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
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.
I think I would have mentioned before that however much I enjoy doing events, I do feel I am cycling backwards in order to make work for them, especially last year when sales have been so good. The downside is I just do not have the time or space to experiment. I’ve also felt it keenly as I have had a year of exposure to such wonderful things and my mind is swimming with ideas and things I want to try. When such experiments can take months, the risks are obvious.
I don’t usually do Christmas, my family are in the Midlands and I tend to just work through. But as the holidays approached I found my productivity slowing, I am loving the tapestry I am working on but was barely weaving in a day what would normally take a few hours. I accepted a break would do me good and as the rest of the nation were sitting on the sofa in their pants, their face dropped into a tin of Quality Street I, goddamn it, would do the same. I banned myself from the workroom for two weeks. Not to step across its threshold. Oh no. Banned from the loom. I could only look upon it from the hallway, lovingly, longingly, but we were to be parted.
I ain’t got no PhD for nuffin. After a couple of days of spring cleaning and fighting through brain fog to amalgamate my to dos I suddenly realised, yes I was banned from the workroom, but I could set up a sample loom in the living room. I know, total genius. Whilst I have been comfortable in the medieval techniques I have been working on this year, high up on my list of things I wanted to do was to apply those techniques to a more modern design rather than the faux-medieval visages I had been doing. I already had a cartoon, although it had been intended for the more darker, blended style, and after an hour to rejig it I ran into the workroom for a handful of yarn and warp and set up the sample loom downstairs. It was mid-sized, and actually one I would have used as an undergraduate; I was the very happy custodian of various textile equipment from my archaeological department.
The frame was just the right size to rest against the arm of the sofa and my lap and so I worked on it horizontally. This was a new experience for me, as I usually work on a vertical warp and it took time, each warp needed to be picked out by hand, but it was enjoyable. The only issue was some abdominal pain, which I assumed was my bent over posture, William Morris’s weavers I remember reading somewhere were plagued with it. Oh how I laugh.
It is still hard to let go of the ‘fuss’ of my old style and to embrace the simpleness and crispness of this type of tapestry, but I do rather love it, and I am dying to have the time to get beyond these small samples. I am working on a design inspired by a line from my great-great-grandmother’s records from the asylum she was kept in, something she said, it is like hearing her voice, I think it is a reference to a Victorian song.
I had a few more attacks of pain under my rib cage, one on Christmas night when I was so convinced I was going to die I got dressed for the sake of the poor sod who was going to find my body once its whiff paraded down the street. I didn’t want to make a fuss this time of year, the NHS is overwhelmed afterall and booked to see my GP in January. But eventually I ended up being taken to hospital by ambulance with suspected pancreatitis or a gallstone jammed somewhere it shouldn’t be. My biggest regret is not getting a snap of the IVF and morphine drip hanging off the dismantled scaffold loom in the living room. Also, irritatingly, my ASBO neighbours were very helpful getting the ambulance and I am still not entirely sure of the etiquette – do I owe them a thank you card or can I just pretend it never happened?
It all turned out to be down to a stoopid liver condition I found out about last year. I am a bit peeved as I had no idea this was part of the deal and decidedly want my money back. But a few days in hospital and rest at home did mean I got, afterall, a break over the holidays. Except I did manage to do my tax return. What can I say, I am a bloody hero.
It did mean though I was massively behind on adminy things and once up to it I had to clear the decks of all that before I could creep back into my beloved, much missed, abandoned workroom. I know many weavers see it as a contemplative, meditative act, and yes I can find myself ‘zoning out’, but to me it is work – I do it to produce a piece of work, not for the act itself. But it has shocked me how much my loom contributes to my sense of wellness. Getting to the point where I could just sit at it and work has been like a tiny island in a vast sea. I’m there now, this blog and some planning for the next leg of my Churchill Fellowship aside, and it feels good to have my bum planted firmly in the sand under the shade of the solitary palm tree. Whether it is that meditative aspect, or the repetition, or the familiarity, or the structure, or the sense of purpose, alludes me, but I do know we are wedded now (to be clear, in a metaphorical way, not a pervy way) .
I’ve learned a lot, my friends rallied around marvelously and I now acknowledge I do need to accept help more often than I tended to do. I have also realised I have to get on and weave what I want to weave, rather than live in a panic about making things I feel have to, otherwise, really, what is the point? Life is too goddamn short.
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.
