Conservation Ethics at Harewood House

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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

Arts Trail – Thank you!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

hyIn the meantime, the loom needs warping, and I need to get some more work underway! Cheerio for now x

 

 

 

Saying it with weft – a new tapestry finished

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Sonnet 71: No Longer mourn for me (Shakespeare)

No longer mourn or me when I am dead

Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell

Give warning to the world that I am fled

From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell;

Nay, if you read this line, remember not

The hand that writ it; for I love you so,

That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,

If thinking on me then should make you woe.

O, if (I say) you look upon this verse,

When I (perhaps) compounded am with clay,

Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,

But let your love even with my life decay,

Lest the wise world should look into your moan,

And mock you with me after I am gone.

Awarded Churchill Fellowship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tapestries at the V&A

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Detail from The Otter and Swan Hunt

I’m really proud to be one of the trustees of the Heritage Crafts Association and yesterday I had to go to London for a committee meeting. I soon realised I’d have half an hour free to nip into the V&A, somewhere I’d never been before. It was quite hard keeping focused as I strode through the galleries, shielding my eyes from potential distraction, but my time was short and my goal was on level three, the gallery of tapestries.

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The largest part of the exhibition were the early fifteenth century Flemish made Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, named as such because each of the four tapestries depict different forms of hunting. I’d read about them in detail so thought I knew what to expect, but as I stepped through the high glass doors and into the darkened climate controlled room I must confess I welled up quite a bit. Fortunately although the museum was busy, the gallery was deserted and I had it to myself.

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Detail from The Bear Hunt

The first thing that grabs you about the tapestries is inevitably their size and their detail. I had baulked once when someone compared tapestry to the cinema entertainment of the day, but now I kinda get it. These aren’t passive pretty pictures up on a wall to be walked past, they were vast, something to sit before and stare at and engage with and drink in one inch at a time.

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Detail from The Beer Hunt

The other thing I didn’t properly anticipate were their colours and vibrancy, this was especially so with a tapestry called The Three Fates. Again it was familiar to me from the text books but I had rather shamefully flicked over it as I never liked the composition of the disembodied figures against the milliefleur background.

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The Three Fates, 1510-1520

But in the flesh it became apparent that no photograph could ever do it justice; it was mesmerizing, and the vibrancy of it was jewel-like, the dresses lifted off the surface and shone like sapphire, pearl and garnet. I could not take my eyes of it and it was the one I spent most time with. That the creation of such a thing be possible with thread astounds me.

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Detail from The Three Fates

Quite rightly the room was kept dark to protect the tapestries and barriers stopped folk from getting too close. But it was quite frustrating for me as a weaver not to be able to get close enough to work out the sett, to mentally unpick what was before me, and to look at and understand how the shapes had been formed, how the shading was achieved, what decisions the weavers made.

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Detail from The Deer Hunt

As I left I did give a bid of a nod to the weavers but as I write this and look over the photographs I realise it is so easy to overlook that all the thread used was handspun – presumably on a spindle if not a great-wheel, and the time that would have taken is monumental and the skill it would have taken to get the thread so universally fine and even, is unimaginable.

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Detail from The Falconry Tapestry

Because my time was so limited, my visit could only ever be a reccie  and I will certainly be back armed with bags of time and a sketchbook. I left the gallery quite literally overwhelmed. I could have done with a sit down and a coffee, but instead it was back into the underground and then into a meeting. There was little time to digest what I had experienced, and that is a process that is still on going. But for now I can say that the seriousness, the life, the vibrancy, the sumptuousness, the comedy, which I saw yesterday was what tapestry could and should be. I think seeing these tapestries has made me grow up a bit as a weaver and they will always be the foundation I’ll go back to as I move forward. It’s not about imitating them of course, but about remembering what there is to live up to.

