantastic. If you are not familiar with it, the pens in Skipton’s cattle market are handed over to selected artists to turn into their own micro galleries. It was my second time, and I did feel in the run up a bit more organised; the hard work thinking how to dress one’s pen and display one’s work had been done last year. Whilst I was proud of the new work I was showing, that which made me glow with pride every time my eyes fells upon it, was my stand for cards. I dismantled a display stand and stapled hessian to it and balanced some other pieces of wood on some nails for the shelves. I did that! Me! And best of all, I can still use it as a display frame if need be. I had plenty of cards made for the event and they sold incredibly well. In the next couple of days I’ll be adding them to my online shop (links above).
I couldn’t have done it without the wonderful Barry from Hawksbys gallery in Haworth who helped get me set up and taken down. Artist Ian Burdall very kindly ferried me about during the weekend. I even came away with a little pressie from Jill at Touchy Feely Textiles. My heretofore naked front door key now puts a smile on my face whenever I use it. As I am so tired these days, at least I can comfort myself in the knowledge it must be because I am extra-fabulous.
I had intended to take some time off once it was over, but instead went back to basics, something I have been meaning to do for a while. I think it is easy to get stuck in a rut technique-wise, and with workshops in the offing it seemed like a good excuse to make some small samples. That I would have to treat myself to a new sketchbook to store them all had no influence on this decision at all. It proved a very useful exercise and has filled me with ideas. I know that experimenting and sketching is utterly essential to what I do, but I do find it hard to justify the time, and perhaps because I find it hard to call it work. But with a bit of breathing space between events I have let myself explore wherever my interest led me over this last week or so, and I am pretty pleased with the new tapestry design that has started to emerge from it. But more about that once it gets underway.
There isn’t long left to catch the Weave exhibition at Craft in the Bay in Cardiff, but some photographs sent by its curator is making it pretty tough not to make the trip. Such a stunning array of how the idea of weave can be translated in different mediums, I can’t think of another exhibition like it. I am looking forward to getting No Longer Mourn returned though – I’ve missed her!
One final bit of news. It has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride health-wise over the last few months. It was a really tough decision but it seemed sensible to delay my Winston Churchill fellowship travels until things settled down and I was fit enough and well enough to do this amazing journey justice. I’m now heading off in the Spring. On the one hand it is very frustrating, but it is absolutely the right decision, and on the plus side I’ve got plenty more time to get prepared.
Right I have a long list of admin to do, and am refusing myself access to the workroom until it is done, so better dash off. Ta ta for now x
I should imagine I am pretty incoherent tonight, I am pretty tired, but I know you will forgive me.
Next weekend, 13th and 14th August, is Art in the Pen, in Skipton. I did it for the first time last year and loved it and am looking forward to it immensely. I always want to show new work, especially with my tapestries having changed so drastically over the last twelve months. But with one of my main new pieces over at the Weave exhibition in Craft in the Bay, I knew I was going to be pushing it. Nonetheless I felt I needed a new large piece, returning to the full width of the loom. I had enough left over warp to do it, and while I’d need to dye some new wool, I could use the colours and sampling I had done previously. The cartoon materialised quite quickly. I’ve long wanted to revisit the story of my female relatives needlessly trapped within a cycle of asylums in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, I didn’t do them justice last time.
When I got the cartoon on the loom I calculated how much time I would need to complete it, marking off where I would have to be at a certain date in order to finish it in time. I soon realised I was looking at several weeks of sixteen hour days. I’m not sure how I have done it, except to say I pretty much just battened down the hatches, gave myself over to the project and just got on with it. I’ve pretty much lived off what my workroom kettle could provide, and moving a comfy armchair into the workroom was a mark of total genius on my part.. I am quite surprised how unscathed I am considering my bleating in a previous post. There was something – can’t think of the right word – ?monastic, about the experience. I’ve actually enjoyed it. I have so many hats, juggle so many things, and although I felt rather selfish not making myself available for my other roles, it was good to focus on one thing so solidly.
I do feel I have rushed her, but I am pleased with the results nonetheless. It was rather nerve-wracking unwinding the loom yesterday and seeing her complete. I was thrilled actually, and although I went straight to bed, I found myself getting up every now and then to check she was still there and I had really done it.
She is just shy of 120 cm x 130 cm. It was the first time I was able to utilise the style and techniques I have been developing on a larger scale, and I much prefer it, much more room for the tapestry and the technique to breathe. Although I say I rushed it, I’m not sure what I would change if I had the chance.
