Building on my WCMT Fellowship in Medieval Tapestry

I have tried numerous times to update this blog, but it has proved impossible, how can I articulate all that has happened in this last year? It is of course my fault for not keeping on top of it, but to be honest there has been very little time when I have been off loom. I wonder if instead of trying to go over everything, I might just start with the last tapestry I’ve finished and hope that that will give a sense of what has been going on and the progress made.

Chrissie Freeth Medieval Tapestry The Nook

I cut off The Nook (above) just before Christmas. Last time we spoke, I was coming to terms with the decision to turn my back on my old way of working and embrace the more formal ways of weaving more familiar to the medieval weaver, hoping that the expressiveness I have always been looking for will materialise in other ways.

However, I knew that before I moved back up to full sized tapestries like this, I would need to focus on samples and initially I focused on some experimental archaeology at the loom, trying to work out how the Halberstadt tapestries had been woven the way they were (below). I loved the results but as I tried to scale them up into a mural tapestry, pastiche took over and that is always something I have been petrified about.

One of the experiments I had long wanted to do was to see see how small I could go to work out if I could comfortably weave full figures within the width of my loom. Girl with Flowers (below) began as a quick sample to experiment with scale, I was reweaving an earlier cartoon at a smaller size, and that’s why the frock is so plain and the hair short. I found myself wanting to keep going with her and rummaged about in the photographic archive for the flowers and leaves. This was a turning point for me, as simple as it sounds, I was responding to the figure on the loom, making things up as I went, instead of having it all planned out and sampled before I started as I usually do. Remember, with tapestry you cannot undo something that has been woven over unless you take all of it out, it is not really a medium that endears itself to winging it, but that is exactly what I did. I realised that I had the skills now to do that, there was no problem I could not work out on the loom.

Chrissie Freeth Medieval Tapestry Girl with Flowers

I realised then it was time to move back to a full sized tapestry, I drew out a cartoon for The Nook, the figure based on one I had abandoned earlier. The cartoon only initially consisted of the first half and I began weaving not having a clue what colours I would be using or how I was going to turn a drawing outline into a tapestry, all those decisions would be made at the loom and in response to what was already growing beneath my fingertips. Some details are below.

Now I am not going to say there wasn’t a great deal of reweaving every now and then, but the difference was that I was not in a panic about it, I didn’t see it as a failure but as all part of the process, I knew in my bones that I would figure things out. I could not be happier with the result and the whole process felt far more engaging, it was about me and the loom, not just turning into tapestry a painting I had done earlier. In fact there was no original image for The Nook tapestry, it is not based on anything that pre-existed. I was able to draw upon, from my mental toolbox, all the techniques I had seen and could use them with ease and confidence, I had a mirad of possibilities at my fingers. It seems, dear reader, I now know what I am doing.

Chrissie Freeth Medieval Tapestry Hush in progress

The Nook is still relatively small for me and a new tapestry the full width of the loom is well on the way, but one which again I am developing on the fly (above). Apart from vague positioning of its elements and colour distribution, all likely to be tossed out of the window at any minute, I have no idea how it will look, and I love it. The happy accidents far out way the occasional re-weaving when things go a little bit pants.

The overall design of these tapestries, the cartoon, I won’t lie, remains a challenge, but I feel I am getting my vocabulary firmer. It helps too that the place they will come to life is on the loom, not the paper before me. I’ve brought up into my workroom am old drawing board that was decomposing in my cellar and it has proved invaluable. I have also learned to accept I can spend a month on these cartoons, then abandon it for another that materialises fully formed in an afternoon. I suppose it is all part of that process, of letting things marinate and letting them spurt out when they are done (feel free to remind me of this statement when I am bitching about designing cartoons on Facebook). One thing with The Nook that I find so interesting, is that I have always here spoken at length of the inspirations behind my tapestries, yet with this one I feel no need to explain it, I know what it draws on, I think I know what it means, but for once this is a tapestry I have made which can speak for itself, it needs no bolstering and blustering from me; that can only be progress too.

