Blog of Chrissie Freeth tapestry weaver, features writer for UK Handmade, weaving features editor for the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, Artist in Residence National Trust and trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association
These posts have been far more retrospective than I thought they would be, but quite frankly I have been having too much fun at the loom, but more on that later.
A friend of mine had gone inter-railing around Europe with her family and as I realised how much travelling I’d be doing during this leg she inspired me to get a rail pass, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made, more so even than the purchase of a travel kettle, so that’s saying something. Aided by the accompanying app, the freedom to just hop on and off whatever train I wanted was totally liberating, and without having to mess with ticket machines and kiosks. And so after saying a rather hard good-bye to Halberstadt I zoomed at 268km/h from towards Nuremburg. I was also self congratulating myself at this point for treating myself to some loose tops back in the UK, it was unseasonably hot and sunny.
Nuremburg was a delight. A modern vibrant city, teeming with life, and yet easy to navigate and possible to cross by foot in a few minutes. It was hard not to be moved by what had been lost in the allied bombing; like Halberstadt, so much had been destroyed.
My destination was the Germanisches National Museum. The museum was full of jaw dropping art and artefacts from pre-history to the twentieth century, but I only ever got to power walk through the galleries not immediately relevant to my work, otherwise it would be too easy to lose focus. The main gallery which held the medieval tapestries was, as expected, low lit. The tapestries were behind glass which gave good access when they were at eye level, and a few tapestries were displayed horizontally, which again meant they were easy to study. Shadows and reflection were a bit of an issue, especially from a distance.
I won’t lie, the German tapestries I had seen before were somewhat crude, and I was expecting more of the same, that was why I wanted to see them, as a contrast to the workshop-produced tapestries I had already seen. But whilst they were very different, they were every bit as accomplished. The bulk of the collection were woven in Nuremburg, although two Flemish tapestries illustrated the changing tastes of those who could afford it. Little is known about the workshops, but some tapestries were attributed to a nunnery, St Catherines, in the city, the ruins of which are extant. The tapestries were a lot smaller than the Flemish pieces, often elongated strips.
There was a preference for bold areas of colour rather than the delicate hachure that dominated the tapestries during the first two legs of my travels, and a palette dominated by reds and greens. Dovetailing featured heavily, but oversewing of slits were less prevalent, presumably because the weight of the smaller tapestries were less of an issue in opening them up. I felt a lot more affinity with these German tapestries in how my own practice has been developing. There was a cleanness and crispness to these tapestries, aided by the limited palette and the limited use of pattern (apart from the three woven in Strassburg where there was not a centimetre unadorned). Faces were simplistically rendered, and there was much repetition in features which made them relatively indistinguishable. As with other German tapestries I had seen, some faces were left blank, but I am still none the wiser as to why, in the same piece some were drawn in, some stitched, others part woven.
I spent several days here, and at the end of one when my brain has the elasticity and absorption of a bowl of blancmange, and my feet had the sting of burnt out stumps, I thought I would dash into another gallery before heading home, only to come across rooms of other tapestries I didn’t even know about. I did swear, and I believe I even huffed. I have since done my penance to the tapestry gods for my ungratefulness and gave then due attention the following day. They included the most amazing tapestry of fanciful creatures, alas much of it hard to get at due to the placing of furniture and reflection in the glass. Nonetheless my head nearly came off in a double-take when I saw one tapestry clearly woven from the exact same source as one I saw in Paris last year. At the GNM is also the largest fragment of one of the oldest weft-faced fabrics in Europe, the Cloth of St Gereon, helpfully(?) cut up in the nineteenth century and distributed around various museums. This piece and other near contemporary pieces were well beyond the scope of my research, but it was an honour to get to see them.