Bulgaria has been a gigantic sledge hammer. It has swung fast towards my temple and knocked some sense into the grey cells behind it and pushed out all the blocks and doubts that have been clogging and festering for some time. I do have to add that my gratefulness towards Bulgaria is slightly dimmed by my slicing off the top of a finger making a Shopska salad yesterday, but, in time, I will forgive.
So what happened? I had an actually full blown epiphany. With a choir and trumpets, clouds parting and I’ll be damned if there weren’t angels too. I talk myself out of the things I want to do. I tell myself things won’t work or they’ll be stupid or pointless or rubbish before I even get to the loom. I tell myself I have to be an artist, despite, well, not being an artist. That until I know who I am as an artist I am never going to be the tapestry weaver I want to be. My Churchill Fellowship has given me the technical skills, but I need that artistic vision to put them to use.
I’ve made pieces like Maides Coign, Delia Jo and No Longer Mourn (above) that I am really proud of, but I needed to move forward and make full use of my Fellowship. I knew for one reason or the other, my Fellowship would change me as an artist and I would be leaving that work behind. It has just taken time to figure out how that change was to manifest itself. I had hoped the breathing space between events would lend some time to experiment, but I was not happy with what I was doing. They were not true to myself, they were derivative, they weren’t from within. I could not see how I could use them to tell the stories I wanted to tell.
The past has been an integral part of who I am since I was a teenager, it led to my career as an archaeologist. It is why as a weaver I am looking to the lands of my medieval predecessors to fully understand what tapestry as a medium could do. That I was denying myself what I really wanted to do became apparent when I was so blown away by the medieval wall paintings at Pickering. And I have tried, unsuccessfully to work out why they affected me so and to reflect that in my work since. The medieval tapestries I have studied I looked to as technical inspiration rather than an artistic one because, after all, what is the point in recreating something that has already been done, what is the point in pastiche?
But seeing all those medieval frescoes in Bulgaria has forced me to admit to myself that – somehow – this is where I am rooted as an artist, even if I don’t fully understand it. If I wanted to be true to myself, if I wanted to see who I truly was as an individual, then I had to be honest with myself for the first time and say, pastiche aside, this medieval imagery was my happy place and I needed to go back to it, and I needed to just weave for the hell of it, and not talk myself out of it before I even began.
I have been collecting online images, and of course I have an extensive resource now thanks to my Fellowship. I picked a face from a German tapestry I am hoping to see on the next leg of my research and I drew up a cartoon inspired by it and I just wove. It was an exercise in being a weaver instead of being an artist. And bugger me if I did not see straight away the way forward for me. I saw for the first time, how to use medieval imagery as an inspiration without it being just a recreation. I could use it as a vocabulary as it were, to tell the stories I want to tell. I also realised that it was the twee-ness and passivity that I was reacting against and that was something I could easily address.
I know the resulting tapestry is only a face, but to me it is not. It is a way forward, because I can see the rest of her in my head. I can see and sketch the dozen or so tapestries that are now stonkingly clear. I hope this will become ore apparent as I start moving away from samples.
I have always hankered after finding a way to be expressive in tapestry, perhaps because as such a rigid medium, that is the challenge and one managed by so very few. I gave up trying to find that expressiveness, I surrendered myself to the weft and the warp, I accepted that there were limitations and yet in that I found the most striking sense of freedom. I accepted tapestry for what it was, and this of course, was one of the fundamental aspects that led me on my Fellowship – I finally, absolutely, truly, got what tapestry was, to me at least. I understood it as a medium, what it could truly do. Interestingly this was no surprise to the textile artist Hannah Lamb who noted over on Instagram that among her students it was often those who needed structure to tame their creativity that leaned towards weaving rather than those who were inherently neat and regimented.
By resorting to the formal, the thing I had rejected from the get-go, I have in fact found my liberation. The huge, ginormous, momentous irony for me is that once I stopped trying to be an artist, I suddenly became far more confident than I have ever been as an artist. I know exactly who I am, I know exactly what I want to say, I know exactly where I am heading, I know exactly what I want to do and I know exactly what I have to do to get there. I have a straight back. I am content. And of course it all makes full and proper use of my Fellowship – everything comes together.