The strides I’ve made have been helped in no small way by not having to hit the ground running when I got back from Switzerland and Germany. Normally I have events peppered through the year and that has usually meant making more sellable smaller pieces, and pieces I knew would work, there was not the time for experimentation, there was not scope for things to go wrong. But some breathing space has really helped me to start to explore all I have seen and learnt. But that is not to say I have been completely cloistered. I did Art in the Pen in August (above) and as always it was fantastic, I love it so much, such wonderful visitors (including the lovely lady I bored to death talking tapestry when she ended up sitting next to me on the plane to Berlin!!!!) and of course it was lovely talking to fellow artists, and one in particular who really helped me break some barriers on the design front. I’m such an overthinker, it really helps for someone to see your body of work and just go, Have you thought about this, this and this. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have made the progress I have without her insight and her willingness to share it and I am more confident than ever of being able to draw on my medieval inspirations without my work being pastiche.

Ripon Cathedral

Unbeknownst to me at the time, someone from Ripon Cathedral (above) saw my work at Art in the Pen and a couple of months later I was invited to have an exhibition there in May next year. This is, as you can imagine, a wonderful opportunity for me, and to see my work in a cathedral such as Ripon is incredibly exciting, and wonderful to keep the tradition of the church supporting artists and artisans. The theme of the exhibition will be storytelling and it is going to be great to be able to showcase this new work and the influence the Fellowship has had.

The way I now work, not least because my sett and materials are so much finer, takes longer and so I am having to work all hours to make enough work to do the space justice. It has been a difficult decision but the need to focus on larger pieces for Ripon also means I am unlikely to be out and about at events this year, but it will pay off I am sure. I’ve also been working on proposals for a commission which may or may not happen, and I can’t say too much, or in fact anything, but if it does come off I will of course let you know all about it. There is a price to pay for such a productive year. I’ve been having physio for months for a dodgy shoulder, and an injection into the joint the other week, but nothing seems to have worked, but at at least it seems it won’t get any worse. Well apart from today which is why I have banned myself from the loom and have been able to catch up on my chores and emails. Lastly I will confess that I have been using Instagram quite a bit, which may also explain why this blog has been abandoned a little. It has provided me with a way of articulating what is going on at the loom whilst I am at the loom, rather than having to wait until some part of my musculature has gone ping, forcing me to take an admin day and fire up the laptop. I will, however try to be more mindful of this blog going into the future. I accept this post has been a bit of a catch up and a few folk had commented on its lack of update, and again, I apologise and will try not to let it happen again.

Churchill Fellowship 6 – Nuremburg and Munich

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.

Wild folk feasting and storming the castle of love, c1420, Strassburg
part of a funeral tapestry showing the last judgement woven around 1450 in Nuremberg

 

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.

Detail from the Legend of St Joseph 1450/1470 Nuremburg
Detail from Tapestry with Games of love c1400 ?Heidelberg
Detail from the Enthroned Madonna and Saints, c1440-1450 woven in Nuremburg, possibly St Catherine’s nunnery.

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 of a tapestry woven in Switzerland around 1380
Detail of a tapestry if two saints woven around 1460 in Franken. Note the embroidered face and blood
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Part of the Adoration of the Magi tapestry possibly woven in Bamberg around 1490-1500 – note figure of weaver at bottom edge

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.

Traditional Crafts in the Balkans

A few weeks ago a vacancy on an EU funded trip to the Devetaki Plateau to study traditional craft skills emerged before my awakening eyes. I leapt from the Ipad and my bed and straight onto the laptop. My WCMT Fellowship has taught me, a girl who nearly had a panic attack at the prospect of going to an unfamiliar coastal town last year, that I am far more capable of things than ever I thought, that travel and new horizons are essential to my practice and that I should grab every opportunity that comes my way.