Tapestry contemporary with the above, clearly based on the same original source on display at the Cluny in ParisI spent several days here, but also headed out to Munich for a day. It was quite strange seeing from the train window the exact landscapes, woodlands, and churches I had seen in tapestries in Nuremburg. My destination was the Bavarian National Museum. There was a huge variety of tapestries here, and although they were behind glass there was much less spot lighting so access was the best I’ve yet enjoyed. Some tapestries were relatively crude, squared heads and stitched faces, but others, including one depicting the adoration of the Magi, were beautifully woven, and towards the lower edge in this particular tapestry was a weaver, possibly a reminder to the viewer of the human toil that has gone into its production. That a tapestry such as this could have been woven in a nunnery, as has been suggested, was a real eye-opener as to the skill and training open to their makers. I had to confront a lot of my own prejudices.
Detail from the Adoration of the Magi 1490-1500 ?Bamberg
Wild people hunting, Strassburg c1450
I had hoped to get to Bamberg but also recognised I had to pace myself. My days were not just filled with studying the tapestries themselves, but also, back at the hotel, reviewing and uploading images, as well as making notes. By the end of my time in Nuremberg I was dreaming of Unicorns at night and getting very itchy for my loom during the day. As I traveled to Frankfurt and then into Basel in Switzerland I welcomed the downtime, but of course had no idea, the best was yet to come.
It seems to me I only ever post when grounded by something, this time a chest infection and stinking cold. I don’t trust my brain enough to allow myself anywhere near the loom but today at least I am going to trust myself at the keyboard.
When last we talked I had just finished the Lamentation tapestry. In an attempt to paint my life in as rosy a glow as possible as Pinterest, Instagram et al demands, what I may have failed to mention is that it totally messed with my head.
It was a throwback, I had to produce something ASAP and I had plenty of warp sleyed at the right sett. What I really wanted to do, of course, was get on experimenting with a new weaving style inspired by my Churchill Fellowship. But the Lamentation tapestry, I liked it, I enjoyed weaving it, and it has taken me time and angst to develop my own style of weaving – was I doing the right thing turning my back on it.
Despite my doubts next due on the loom was a ‘straighter’, less painterly tapestry, and so I dressed the loom with a warp wide enough to start expanding samples beyond just the faces I had done before. The cartoon was based on an earlier piece but I doubled the weft to try to to save time. I enjoyed the process of weaving her, it was a more considered and involved process. I wanted to get at the crispness of medieval tapestry and although everything is laid bare technique-wise, and there was no where to hide, I liked having to rely on just the warp and weft, none of the gimmicks I might have pulled before. It made me feel I rather bashed out my other work, able to hide behind the randomness of it.
As she progressed I could appreciate her technically, but I started to question where I could take work like this artistically. I just couldn’t see it in other work of mine, how I could take her forward into bigger, full-sized work. I couldn’t see how to make it relevant. Ever since I started my Fellowship I have been aware of the fine line between being inspired by the medieval skills of tapestry weavers, without going all doublet and hose in the production of my own, and I think I was fearful that was where I was heading and it froze me. And whilst I was embracing the formality of this type of weaving, there was still a part of me that questioned whether I missed that expressive element I thought I had finally found.The doubled weft hadn’t worked so I knew I needed to do another sample to rectify that and as there was enough warp I started another piece. It was a chance to be sure it wasn’t working, and to try a few other things like lettering.But again, it just wasn’t doing it for me on an artistic level. I started to wonder if there was a way to amalgamate this technical progress I had made with my darker creative leanings, and that seemed to go ok at the sketchbook, but by now I was heading into a complete creative implosion. Do I keep trying to make this ‘straighter’ style work, if so, how? Or do I go back to the bigger, blended, more painterly work I was familiar with and comfortable with
Fortunately, I know some great craftspeople and artists and there’s one in particular, Liz Samways, whose judgement and honesty I trust implicitly and I was able to browbeat her into meeting with me for a few hours mentoring over lunch in Salts Mill. What a privilege it is to be able to spill one’s brains on a table and have someone help you scoop them all up again. Together we were able to unpick how I’ve got into to my mess, and we were able to map a way out. It was, of course, all rather obvious in the end, I have actually got my weaving to do what I wanted to do, I just hadn’t seen it and a lot of that was a failure in me to commit to it.