This sample is getting her first outing at the Ilkley Arts Trail. Over sixty artists will be exhibiting work across the town. I am in the old Manor House, a beautiful sixteenth century building. There are six of us in there and alas there was not as much room as hoped, a bit of a problem when one aims to work at a mural scale! One of my fellow artists, Ben Snowden, very kindly gave up some of his limited space and I am exceedingly grateful. And I was rather heartened too that my new girl had an offer made when she was only up for a few a seconds! Alas I need to hold on to her for a little while as a reference piece and cus, well, I just goddamn love her too much!
We open tomorrow and are open right through to Sunday. There’s a great programme you can download from Ilkley Arts website and see what is going on and where. I do hope to see you if you can make it.
I was all set to run off to Germany as soon as it is over, but in truth I have been struggling somewhat after coming back from Bulgaria energy-wise and it seems to make sense to delay the next leg of my Fellowship until early in the new year and I can do it justice. The folks at the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust have been staggeringly understanding and I am very grateful to them.
Early start over to Ilkley tomorrow so I had better go hit the sack. Ttfn my lovelies x
Since getting back from New York things have been pretty manic and I am only now managing to grab some time with you, so I am sorry this is a bit of a round-up post.
I was, alas, too jet-lagged and exhausted to make it to the Heritage Craft Association’s launch of the Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts at the House of Lords. The HCA has been undertaking magnificent research identifying UK crafts most at risk. The resulting database is an amazing resource and overview; I do encourage you to have a look. I’m terribly honoured to be one of their trustees, but have been too wrapped up with Winston Churchill to get involved myself, but did witness the amazing hard work and dedication that went into the project and the launch. For such a small organisation I am incessantly in awe of all they do.
A few days later was the HCA’s conference in London, I went down the day before and meant to visit the Dovecot’s new tapestry at the National Gallery but in the end got to the hotel and slept – the bed was rather good! There was an amazing line up the next day including the key note speaker, Kaffee Fassett, a man who can find the most amazing palettes everywhere as his colourful slides showed (below). I first went to one of his talks twenty or so years ago, so it was wonderful to hear him again.
All the talkers were exemplary, and I learned heaps. Of particular note was the Queen’s wheelwright, Greg Rowland talking about some of the challenges craft practitioners face taking on an apprentice. It was incredibly interesting – and yes, moving – to see their relationship develop and someone bloom into a young man and spectacular craftsman in their own right. Lisa Hammond’s apprentice and Instagram super star Florian Gadsby gave a fascinating talk on the importance of social media to practitioners, and especially Instagram, a platform perfect for crafts folk. He stressed the importance of not just sticking up a picture and fleeing, but rather to take time to explore and share one’s thoughts and processes regarding one’s work. I have been inspired to try to do the same, posting daily and being more explicit in what I am doing and why. If you follow me on Facebook, I am sorry for the relative silence of late, but this is where you can find me. I floundered during a week of meltdown (see below) but have found the experience very useful and rewarding.
I also headed up to Blackburn in Lancashire. A manufacturer of rug making looms (Cobble van de Wiele) is interested in using some of my designs to make some show-pieces to demonstrate the versatility of their looms. I was invited up to the factory to discuss it and see what the looms can do. If you are a regular reader you will know I am a bit of a tapestry purist, but it was clear that the resulting textiles would be entirely different to my hand woven tapestries, something in their own right, rather than a cheap knock-off, and actually it is going to be incredibly exciting to see how my techniques might get translated by the looms. They were things of absolute beauty, the mechanism was like a ballet of needles and thread. I love the idea of the mixing of the modern and ancient techniques. My grandfather was an engineer and I couldn’t help thinking how much he would have loved it. Anyway, fingers crossed we can make it work!
I also headed up to the Platform Gallery in Clitheroe with my long suffering friend who mistakenly once offered to help move some tapestries around and has been paying for it ever since. I needed to pick up some pieces that were on display during their Craft Open exhibition, it was also a great chance to see again the space I’ll need to fill for my exhibition running alongside the Craft Open next year. Eeeeeeven better it was a chance to spend my voucher which I won as part of the Selectors Prize. I treated myself to a pair of ge-orgeous earrings by Kate Rhodes. I am swinging my hair about quite a bit now to show them off. I love the colours and shapes. I don’t usually wear jewellery, so it is quite nice to feel like a girl after all! I did try to take my own picture, but it is very hard to take a selfie of one’s ear!
Of course in amongst all this I had to get ready for the Saltaire Arts Trail. I love this event, I’ve grown up with it as an artist, and it is such a great privilege to chat to visitors. If you haven’t been, houses and other venues across the World Heritage Site are opened as mini galleries, there’s also a makers fair, events and exhibitions and workshops. I have been very lucky to have been selected to do it pretty regularly, but a big part of that is having new work to show, a big ask when it takes months to make a tapestry.