After such a concentrated period of uninterrupted Freeth-time, during which I’ve had plenty of space to think, my mind is so full of ideas, including lots that are quite embryonic but growing fast that I can’t wait to explore them further. Fortunately there is some space between events after Art in the Pen and I’ll be able to take some time to think things through as well as carrying on the prep for my Fellowship which is now due to start in the Spring. It will be good to regroup and think about future directions.
In amongst this weaving marathon , I did have some respite after being invited over to East Riddlesden Hall to do some demoing. They have a lovely collection of rag rugs and they were a good excuse to get folk having a go themselves. It is not often you get to poke a hole in something inside a National Trust property. I trust you will be able to tell which part of the rug was mine. It is such a simple activity for younger hands to try, and for older visitors it always seems to bring back memories. Although I am not making rugs myself anymore, I do love these opportunities to blow the dust off my prodders.
It was also wonderful to see the volunteers again and to have been made so welcome. Strange to see Maides Coign after a year or so. I look at her and can’t quite believe I made her. Hopefully there will be lots more events at East Riddlesden in the future and I’ll keep you apprised here or over on my website or Facebook page.
Talking of which, do have a look at the Facebook page or Instagram of Craft in the Bay. They are showcasing the work in the Weave exhibition and the quality and variety of the work is astounding. I really am terribly proud to be part of it.
I do hope you can pop into Art in the Pen. I loved attending as a visitor before I started exhibiting there. As I am sure you know, the cattle pens of Skipton Auction Mart are given over to selected artists, including sculptors, painters, potters, jewellers and others to turn into mini-galleries. It is a great way to spend a day, and to meet artists and in a very friendly environment and if mooching is your thing there’s no pressure at all, but if you are after a little something, it is a great chance to buy work direct from artists, often at great value. You can find more details about Art in the Pen here.
Finally, my dear friend Moira Fuller, an incredibly talented designer, is about to embark on a new business adventure to help encourage and support creativity in others. She would love your input through a wee questionnaire (she’s Scottish, you know), it’ll only take ten minutes or so. Do please have a look if you can spare some time.
Anyway, I hope all this goes some way to explain my absence, for which, as always I am very sorry.
I have put off writing this as I have been, quite frankly, too devastated by the awful calamity that has been imposed upon our country by misinformation, lies and scaremongering. I’ve been looking towards Europe a lot during the run up to my fellowship, and that the ease and opportunities I have taken for granted might not now be available for those in the future, fills my heart with utter sadness.
Before all this awfulness happened I spent last Monday having a fabulous day. A while back I was contacted by the conservation team at Harewood House, a stunning eighteenth century stately home here in Yorkshire. I was invited to join a panel to debate the ethics surrounding the conservation of a pair of eighteenth century Axminster carpets. I was a little unsure at first, not clear what I could contribute as a non-conservator, but the more I looked into the issues they were facing, and the effort they were going to to make the right decision, the more I realised that I wanted to get involved.
The carpets are in a particularly sorry state. There are a great deal of repairs undertaken over the years, but many are now threatening the longevity of the carpet. Some, for example, are causing unhelpful tensions, others have been done with inappropriate materials, there has also been extensive use of adhesives. The carpet in the Yellow Room is currently reverse rolled and thus displayed pile down, the lining on show and it looking like, as mentioned by one staff member, like a crime scene. However interpretation materials are clearly available to explain what is going on, and to highlight particular areas of concern. There is also a questionnaire asking visitors for their views towards the future of the carpets.
A number of issues are involved. Should it be conserved? What gets conserved, what doesn’t? Should the repairs remain, or be removed, are they not a legitimate part of its story? Should the carpet be renovated to look ‘new’ or should it be left as it is? Should it in fact be put in storage, and should a replica be made?
Although I wasn’t there to contribute as a conservator, it was a good excuse to read round the subject, especially around tapestry conservation and to get a grasp of something regarding the ethics involved in conservation, something not entirely unfamiliar thanks to my previous incarnation as an archaeologist. It was readily apparent that one particular aspect that Harewood faces is that the carpets form an integral aspect to the design of the rooms in which they sit. They reflect the design of the ceiling, just as Robert Adams envisaged. Any changes to the carpets will affect the whole.