So it was snip, snip snip, off with the half-finished tapestry and a new warp was put on the loom, and a fresh mindset installed in me. Three things from our conversation in particular came to the fore as I sat at the blank pages of my sketchbook, 1) that whilst I want to weave with some expression, that was already there, just not in the way that I thought it was – it was in the figures themselves, not in the way I weave I them 2) that what I draw isn’t actually rubbish straight off the bat, it is doing what I want, if only I’d give it a chance 3) yes I have worked hard to develop a particular style, but if I am not going to be true to the findings of my research, then what was the point of doing it?A new cartoon emerged quickly, and interestingly I did it the old fashioned way, huge pieces of paper taped to the wall, and I worked with rulers and pencils, just as when I started out, rather than digitally, and it felt raw and satisfying. I began weaving a cropped area of the larger cartoon as a sample. I know it will seem to strange to anyone not intimately familiar with my brain, as they will be wondering how different this new piece really is from the tapestry I began this post with, but there has been a massive change in how I am approaching it intellectually and creatively as well as technically and I can see a future with it too, swimming with ideas, in fact.The first sample was just a sample, this new piece is the start of something. And whilst sitting in your pants on your sofa reading this the wood is clearly discernible from the trees, I assure you, when it is you all caught up in the brambles and with the wolves howling a few feet away, it is jolly difficult. Now I have committed I feel all parts of me come together, the academic, the medieval (wonderfully free of doublet and hose), the archaeologist, the artist, and the weaver, both technically and creatively – and it feels great.
I had made a good start on the tapestry when I had to go to London for the annual conference of the Heritage Crafts Association. I went down the day before to spend some quality time at the V&A and their tapestry collections on display.If I am completely honest, it proved rather emotional. I dashed into there a couple of years ago between meetings. I realised then I would never be able to call myself a weaver unless I learned more about the skills that went into those tapestries, that I would have to study tapestries first hand. Books just weren’t going to take me where I wanted to go as a weaver. It was a sad moment, because I knew I would never get to see such tapestries. I simply did not have the resources.
And yet there I was once again, having seen tapestries across Europe and the US thanks to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. I saw the tapestries again entirely differently, I was able to read them, understand them, work out the techniques at play, and learn from them, and I was able to see them in relation to my own work.I love that there is nothing in my new work that isn’t in the fifteenth century Devonshire hunting tapestries and without it being pastiche. Different wool, dyes and warp of course, and I as a weaver am still alive in my forties and have my own teeth (I would also say I was plague free, but that is a damned lie). In fact I can see that everything I have studied over the last year is in this tapestry. I love that to me it seems honest, I have finally found my peace with tapestry and with myself and that opens the door to exciting things in the future. I have grown up, I have graduated. What has certainly helped is a bit of space to experiment instead of having to make work for events without breathing. In a few weeks I’ll be on the plane to Germany and then Switzerland for the last leg of my Fellowship. Good god, I hope it doesn’t unbalance me as much as the first two legs! I suppose it will defy the purpose entirely if I go study more medieval tapestry through fingers over my eyes!
In among all this I have had the prepare the Lamentation for exhibition at the Platform Gallery in Clitheroe. I was awarded the Selector’s Prize for Innovation at last year’s Craft Open and part of the prize was to display my work this year. I took the tapestry over this week and got a sneak peak at the work destined for display and it is clear it is going to be a great exhibition. It opens on April 14 and runs til June 23. I am also pleased to say I got selected for Art in the Pen later in the year, and so this new body of work will be destined for that and I can’t wait.
I have heaps to do to get ready for Germany and Switzerland and of course this damn plague to get rid of, but I hope to get back to the new tapestry as soon as possible and finish it. It has been a couple of days now of self-imposed exile from the loom, and I can feel the ache for it in my marrow.