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Detail from Pastoral tapestry

Also in the museum were the Raphael cartoons for a series of tapestries; they are of course stunning paintings, but the tapestries that came from them could only ever be an imitation of them. They mark, as Dirk Holger has said in a comment on an earlier post, the decline of tapestry as an autonomous art form.

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Raphael cartoon

The tapestries on the third floor could only ever have been tapestries. Tapestry is so much more than an imitation of painting, something that has cursed it for centuries. Here in he UK there will be few of us who haven’t seen a tapestry in a stately home or castle, but many will have been post-Renaissance designs and the natural dyes faded into homogeneous blues and tans. My pics taken with an iPad in a darkened room cannot do them justice and I urge anyone who can, to visit them and see what tapestry really can be.

Detail from Pastoral tapestry, but kinda think you can make up your own caption!
Detail from Pastoral tapestry, but kinda think you can make up your own caption!

I managed to scoot across town and make my meeting in good time. It was held at Cockpits Arts in Holburn. I was familiar with the organisation through some writing I had done, and have met, albeit virtually, one of the artists based there. It was a warren of shared studios and it had a great atmosphere, such an amazing facility and I am really envious we don’t have something similar near me. The issue of studio space is particularly pertinent at the mo – my new loom arrived on Thursday, and next week I hope to be able to tell you all about it. I’ll be refitting what was once my bedroom into a studio, so I shall love you and leave you, I’ve got to start emptying out the wardrobe x

Week 19: That’s all folks!

Gracie is finally ready to hang. Sewing on the carpet tape and velcro took much longer than I thought it would and it has been quite frustrating – no matter how hard I worked, when I left at the end of the day she looked no different to when I started. My last act was to sew on my name and date. I never did get round to putting in a weaver’s mark.

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Fundraising is ongoing and I’ve said the hall can hang her until the end of July and we’ll see where we are at then. I’m not going to be there when they hang her, I suspect I will just get in the way and will fuss. I do like the idea of the tapestry hanging in the same place she was woven. The next and last job is to go back for the loom and I am looking forward to seeing her up. I feel like she isn’t mine anymore, which I suppose is a good thing. And I’ll be keeping in touch with East Riddlesden, staying on as artist-in-residence with a view to doing some workshops next year.

P1070847Now there isn’t anything else to be done I feel free to focus on the next project – details of which I will share soon I promise. I have spent the last couple of hours resetting and tidying my toolbox and I’ve already been experimenting with dyes and tomorrow I will order more and some yarn – I’m quite looking forward to it now!

So it isn’t all folks; now I’ve got into the habit of blogging pretty much weekly I will try to keep it up. I would just like to say that I’m really grateful to everyone who has read and commented – it does help me to keep going. x

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Week 18: Off the loom!

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It seemed fitting that as my friends Kate and Paula had been so supportive throughout this whole process that they were with me as I cut Gracie from the loom.

It all happened very quickly and it was me doing the snipping so I never really saw it – which was probably for the best as I was totally over-emotional about the whole thing anyway.

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Miraculously she stayed in one piece as we laid her down on some sheets. It was a shock how nimble she was – but there again I suppose she is a piece of cloth. Not only was it fitting Kate and Paula be there, they are also expert sewers – I’m not stupid! As they began plaiting the warps and sewing the turn back in place I knotted a few areas of weft at junction points.

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I had assumed the way I had done the vertical soumak would mean I wouldn’t have to sew up the slits but the pedantic side of me came out and I have started sewing them up and this is ongoing, taking up much more time than I thought. A meeting in London on Saturday and the Tour de France bringing Yorkshire to a halt on Sunday meant I went in on Thursday and Friday when the hall was closed but it looked like I’ll have to go in next week as well – the staff must be wondering if they will ever see the back of me! tapestry bobbins

In the mean time Shelly at Toast of Leeds has put on her blog some of the images she took (above and below) – I am in awe at how she has managed to take the common place things I no longer notice and turned them into pictures of such beauty. I’m feeling very lucky to have had this opportunity – do go over and have a look at the rest of them.

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