It is not very often that I have a few weeks clear of commitments but I had an unusual gap in the diary which I had earmarked for some experimental work. But as someone who has a particular interest in the safeguarding and promotion of heritage crafts, seeing the celebration of traditional skills in a rural Bulgarian community where such skills are still intrinsically valued was not something to be missed. I also had a very personal reason for wanting to go. In my quest to better understand tapestry as a medieval art form, I have recently been exploring, both on and off the loom, medieval frescoes, especially Byzantine work, as another contemporaneous large-scale mural art form. Out in Bulgaria I knew there was a glimmer of hope I might, just might, get a chance to see some first-hand. Medieval frescoes of course were not the purpose of the wider project, the itinerary was clearly laid out taking in craft festivals and relevant museums. But I had a sneaking suspicion that out there I had better chance of clapping my eyes on Byzantine frescoes and those influenced by them, rather than in the industrial north of the UK. The trip seemed a perfect compliment to my Fellowship, it would mean I lost a couple of weeks in planning the next leg, but it seemed a worthwhile sacrifice. I was quite shocked and very thrilled when I got an email the next day saying my flights were being booked. And what luxury, no organisation to do myself, no travel arrangements, no itinerary to put together, no meetings to set up or accommodation to find, or documentation to produce. All I had to do was get myself to the airport.

Our first full day was spent in the capital, Sofia. This involved exploring the Roman city of Serdica, their ruins had been wonderfully incorporated into public spaces and buildings. Our first stop, however was the Rotunda of St George a Roman temple enveloped by a modern hotel and long ago converted into an Orthodox church. It was a Sunday so a mass was under way. No photographs were allowed, at least not without a fee. It was mesmerizing introduction to Bulgaria, the chanting, the intimacy of the mass, and yes, amazing ancient frescoes coating every surface of the tiny building.

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We also visited the Church of Saint Sofia and its Roman necropolis and then onto the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The latter I had dismissed, it was relatively modern so of little personal interest to me. But nothing could prepare me for its size, its richness and of course the awe inspiring frescoes, very arts and crafts inspired. These frescoes very much marked the space as ‘other’, as something sacred, as something expressive (have a google for the interior).

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Our final stop in the city was the Ethnographic exhibition where there was a wonderful display of traditional textiles and costumes. There I met a lovely tapestry weaver, Lydia Raeva who very kindly shared some images of her work. She used an amazing beater (sorry for the quality of the pic), made of iron, at least a hundred years old and passed to her by her teacher. At half a kilo, it was a wonderful weight. Stupidly I did not realise Bulgaria had a tradition of kilim making akin to that of nearby Anatolia. There was mid-nineteenth century example on display and Lydia was working on a piece inspired by such motifs for demonstration purposes.

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We then hit the mountain coated roads to Gabrovo and the next day kicked off with a quick visit to a small monastery, Sokolski. Again coated in frescoes. It does not take long for them to get blacked over thanks to the candles and oils within the church and conservation work to remove such coatings have to be undertaken quite frequently.

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Our main destination was Etar Open Air Museum of Traditional Crafts. It largely consisted of a recreated street, some of the buildings relocated from elsewhere, and each top and bottom floor houseing a traditional crafts person. These included wood turners, cow bell makers, potters, black smith, copper smith, icon painters, leather workers, wood cutters, and weavers and many more. Most pay rent and sell wares some, such as the the cow bell maker – and weirdly – the weaver, are sponsored as their crafts are so endangered. One weaver told me there are only 15 left, a figure I am struggling to believe and cannot be sure it is a translation issue as it just seems astounding. There are demonstrations at every corner and exhibitions too, including an International Craft Fair. One of the participants was a fourth generation potter with quite possibly the fifth generation either side of her. Bulgaria of course is signed up to UNESCO’s Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage, a stance demonstrating its commitment to safeguarding its heritage such as craft skills. The UK is one of the few who hasn’t.