I have been back from New York a few days, and pretty knackered, hence the slight delay in this post. My experience during this leg of the Fellowship has been very different to my time in France and Belgium, more of a smash and grab, there was less time to reflect, every day something was on. Whilst it was lovely to meet weavers in Angers, this week had far more face-to-face meetings with folk, so it wasn’t just me looking at tapestries, which again made this feel a very different experience. When I am able to keep my eyes open for more than two minutes at a time, I am looking forward to reflecting on it all properly! Again there is a gazillion photographs to work my way through.
I flew over on American Airlines, the reviews I had read were pretty poor, so I was braced for a bad experience, but it was fine, the only real pain the hour+ queue to get through customs and the internal battle that would make the fall of Carthage look like a minor spat, about whether or not to declare my tea bags. I was in two minds about forking out for a taxi to get into Manhattan or to brave the subway off the bat. The subway of course being the natural habit of vampires, cockroach humanoids, digital agents fighting re-awoken human batteries and murderous presidential wannabes. I will grant you that my perspective may be slightly marred by movies, but still……
The packed lift in the airport got stuck, and as many responded like they we were about to plummet to our deaths, a fellow Englishman and I shared a droll eye roll, and on our release joined forces to take on the Airtrain and the subway and whatever it threw at us. All rather uneventful in the end. The YMCA was very easy to find. Its location was excellent, although its lack of facilities a bit of a shock initially. I did end up with a spectacular view across Central Park though. Can I just say I love my travel kettle? Is that too weird?
My first stop was Cloisters, a Frankenstein structure built from elements of medieval structures shipped to the US and rebuilt. The result is an abbey in a stunningly beautiful park, high-rise blocks of the city in the background. It houses the medieval collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, colloquially known as the Met. The tapestries on show included two sets which were of particular interest.
The Unicorn Hunt series will be familiar to anyone who has been following West Dean’s recreation of the set for Stirling Castle. I wasn’t expecting their luminosity, which no photograph can reproduce, they were stunning of course, and woven beautifully, but if I am honest they were the hardest for me to engage with aesthetically and I couldn’t tell you why, perhaps the use of stock figures rendered them rather too formal? Perhaps it was because they were already familiar? But as I said they were wonderfully executed; there was a red velvet jacket that was impossible to believe it was woven and not actual velvet. The colours were spectacular. The stewards were lovely, even thought I kept setting off the alarms!
The second famous set were the Nine Heroes. These were woven around 1400 and it was thought for sometime they were produced in the same Paris workshops that wove the Apocalypse at Angers, although it may be the similarities are rooted in the weavers, the designers, or conventions of the time.
They were outstanding, full of interest, and the use of slits, like the Apocalypse, created incredibly characterful and spectacularly rendered figures.
However of all the tapestries on display, the one that I loved the most was the Falcon’s Bath woven around the same time. It was much more naive and simplistic, but in that lay its perfection.
The weaving was incredibly neat creating a crisp surface, beautifully preserved. The background was filled with stylistic flowers which all shared thin leaves creating a sense of unity – I am not a huge fan of millefleur tapestries, but felt this worked.
In amongst the flowers were beautifully woven small birds. The human figures were also created wonderfully, contoured wefts and slits were used so simply, but the result full of charm.
The Falcon’s Bath tapestry was also fascinating because after viewing it one could step into sun filled cloisters, the gardens full of the same flowers and the same birds, which no doubt inspired it.
I had planned to spend a second day at Cloisters, but made an off the cuff decision to go to Church first. The recently conserved 17th century Barberini tapestries which were damaged in a fire and which were re-hung in the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, had been in the news recently.
They were too late for my project so I hadn’t intended to include them in my itinerary, but I was interested in their being hung traditionally, as a set, rather than high up and separately like in a museum. I wanted to see a group of tapestries in their ecclesiastical context; I hadn’t, as hoped, managed it in France.
I had expected this to be a flying visit on the way to Cloisters but it became apparent that the laboratories in which they had been conserved was on site and very kindly the conservators allowed me to visit and showed me the tapestries themselves, although it was all unplanned.
It was fascinating to see the workshop, and wonderful to talk with folk who were as passionate about tapestry as I was. They have worked for years over these tapestries, bringing them back to life.