Whilst I hadn’t shown Delia Jo before, I knew I had make new work. I was also conscious that I needed to find a way to digest all I had seen in New York. I have written up my notes and I’ve been sorting through the photographs but I also needed to interpret it all on the loom. I don’t like weaving small, but there was no time to do anything else. One answer was to start working on some samples for a larger piece. Obviously an overriding element of medieval tapestries is their narrative nature, and this is something I have been keen to explore and not least because thanks to my Fellowship I am much more confident that I can weave whatever I choose to draw.
I decided to kick off with some faces, my theory being if I can manage those then anything was possible. I still wanted to keep an element of the techniques I’ve been developing in my previous work, and there was as much unweaving as weaving to try to make it work, but I did feel much more liberated and unshackled at the loom. I suppose a big part of that was being more relaxed when it came to working with the original design, being more disposed to interpret it as I saw fit, rather than just copying it. Before I would have to weave big to capture every nuance of the original, but now I should be able to get full figures on the larger loom.
I couldn’t just stick a small tapestry on the wall, for me tapestries are mural. I thought if I put them in a frame I wouldn’t be pretending they were anything other than samples. However by this time, a week to go, I had also decided that the samples were rubbish, and I was rubbish, and tapestry was stupid and I was wasting my life (it was a bad weekend). I was making the frames myself and managed to successful muck up totally the sawing of the wood. Without the frames I couldn’t show them. I would be saved the ridicule.
I spend most of the week with my head in the sand, the Arts Trail looming. I suppose part of me was reliant on the thought that panic would be the mother of invention. The only other answer I could come up with was a new pair of jeggings. I was walking back from my shopping expedition when I bumped into another artist in the village and berated them for being so organised in the run up to the trail. They promptly offered me some spare frames they were in two minds about using and which might do. SAVED – they were perfect!!!!! I didn’t have time to do the backs of the frames so wouldn’t be able to sell them, but at least I wouldn’t have an empty wall. Now I wasn’t feeling so sorry for myself I also realised I had some smaller archaeology-inspired pieces that I hadn’t shown before, and I could also throw in No Longer Mourn in the hope no one would remember it from last year.
I was in a lovely house, beautiful, large and high dark walls, perfect for my work – I was incredibly lucky! It was the home of Jolly Bean Roastery and I was showing with an artist I already knew through a mutual friend, the wonderful print maker Cath Brooke. I began to think that I shouldn’t show the two faces after all, thinking perhaps they were too rubbish, but there were a couple of spaces that needed filling.
Although both were labelled NFS, they did gather quite a bit of attention, and requests were made, despite the framing, to buy them. They were both sold before the morning of the first day was out. They remained on show though and continued to generate interest and comment, and it became clear that I needed to get over myself and that the way forward for me was glaringly obvious.
The Arts Trail is fabulous for connecting with fellow artists. I don’t usually get out to see other work as one feels one ought to be with one’s own work, but this year I was determined to see the other venues. Of particular note was Hannah Robson who weaves with metals to create spectacular sculptural pieces, I loved the juxtaposition of the more formal woven elements with the more open areas. One of my favourite artists is Paula Dunn (and frame offering hero), who has been working in cold wax and it was great to see her eye for spectacular landscapes translated this way. Ian Burdall creates very evocative maritime paintings and is again defo worth a gander. Textile artists Claire Wellesley-Smith and Hannah Lamb followed up their work last year, Lasting Impressions, by using weaving to archive some of the findings. It was great to see a row of beautiful Harris Looms in the spinning room at the top of Salts Mill and to see folk weaving on them. The results looked lovely. Such a great idea.
I am determined to have the weekend off (blog posting and the reading of some meeting papers excepted). I knew if I don’t fill it with something I’d just end up weaving so last night blew the dust off my needle case and transferred one of the tapestry designs I’ve been working on this week onto some cloth.
One thing I did do in that week before the Arts Trail was to set up a workbench just for sketching – why I never did that before is a mystery, but it is making a big difference having a dedicated space with everything I need at hand. It is good having this space away from the looms too, gives me space to think just on the sketching and not the weaving.