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Etara Open Air Museum
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Upright loom used to weave goats hair
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Angled domestic loom
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Rugs produced on the loom above
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Many of the workshops were water powered

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Finally we headed to Gabrovo’s Museum of Humour. The town has a reputation of being misers, the Gabrovo Cat being one with its tail cut off so it does not take as long to get through an open door and thus let the heat out longer than necessary. The museum took self-deprecation to a new level, but also included a series of Adam and Eve inspired cartoon like tapestries and a large exhibition on nineteenth century frescoes. Of course I had long ago given up laughing at myself and my secret hope of sneaking in a look at a fresco, day two and already I had seen more than I could ever have hoped for.

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The next day we started towards the Devtaki Plateau, stopping on the way at the medieval town and ancient capital of Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo. This was a change to the planned itinerary, one of the folklore festivals we had intended to visit having been rescheduled. The modern town was covered in public art and there was a street dedicated to craftsworkers. But a late night google had revealed a plethora of ancient churches in the area, one in particular within walking distance of the town. So while my fellow travellers headed for the ruins of the ancient fortress, I headed down the hill to the small church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

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I was a bit peeved at the no photographs rule within churches. But the form of worship was very intimate, it seemed to focus on on personal interaction with icons rather than masses being done to a congregation at a set time, and I could appreciate that having tourists snapping away would be incredibly intrusive. But at the medieval church for a fee photographs were allowed and I had the whole place to myself. It was entirely awe inspiring, just as it was intended to be. There were three layers of frescoes. In the UK these would have been protected with plastic coverings, we would have been kept at a distance, but I was left entirely to my own devices, just me and the frescoes. I could not believe it.

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Inside the church most frescoes dated to the early fifteenth century with a few dating to the thirteenth. More frescoes in an outer gallery dated to the sixteenth. It was engrossing to see in paint the very same images, motifs and details I had seen woven in wool and silk and precious materials during the course of my Fellowship. It was interesting to see actual textiles too, albeit painted, at the bottom of the paintings. I can’t wait to think all this through properly.

But it was, too soon, time to leave one paradise for another, namely The Herbal House in Gorsko Slivovo village. A huge gate from the road opened onto a magical garden and a beautiful guesthouse, freshly baked bread waiting for us on the kitchen table. Our hosts lived across the road and brought us our meals which were, quite frankly spectacular. I have never in my life eaten so well. In fact everything we ate in Bulgaria tasted differently, better, flavoursome, it made me realise how literally tasteless our food has become. Most households in the villages seemed largely self-sufficient and it showed in the sheer quality.

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After a breakfast of a jam so sweet it was like the neighbour’s honey and doughnut like bread we headed to the spectacular Devetashka Cave and the Krushuna waterfalls. It was a great chance to see the impact the Devetaki Plateau Association, from which our week’s guide hailed had had on the region. Over the last few years they have branded together nine or so villages, offered training to guesthouse owners, promoted tourist attractions, organised first response, established wifi and organised festivals and much more and all seemingly with little central support. It was interesting waking one morning to read an article from the Beeb posted that day about the crumbling population in the villages of Bulgaria such as the one I was staying it. Every other house was abandoned, our hosts were the youngest we had seen. Its wide street was deserted apart from A4 sheets on every lamppost and doorway commemorating the dead like lost cat posters back home. I will confess it did seem that this small fight by the association against what seems an overwhelming tide, has a sense of inevitability about it, especially without political support which is clearly so lacking.

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After the cave we stopped at the village’s cultural centre and its small museum. Once every house would have a loom, although wooden reeds seems to be all that remains of them now.

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Apart from being amazing cooks, our hosts were also craftsfolk too. In the afternoon we had a demonstration in wire wrap jewellery. Most of my friends are jewellery makers but it is not something I have ever done myself and it is all a bit of a mystery so it was good to have a bit of insight now. It is fair to say we were all utterly gutted to leave The Herbal House.