I’m not in favour of reproductions, I want to see the work of the original craftsmen, my professional ancestors, that is what they have left us, a replica involves a different conversation with different people. But anyone involved in tapestry would have to have had their head in the sand to not know there has been a set of reproductions made for the refurbished rooms at Stirling Castle. These seven tapestries were woven over twelve years by a team of nearly twenty weavers. Whatever one’s feelings about the tapestries as replicas (they are based on fifteenth century Unicorn Hunt tapestries at the Met), and although much of the weaving took place behind the scenes at the studios in West Dean, tapestries were also concurrently woven in situ at Stirling Castle, in full view of the visitors, a great opportunity for public engagement. But unlike carpet weaving, the techniques of the 21st century tapestry weavers were little different to those of the original craftspeople, lending some element of authenticity to the new works. But of course, any carpets made now to replace the Axminster carpets would be woven in an entirely different manner to those woven centuries ago.
Anyone interested in the arguments regarding ‘authenticity’ and the making of the Stirling tapestries, do check out Caron Penney’s excellent article, Rediscovering the Unicorn tapestries in Gordon et al 2014 Authenticity and Replication: The ‘Real Thing’ in Art and Conservation published by Archetype.
I am not going to go into details of what was discussed, Harewood will be producing that in due course. But I can report it was a fascinating day. We were very much welcomed, and the discussion and debate was vibrant. On arrival myself and the other panelists were given a tour of the house, prior to a fascinating discussion by Rosie Hicks. After lunch there was a talk by Tabitha Mchenry who has been studying the carpets and then the debate itself. My fellow panelists were Dr Crosby Stephens, a textile conservator looking after the carpets, Frances Hartog, the senior textile Conservator at the V & A and Caroline Carr-Whitworth, the curator at Brodsworth Hall. We were chaired by Professor Anne Sumner an advisor to Harewood and the Head of Cultural Engagement at the University of Leeds. The event took place in front of a largely invited audience and was part of a series of events to mark the Yorkshire Year of the Textile. I was really thrilled and honoured to have taken part.
The whole event was incredibly well organised and although no immediate answers may be apparent it is clear that once the decision is made, it will have been done after extensive consultation with a very wide group of people. It is nice to see that in the UK, informed decisions are still possible!
Meanwhile I’ve been working on a new cartoon for a new tapestry for Art in the Pen and which will return to the full width of the loom. The loom has been re-dressed – not a small task as I tried to use as much of the left-over warp as I could; would have been easier to start afresh!
And if you want to know how long it takes to wrap a tapestry to post to a gallery, it is about a day, 5 rolls of poppy plastic, a great deal of cardboard and about two rolls of kraft paper. My tapestry No Longer Mourn will be amongst the work of 24 artists at Craft in the Bay, the line up looks spectacular, the work of Gizella Warbutron in particular looks amazing. The exhibition, Weave, will run from 16th July to the 11th September.
Anyway, cheerio for now, from a still slightly deflated me x
I know I ‘m a week late, but I wanted to thank everyone who came to the Saltaire Arts Trail. One reader of this blog came all the way up from Leicester!
I wanted to get in early on Friday to hang my work, just in case there were any problems. From the start the plan had been to hang the tapestries using hooks over some unused doors. But the doors proved too thick for the hooks. June Russell, the chair of Saltaire Inspired arrived with helper, an array of tools, fixings and fearless determination and managed to hang the pieces nonetheless. It was a strange thing to see my work hanging all proper like! I was really thrilled with how it looked, and not a little proud.
The event was fabulous, lots of wonderful visitors, very engaged and full of questions. But without doubt the best part for me was meeting the artists I was sharing the space with, especially Janis Goodman, Salma Patel, Gemma Lacey,, and of course our host, Jacky Al-Samarraie who looked after us so well. They all made the whole experience absolutely delightful and a laugh a minute. In truth I didn’t want the event to end, I had such a great time. It was also great to get feedback on the work and observe people’s responses to it. I certainly feel a few feet taller as an artist. My only regret was not getting to look round the other houses and exhibitions, but it was clear there was a fabulous atmosphere across the village.
The gift cards were a virtual sell out so I will definitely be doing those again! The frames were a big hit too, so I am going to look at doing some smaller framed pieces that are more affordable for Art in the Pen in August.
I am really glad I did some little samples that folk could touch, they were very popular and certainly helped reduce the amount of folk going for the tapestries themselves. There were a few. I know who you are.