Art in the Pen in Skipton in August is the next event, I am working on designs for that and am very excited by the possibilities. I could do with an extra month though! I also need to get my Fellowship trips to Germany and Switzerland organised. But for now, needle and thread in the sunny yarden is calling. Ttfn xxx
I have been back from New York a few days, and pretty knackered, hence the slight delay in this post. My experience during this leg of the Fellowship has been very different to my time in France and Belgium, more of a smash and grab, there was less time to reflect, every day something was on. Whilst it was lovely to meet weavers in Angers, this week had far more face-to-face meetings with folk, so it wasn’t just me looking at tapestries, which again made this feel a very different experience. When I am able to keep my eyes open for more than two minutes at a time, I am looking forward to reflecting on it all properly! Again there is a gazillion photographs to work my way through.
I flew over on American Airlines, the reviews I had read were pretty poor, so I was braced for a bad experience, but it was fine, the only real pain the hour+ queue to get through customs and the internal battle that would make the fall of Carthage look like a minor spat, about whether or not to declare my tea bags. I was in two minds about forking out for a taxi to get into Manhattan or to brave the subway off the bat. The subway of course being the natural habit of vampires, cockroach humanoids, digital agents fighting re-awoken human batteries and murderous presidential wannabes. I will grant you that my perspective may be slightly marred by movies, but still……
The packed lift in the airport got stuck, and as many responded like they we were about to plummet to our deaths, a fellow Englishman and I shared a droll eye roll, and on our release joined forces to take on the Airtrain and the subway and whatever it threw at us. All rather uneventful in the end. The YMCA was very easy to find. Its location was excellent, although its lack of facilities a bit of a shock initially. I did end up with a spectacular view across Central Park though. Can I just say I love my travel kettle? Is that too weird?
My first stop was Cloisters, a Frankenstein structure built from elements of medieval structures shipped to the US and rebuilt. The result is an abbey in a stunningly beautiful park, high-rise blocks of the city in the background. It houses the medieval collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, colloquially known as the Met. The tapestries on show included two sets which were of particular interest.
The Unicorn Hunt series will be familiar to anyone who has been following West Dean’s recreation of the set for Stirling Castle. I wasn’t expecting their luminosity, which no photograph can reproduce, they were stunning of course, and woven beautifully, but if I am honest they were the hardest for me to engage with aesthetically and I couldn’t tell you why, perhaps the use of stock figures rendered them rather too formal? Perhaps it was because they were already familiar? But as I said they were wonderfully executed; there was a red velvet jacket that was impossible to believe it was woven and not actual velvet. The colours were spectacular. The stewards were lovely, even thought I kept setting off the alarms!
The second famous set were the Nine Heroes. These were woven around 1400 and it was thought for sometime they were produced in the same Paris workshops that wove the Apocalypse at Angers, although it may be the similarities are rooted in the weavers, the designers, or conventions of the time.
They were outstanding, full of interest, and the use of slits, like the Apocalypse, created incredibly characterful and spectacularly rendered figures.
However of all the tapestries on display, the one that I loved the most was the Falcon’s Bath woven around the same time. It was much more naive and simplistic, but in that lay its perfection.
The weaving was incredibly neat creating a crisp surface, beautifully preserved. The background was filled with stylistic flowers which all shared thin leaves creating a sense of unity – I am not a huge fan of millefleur tapestries, but felt this worked.
In amongst the flowers were beautifully woven small birds. The human figures were also created wonderfully, contoured wefts and slits were used so simply, but the result full of charm.
The Falcon’s Bath tapestry was also fascinating because after viewing it one could step into sun filled cloisters, the gardens full of the same flowers and the same birds, which no doubt inspired it.
I had planned to spend a second day at Cloisters, but made an off the cuff decision to go to Church first. The recently conserved 17th century Barberini tapestries which were damaged in a fire and which were re-hung in the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, had been in the news recently.
They were too late for my project so I hadn’t intended to include them in my itinerary, but I was interested in their being hung traditionally, as a set, rather than high up and separately like in a museum. I wanted to see a group of tapestries in their ecclesiastical context; I hadn’t, as hoped, managed it in France.
I had expected this to be a flying visit on the way to Cloisters but it became apparent that the laboratories in which they had been conserved was on site and very kindly the conservators allowed me to visit and showed me the tapestries themselves, although it was all unplanned.
It was fascinating to see the workshop, and wonderful to talk with folk who were as passionate about tapestry as I was. They have worked for years over these tapestries, bringing them back to life.