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En route we stopped off at a retirement club in Kramolin village in the corner of which were more textile implements on display including shuttles, swift, reeds and combs. This can’t have been for the benefit of the tourists, it was just evidence of the respect traditional crafts were held on a day-to-day basis. Some original costumes were on display, as they had been in just about every museum we visited and our guide and others we spoke to also had costumes in their wardrobe and they were used.

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We had a picnic lunch in the ruins of a Byzantine town, Hotalich. Not all of it is excavated, but the houses we saw had belong to craftsmen, pottery still left in the kiln, suggesting its occupants had to flee. We had earlier that day seen some of the artefacts excavated from the site in the museum at nearby Sevlievo and which included loom weights.

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By afternoon we had reached the the Guest House Eco Art in Drashkova Polyana. Here we were invited to take part in a ceramics workshop, and striclty between you and me it only took one series of the Great pottery Thrown Down for me to want to unceremoniously ditch my looms for a kiln, so a chance to have a go was something I was looking forward to hugely but I found myself suddenly empty of all energy and with heaps of regret I had to retreat to my room and rest. However I did get to see the work of my fellow travellers. Perhaps it was the work of the Loom Gods at play, realising how fickle I am and preventing me from getting my hands on some clay.

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The following day we headed for Troyan Monastery, one of the largest in Bulgaria. A mass was underway to we couldn’t get in, but it was clear the extent of damage the frescoes suffer, half of them were almost completely blacked over, the other half were being cleaned. They were mid-nineteenth century and made by one of the most celebrated icon painters of the day. On a tanoy the priest sung the mass. He seemed to have a cold and every now and then a cough boomed out, but even that did not lessen the magic of it all.

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Our next stop was the National Museum of Craft in Troyan. It was understandably focused on the ceramics on which the town is famous but there was also much to see in the way of textiles. Interestingly some of the decorations on the posts were inspired by the monastic paintings. The textiles included traditional costumes and rugs – woven as well as hand-tufted, and an exhibition on felted carpets.

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We stopped briefly at a Roman fort on the way back to Sofia and the airport. All of us incredibly sad to be leaving and vowing to return.We all came to Bulgaria with our own interests and aims and inevitably I ended up focusing on the textiles, but to be honest it was all around me, all the time, it was impossible not to. I arrived home exhausted, overwhelmed, at 4.30am on Saturday morning and it has taken until now to write this post. There is so much for me to digest and already it is making me rethink the directions I am heading in and of course I’ll share all this as it happens. And I for one will never forget the quiet, the calm, the beauty, the history, the weather, the landscape, the goddamn food, the traditions and the friendliness. This project was part of PRIDE: Partnership for Rural Improvement & Development in Europe. One cannot help but feel devastated that we as a country are turning our back on Europe, and inevitably they are turning theirs on us. How ridiculous we are. This trip has had a huge effect on me and I know it did on the others too, quite significantly in fact, and in different far more profound and personal ways as well as professional. How tragic that such an amazing opportunity as this may now very likely be denied to others in a couple of years.

 

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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

Churchill Fellowship 2 – Paris

I am on the train to Angers (pronounced more like an-jay). I am desperately sad to be leaving Paris, not least because I am heading off a few days earlier than expected. But now I know how long it is possible for me to stand in front of a tapestry, I knew I needed longer in Angers, the home of medieval tapestries. But I am ahead of myself.

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Woodcutters at Les Arta Decoratiff in Paris

I knew from research that the Les Arts Decoratif had a few tapestries, as did the Louvre, but I was completely unprepared for the vast numbers on display. Obviously tapestries are delicate, and are generally displayed in rotation and it quickly became clear that there was some disparity in what the catalogue claimed was on display and what was on the walls, but all to my favour.

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Detail from Woodcutters

There were some spectacular tapestries, including the Woodcutters, woven in Tournai around 1460-1475. The detail, characters and vitality was simply wonderful, as was the quality of weaving.

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Faded colours in the Woodcutters

This was also of note for the faded colours which left the most fascinating skeleton of slits and gaps, ghosts of hatchure and colour changes, no longer visible. I don’t know why I became so fascinated by these, perhaps it is the archaeologist on me, always fascinated by what is gone, rather than what survives.