The tapestries themselves were on the cusp of the naive and painterly tradition, and in particular I loved the map of the holy land as it reminded me of the Sheldon tapestries woven in the Midlands.
Also hanging in the nave were four Mortlake tapestries based on Raphael’s cartoons for the Acts of the Apostle now in the V&A. Go team UK!
I had wanted to visit the Jane Kahan gallery as they had a great collection of mid-century tapestries, but alas all my emails in the run up to the project went unanswered. The next day I girded by bobbins and decided to just turn up anyway. The staff were lovely and although there weren’t too many tapestries on show, there was a Chagall woven by Yvette Cauquil-Prince.
It was the most spectacular weaving I have seen during the entirety of this project. If I could have one tapestry, this would be it, even more so than the Apocalypse. I suspect I am a few million short. Cauquil-Prince used every technique in the arsenal of the weaver; it seemed so expressive, so easy, so free of the restrictions of the loom. Yes it was a Chagall, but it was also a tapestry in its own right, it was a big lesson in how tapestries interpret a work instead of just reproducing it.
The Met museum proper was nearby. Again many tapestries were on display; my favourite was from the Courtiers in the Rose Garden series. Beautifully created figures, with lovely costumes woven just using hatchure stood before a striped background and roses. I loved the background, as I had with the bear tapestries in the Louvre, it seemed to give instant vitality to the design. I also loved how the formality of the hatchure and stripes contrasted with the more free-flowing and stylistic roses.
I had a whizz round the museum itself, it was a strange experience turning a corner and always seeing something that was already so familiar, whether it was a Van Goh self-portrait or the Nimrud Ivories. There was much inspiration there that will keep me going for a few years!
However I was at the Met to visit the Antonio Ratti Textile Centre. Very kindly I was invited before my arrival to choose some tapestries that were not normally on display to view. I selected pieces that would be of a size to be practical and would give me access to work of a type that I had not seen before. Alas the Crucixion was not available, sad as it was one of the earliest in the collection (around 1325-1350) and I had been particularly keen to see it. Nonetheless I was able to see the Madonna and the Eight Saints, sixteenth century so much later, but clearly related to an earlier tradition. The level of access was fantastic – I even got to see the back.
This was another tapestry with the faces left blank, this time they were embroidered rather than painted. Interestingly there was very little hatchure, but there was some double interlocking. The colours and preservation were spectacular.
One of the conservators popped in to see if I would like to see a tapestry they had in the laboratory. When she mentioned it was the Crucifixion, I had to stop myself doing a little tapestry dance. It was spectacular to see, I couldn’t take photographs as it was being worked on, but what a privilege! (the one below is from their website) .
I already had an appointment the following day at the Met’s Textiles Conservation Laboratory, but they asked if I would like to join them in the morning for a talk being given by another visitor, it was great to be able to join the conservators and to be made so welcome – I felt I was amongst my tribe! Over coffee and the most fabulous cake ever, we listened to attempts being made to safeguard traditional Japanese dyeing techniques. I was then given a tour of the laboratory, which included a demonstration of how the latest digital photography techniques are being used to better understand how weavers of the past made tapestries. I cannot wait to see how this develops further. I also got to see a gigantic door curtain from an inner chamber of the Kaaba at Mecca and more Mortlake tapestries.
The following day I was scheduled to meet with Simona Blau of Vojtech Blau gallery. I arrived slightly late having discovered my bank cards weren’t working, and had to contact the bank whilst simultaneously trying to figure out how I was going to walk back into Manhattan and live under a bridge in Central Park for the rest of my life as the two dollars cash I had was going to have to last me for ever and ever. I was very sad that I was never going to get to see Yorkshire again. It all worked out in the end, and Simona was very understanding following my slightly flustered arrival! It was interesting to see her tapestries in a domestic setting, showing how relevant they still are to modern interiors.