The tapestries themselves were on the cusp of the naive and painterly tradition, and in particular I loved the map of the holy land as it reminded me of the Sheldon tapestries woven in the Midlands.
Also hanging in the nave were four Mortlake tapestries based on Raphael’s cartoons for the Acts of the Apostle now in the V&A. Go team UK!
I had wanted to visit the Jane Kahan gallery as they had a great collection of mid-century tapestries, but alas all my emails in the run up to the project went unanswered. The next day I girded by bobbins and decided to just turn up anyway. The staff were lovely and although there weren’t too many tapestries on show, there was a Chagall woven by Yvette Cauquil-Prince.
It was the most spectacular weaving I have seen during the entirety of this project. If I could have one tapestry, this would be it, even more so than the Apocalypse. I suspect I am a few million short. Cauquil-Prince used every technique in the arsenal of the weaver; it seemed so expressive, so easy, so free of the restrictions of the loom. Yes it was a Chagall, but it was also a tapestry in its own right, it was a big lesson in how tapestries interpret a work instead of just reproducing it.
The Met museum proper was nearby. Again many tapestries were on display; my favourite was from the Courtiers in the Rose Garden series. Beautifully created figures, with lovely costumes woven just using hatchure stood before a striped background and roses. I loved the background, as I had with the bear tapestries in the Louvre, it seemed to give instant vitality to the design. I also loved how the formality of the hatchure and stripes contrasted with the more free-flowing and stylistic roses.
I had a whizz round the museum itself, it was a strange experience turning a corner and always seeing something that was already so familiar, whether it was a Van Goh self-portrait or the Nimrud Ivories. There was much inspiration there that will keep me going for a few years!
However I was at the Met to visit the Antonio Ratti Textile Centre. Very kindly I was invited before my arrival to choose some tapestries that were not normally on display to view. I selected pieces that would be of a size to be practical and would give me access to work of a type that I had not seen before. Alas the Crucixion was not available, sad as it was one of the earliest in the collection (around 1325-1350) and I had been particularly keen to see it. Nonetheless I was able to see the Madonna and the Eight Saints, sixteenth century so much later, but clearly related to an earlier tradition. The level of access was fantastic – I even got to see the back.
This was another tapestry with the faces left blank, this time they were embroidered rather than painted. Interestingly there was very little hatchure, but there was some double interlocking. The colours and preservation were spectacular.
One of the conservators popped in to see if I would like to see a tapestry they had in the laboratory. When she mentioned it was the Crucifixion, I had to stop myself doing a little tapestry dance. It was spectacular to see, I couldn’t take photographs as it was being worked on, but what a privilege! (the one below is from their website) .
I already had an appointment the following day at the Met’s Textiles Conservation Laboratory, but they asked if I would like to join them in the morning for a talk being given by another visitor, it was great to be able to join the conservators and to be made so welcome – I felt I was amongst my tribe! Over coffee and the most fabulous cake ever, we listened to attempts being made to safeguard traditional Japanese dyeing techniques. I was then given a tour of the laboratory, which included a demonstration of how the latest digital photography techniques are being used to better understand how weavers of the past made tapestries. I cannot wait to see how this develops further. I also got to see a gigantic door curtain from an inner chamber of the Kaaba at Mecca and more Mortlake tapestries.
The following day I was scheduled to meet with Simona Blau of Vojtech Blau gallery. I arrived slightly late having discovered my bank cards weren’t working, and had to contact the bank whilst simultaneously trying to figure out how I was going to walk back into Manhattan and live under a bridge in Central Park for the rest of my life as the two dollars cash I had was going to have to last me for ever and ever. I was very sad that I was never going to get to see Yorkshire again. It all worked out in the end, and Simona was very understanding following my slightly flustered arrival! It was interesting to see her tapestries in a domestic setting, showing how relevant they still are to modern interiors.
I learned a great deal with Simona, and learned of more artists that I had not come across before. The tapestries too were spectacular, especially one designed by Lee Krasner and again woven by Yvette Cauqill-Prince, and with the same energy and vitality as the Chagall (detail below). Interestingly it was woven with the warp running top to bottom.
In the afternoon I had an appointment at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, a branch of the Smithsonian Institute. One of the conservators at the Met had told me about a thirteenth century tapestry they had in their collection. It is normally stored off site but fortunately it was at the museum’s labs and I was granted access. It was only a fragment, but something I had not come across before, having been woven in Moorish-Spain. It was woven in silk and gold and incredibly fine. There were lots of slit weaving and plenty of eccentric wefts. It is known informally as the Beautiful Ladies and it is clear to see why.