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One of the tapestry galleries at the Louvre

I was not expecting the number of tapestries at the Louvre either, and ended up having to spend two days there. As well as the medieval tapestries they have a vast collection of Baroque and Neo-classical pieces on display, which alas I had to ignore. Many of the medieval tapestries were hung high and in near darkness, making access difficult, but seeing such a collection covering such a time span left me with an amazing picture of the development in the styles of tapestry, including those seeming infested with needless heads and shoulders, and many more millefleurs tapestries including the well known Noble Pastorale series.

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Noble Pastorale Series

It is always odd seeing things so familiar in books, in the flesh. Again one tapestry in particular stood out, and for the same reasons as the Woodcutters – the vitality and quality of weavings. The Repas de la Chasseurs was also possibly woven in Tournai at the end of the fifteenth century and  had a plumpness to the figures and economy of colour and it put its faith in hatchure to do its job rather than bury them in the depiction of luxurious fabrics. It was a stark contrast to those tapestries where a more realistic depiction was attempted.

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Le Repas de la Chasseurs

I am gong to be diplomatic and skip over the adventure that was getting into the Gobelins, because despite the tears, the self recrimination, the development of an alcohol and drug dependancy problem, the counselling, and for a brief period, turning to God, I did get in and the staff and guides were utterly marvellous. I will only add that I have worn many hats in my life, but in the community of weavers I have never come across such mutual support, friendliness and acceptance – you know who you are, thank you. Photography was not allowed so I have little to share, but over a couple of days I got to see the carpet, basse lisse and haute lisse workrooms. I have a bit of a crush on basse lisse looms at the moment, just before this trip I had been experimenting weaving on a low warp and the back ache has not yet deterred me. But seeing their magnificent haute lisse looms rekindled my love of my upright looms. With the low warp I wove from the back and I think I am going to try to do this with my upright looms when I get home, as they do at Gobelins, I can see the sense of it. Such a great experience to see these workshops, and how professional they were, it gave me a great deal to think about and bring back with me.

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Detail from Repas de la Chasseurs

The visit to Gobelins also instilled a much greater appreciation for the role of weaver as interpreter of designs, something I had not fully considered before as I weave my own. This trip had been, in part, inspired by Jean Lurcat’s book on tapestries; he had not been terribly polite about Gobelins criticising what he viewed as rather wasteful ways. It was incredibly enlightening to hear their take on it, and I feel I have a much more balanced view, and can see his instance on weavers working solely from a coded cartoon without an original art work for them to interpret themselves, was to the detriment of their skills.

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Detail from Repas de la Chasseurs

The plan was then to go to the workrooms at Beauvais and the National Tapestry Gallery there. This too had taken an extraordinary amount of phone calls made on my behalf, resulting in a ‘you shall not pass’ that would have made Gandalf proud. What anyone had failed to say, despite their website being so to the contrary, was the National Tapestry Gallery was no more, and a comment on trip advisor triggered my spider-senses and I was able to confirm this was the case, just in time before I set off. It meant a day unexpectedly free, I instead explored the narrow streets full of independent art galleries that surrounded my lovely apartment in St Germain.

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Gobelins workshops

As I said, it became clear as the week progressed that I would need more time in Angers that I had previously thought. This was also sparked by the fact that it was to Gobelins and Beauvias I was looking to to see some twentieth century tapestries, but that instead I hope to see in Angers.

When I set off from Yorkshire I set nine separate alarms, just in case, as you do. This morning, just the one. I feel I am growing as a person. I even managed to brave the Paris metro during rush hour and with a suitcase. I know many Churchill Fellows get to have great adventures in exotic places, but I now feel I can hold my head high amongst them.

So, Angers, here I come!

Tapestry at Art in the Pen

Art in the Pen, Tapestry Weaver

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).

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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

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