I learned a great deal with Simona, and learned of more artists that I had not come across before. The tapestries too were spectacular, especially one designed by Lee Krasner and again woven by Yvette Cauqill-Prince, and with the same energy and vitality as the Chagall (detail below). Interestingly it was woven with the warp running top to bottom.
In the afternoon I had an appointment at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, a branch of the Smithsonian Institute. One of the conservators at the Met had told me about a thirteenth century tapestry they had in their collection. It is normally stored off site but fortunately it was at the museum’s labs and I was granted access. It was only a fragment, but something I had not come across before, having been woven in Moorish-Spain. It was woven in silk and gold and incredibly fine. There were lots of slit weaving and plenty of eccentric wefts. It is known informally as the Beautiful Ladies and it is clear to see why.
The following day was a big highlight for me, meeting with artist Erin Riley in Brooklyn. She is someone who has almost single-handed brought tapestry to a new generation, her subject matter making the medium relevant, whilst at the same time providing a fascinating juxtaposition with the tradition of the form. She also engages brilliantly with folk through social media such as Instagram and I felt I knew her studio already, it was strange being on the other side of the iPad screen.
It is easy to think one knows her work through her online presence, but in the flesh her tapestries popped from the wall with lovely colours and interesting surfaces, and beautifully woven. She was flipping lovely to boot! It was interesting to hear her talk of her tapestries in the same context as the Unicorn Hunt, that they shared the same subject matter, those five hundred years ago disguised by metaphor, hers more explicit. It provided a wonderful bookend to a great trip.
It was my last full day in New York, so I played hooky in the afternoon. I felt I hadn’t seen New York, I had been flitting from one meeting to another, and had spent so much of it underground on the subway. It seemed rather ridiculous to have come all that way and not get a feel for it!. From Brooklyn I headed to the Staten Island ferry and did the statue thang, and I strolled around the south of the city, including the tourist coated Charging Bull and Fearless Girl (it is in there, honest) and I also a nipped to the 9/11 memorial, a rather uncomfortable experience, seeing folk sitting on the names, taking pouty selfies.
Also at various points in the week I was able to dart into the Museum of Modern Art and into the Museum of American Folk Art and in the latter saw a great exhibition of Carlo Zinelli. I think I am allowed to be knackered, aren’t I?
Well no, is the answer, I am heading to London tomorrow for the Heritage Craft Association’s Texture of Craft conference on Saturday, sadly I had to bow out of the launch of the Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts at the House of Lords but it would have been the death of me. I also need to start weaving like a demon to get ready for the Saltaire Arts Trail at the end of the month. And there’s the WCMT report to write. I also need to start planning the next leg……..
In truth my return has been a bit bumpy. I was so chuffed with how well I had managed while I was away, it was a bit of a shock to find myself so tired I could hardly function at all, and it has taken a good fortnight to start punching my way through. It has been incredibly frustrating.
I was also welcomed home by a laptop that wouldn’t work – a cracked motherboard, apparently. I tried to tell myself I would manage with just an iPad but it soon became clear that was nonsense. I am going to unashamedly do a shout out for the extremely lovely and talented jeweller Catherine Woodall, who had a laptop she wasn’t using, and has quite frankly got me out of a massive hole. It was quite a thing to realise that when such things happen, one is not alone.
All this does not mean I have done nothing, although *ahem* I am yet to fully unpack. When I started my PhD someone told me to start writing it from the get-go rather than waiting to the end, some of the best advice I ever received, and I have done the same here and have written up my notes, slowly building up my report. I’ve also started sorting through my images, no mean feat as there are thousands of them.
As for weaving, it had been my intention to take my time. I was only half way through my Fellowship after all, there was lots more to see. But by the time the first week was out I was working on a cartoon for a new full-sized tapestry, which I am hoping may be ready for the Saltaire Arts Trail in May, but certainly for Art in the Pen in August.