The following day was a big highlight for me, meeting with artist Erin Riley in Brooklyn. She is someone who has almost single-handed brought tapestry to a new generation, her subject matter making the medium relevant, whilst at the same time providing a fascinating juxtaposition with the tradition of the form. She also engages brilliantly with folk through social media such as Instagram and I felt I knew her studio already, it was strange being on the other side of the iPad screen.
It is easy to think one knows her work through her online presence, but in the flesh her tapestries popped from the wall with lovely colours and interesting surfaces, and beautifully woven. She was flipping lovely to boot! It was interesting to hear her talk of her tapestries in the same context as the Unicorn Hunt, that they shared the same subject matter, those five hundred years ago disguised by metaphor, hers more explicit. It provided a wonderful bookend to a great trip.
It was my last full day in New York, so I played hooky in the afternoon. I felt I hadn’t seen New York, I had been flitting from one meeting to another, and had spent so much of it underground on the subway. It seemed rather ridiculous to have come all that way and not get a feel for it!. From Brooklyn I headed to the Staten Island ferry and did the statue thang, and I strolled around the south of the city, including the tourist coated Charging Bull and Fearless Girl (it is in there, honest) and I also a nipped to the 9/11 memorial, a rather uncomfortable experience, seeing folk sitting on the names, taking pouty selfies.
Also at various points in the week I was able to dart into the Museum of Modern Art and into the Museum of American Folk Art and in the latter saw a great exhibition of Carlo Zinelli. I think I am allowed to be knackered, aren’t I?
Well no, is the answer, I am heading to London tomorrow for the Heritage Craft Association’s Texture of Craft conference on Saturday, sadly I had to bow out of the launch of the Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts at the House of Lords but it would have been the death of me. I also need to start weaving like a demon to get ready for the Saltaire Arts Trail at the end of the month. And there’s the WCMT report to write. I also need to start planning the next leg……..
In truth my return has been a bit bumpy. I was so chuffed with how well I had managed while I was away, it was a bit of a shock to find myself so tired I could hardly function at all, and it has taken a good fortnight to start punching my way through. It has been incredibly frustrating.
I was also welcomed home by a laptop that wouldn’t work – a cracked motherboard, apparently. I tried to tell myself I would manage with just an iPad but it soon became clear that was nonsense. I am going to unashamedly do a shout out for the extremely lovely and talented jeweller Catherine Woodall, who had a laptop she wasn’t using, and has quite frankly got me out of a massive hole. It was quite a thing to realise that when such things happen, one is not alone.
All this does not mean I have done nothing, although *ahem* I am yet to fully unpack. When I started my PhD someone told me to start writing it from the get-go rather than waiting to the end, some of the best advice I ever received, and I have done the same here and have written up my notes, slowly building up my report. I’ve also started sorting through my images, no mean feat as there are thousands of them.
As for weaving, it had been my intention to take my time. I was only half way through my Fellowship after all, there was lots more to see. But by the time the first week was out I was working on a cartoon for a new full-sized tapestry, which I am hoping may be ready for the Saltaire Arts Trail in May, but certainly for Art in the Pen in August.
I’ve also started on some technical studies, like piano scales, experimenting with the techniques I have seen (above). This has included a finer sett and using some dovetailing and cut backs, and weaving over a single warp, which had always turned out rather pants before. The key was to hold back, stop with the gimmicks and just let the warp and weft do their job. Ironically the result has been far more control, something I always lacked before, and I do feel the world is now my weaving and drawing oyster. I might now be able to weave what I draw, instead of drawing what I can weave. This is a massive step and the implications are vast and very, very exciting. This is a very different style of weaving for me, but I love it, and I never saw it coming. It has been interesting to compare this piece with the failure I did after seeing the medieval wall paintings at Pickering – they go to show how much this Fellowship has already pushed me and the importance of seeing the tapestries in the flesh.
I had hoped to go back to Europe before I head off to New York at the end of the month, but my brain has been cheese and I haven’t trusted myself to put it together, but plans for New York are well under way and the Met museum have been fabulous and I cannot wait.
I am going to make myself some very strong coffee and attempt to catch up with my inbox, but hope to spend some time this afternoon with my sketchbook and some pie. Ttfn xxx