With the Arts Trail done with, I’ve taken a few days to catch up with my Fellowship plans. I know where I want to go, but it has been good to start getting in touch with potential contacts. I’ve also made plans to do some experiments with different cameras to see how best I might best photograph the tapestries I’ll be visiting. The sixteenth-century tapestry at East Riddlesden Hall will serve as a stand-in. Talking of which, on the 30th July I’ll be at East Riddlesden doing some demos. Once it is all confirmed and I have more details I’ll let you know. Later this month I’ll be heading to a rather grander stately pile here in Yorkshire to discuss some conservation issues, but more on that in a later post.
In the meantime, the loom needs warping, and I need to get some more work underway! Cheerio for now x
Putting weft in and out of warp, there’s only so much you can do without distorting the nature of the cloth. Whilst I’ve always tried to circumnavigate this rigidity by using textured weaves like soumak to create curves and flow, I’ve always felt I was somehow cheating the nature of the medium. But there are some weavers who seem able to just drip the weft from their fingertips and create incredibly expressive weavings; I’m thinking here of Finnish weaver Aino Kajaniemi, the twentieth century German weaver Johanna Schutz-Wolff and a weaver who I only know through a couple of small images of their tapestries, Rojane Lamego.
The need to find a more expressive way to weave myself became increasingly apparent after embarking on the life drawing classes made freely available by Bradford College of Art. Turns out I wasn’t entirely rubbish at drawing. I learned I had scope to explore, that I needn’t jump on the first quarter-decent image I produced despite myself and subsequently devote the rest of my weaving life to it. I became much more liberated in the design stages, certainly less petrified. I’ve begun to draw for its own sake and not just to make something to weave. I also.learned when it came to drawing I leaned towards quick, loose, abstract images (and large-scale, gasp), and I wanted to find a way to translate that looseness in my weaving.
Initial samples focused on eccentric wefts, loose weaves, plain weaves, painted warps and textured surfaces, but I found I was still ducking away from what tapestry was. I was still hiding behind texture and gimmicks. I wanted to get back to basics; simple weft faced weaving. Writing this post I realise perhaps this is a result of my recent research into earlier tapestries.
Embrace insomnia is what is what I say, because the answer appeared in the wee hours one morning, in-between ‘did I close the freezer door properly’ and ‘when is the council tax due’. I had the answer all along, I had already woven the way I was seeking in the studies I had made for other tapestries. I reworked one of my sketches into a proper design, made the cartoon and worked some samples including the more complicated areas such as the face (below).
I aimed to weave something where the figure and the background were intrinsic to one another, interwoven in design as well as structure, hoping this would make it more expressive than my previous tapestries.
I also found myself finally being able to express something trapped for some time. A sonnet someone once shared with me came to mind as I was designing this (No Longer Mourn for Me), and I realised the figure was sinking into the blackness, but read differently, she was also emerging from it, and that was basically what I’ve been trying to say and failing miserably, as the graveyard of abandoned tapestries attests.
I finished her today and I’m very pleased with the results. It took about three weeks to weave, but stupidly weaving 15+ hours a day, so probably more like five. She is 116cm x 82 cm, so smaller than what I normally go for, but she was a bit of a punt and I didn’t want to waste too much wool and warp in case she didn’t pan out. It was far more complicated than my previous tapestries but also far more addictive. I also found myself freely interpreting the original drawing at the loom which was a far more interesting way to work than being a slave to the cartoon.
She’ll have to stay on the loom for a little while as there’s loads of left over warp to use up. But this piece, and others along similar lines, will be ready to show in May. I am very happy to say I’ve been selected as one of the exhibitors in the Open Houses Gallery at the Saltaire Arts Trail. I’ve never really had the chance to show my tapestries at this event before and I am really looking forward to the opportunity. I feel embarrassed to think of myself as an artist, but I do feel this piece is something I can be proud of and is unique to me and my voice. The Arts Trail takes place 28-30 May and the work of the artists will be on show in houses of the World Heritage Site and I’ll let you know where I’ll be as soon as I do.
I am also thrilled to have been selected for Art in the Pen this year. This will take place in Skipton 13-14 August. I’ve also been selected for Crafted by Hand 5-6 November in Masham. I’ll update the events page on my website very soon, likewise workshops. It has been hard to plan for the year with my Fellowship travels in the offing, but as one of the places I want to visit won’t be open until the summer, it looks like I’ll be heading off later in the year. Obviously I want to go right now, now, now, but it does seem this will be more practical and give me a greater chance to prepare. It is Easter now and I am going to try to take a couple of days off. Whatever you have planned, I hope you enjoy it x