I’ve also started on some technical studies, like piano scales, experimenting with the techniques I have seen (above). This has included a finer sett and using some dovetailing and cut backs, and weaving over a single warp, which had always turned out rather pants before. The key was to hold back, stop with the gimmicks and just let the warp and weft do their job. Ironically the result has been far more control, something I always lacked before, and I do feel the world is now my weaving and drawing oyster. I might now be able to weave what I draw, instead of drawing what I can weave. This is a massive step and the implications are vast and very, very exciting. This is a very different style of weaving for me, but I love it, and I never saw it coming. It has been interesting to compare this piece with the failure I did after seeing the medieval wall paintings at Pickering – they go to show how much this Fellowship has already pushed me and the importance of seeing the tapestries in the flesh.
I had hoped to go back to Europe before I head off to New York at the end of the month, but my brain has been cheese and I haven’t trusted myself to put it together, but plans for New York are well under way and the Met museum have been fabulous and I cannot wait.
I am going to make myself some very strong coffee and attempt to catch up with my inbox, but hope to spend some time this afternoon with my sketchbook and some pie. Ttfn xxx
I’ve discussed elsewhere what led me to apply for a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellowship but to recap, Jean Lurcat, the twentieth century French artist who instigated the modern revival of tapestry, argued that there were a number of elements that were intrinsic to the medium that became lost following the Renaissance when tapestry became a poor imitator of paintings. Reading his book Designing Tapestry, was a revelation to me. I had always favoured bold, large scale tapestries; at the time I was weaving Maides Coign at East Riddlesden Hall. I struggled to appreciate the small scale tapestries that are becoming the norm in the UK. Lurcat seemed to give me permission to weave the type of tapestries I wanted to weave, however unfashionable, impracticable and financially ridiculous they might be.
A visit to see the Devonshire hunting tapestries at the V&A hammered Lurcat’s points home, I saw in the flesh for the first time what tapestry could be. I also realised that in the absence of any formal training, I was a weaver sitting at my loom completely ignorant of an entire level of understanding. Yes one reads about a particular technique, one can do it at the loom, but I was missing that exposure to the centuries worth of how my predecessors had employed that technique, as well as the where and the why. I was a composer wanting to write a symphony having never heard music, I was a car engineer never having ridden in one.
To fully understand the techniques I had been using, to fully understand Lurcat’s intrinsic qualities associated with tapestry, I knew I needed to study tapestries, especially those that pre-dated the Renaissance. But this was immediately made difficult by photographic reproductions of tapestries online or in books. It is impossible to reduce several feet of intricate textile into a few inches and do it justice. Also, much of the literature about historic tapestries comes from an art historical approach, often focusing on subject matter, design context and patrons. As a weaver what I wanted to get at the hands of medieval weavers themselves, the choices they made when sat at the loom, and this I could only do by studying the tapestries themselves and close up. I also wanted to understand how those intrinsic elements identified by Lurcat were translated into his own work and those of his contemporaries, and I wanted to understand their relevance to weavers today, especially in the UK.
The most important part of this project, as with any Churchill Fellowship, is to share it. Most of that will be actively pursued once the travelling is done, but a lot will also be shared on the road both here in my blog, my Facebook page, Twitter and on Instagram. But as my own excitement builds, I wanted to share something of the preparations, and the where, and how, as well as the why.
Once I was awarded the Fellowship heaps of desk based research followed to track down where I could see tapestries that pre-dated the Renaissance. Obviously a lot of this work had been done for the application process, but now it was concrete and in earnest. I scoured the standard texts on the history of tapestry but also googled until my fingers bled, searching through the websites of museums and galleries, trying to identify who had what and where, often frustrated by an absence of online catalogues, but following whatever leads I could. Eventually lists began to form which had to be translated into an itinerary. Inevitably there was more I wanted to see than I could ever manage to do within the already generous time and resources of the grant. A rather ruthless selection process sought to produce an itinerary that was physically and practically possible from a travelling point of view, was public-transport friendly, kept destinations relatively clustered, but which would also enable me to study a broad range of work that spanned my time period of interest, the various geographical areas associated with tapestry, and which would also give an opportunity to see modern works as well.
Initially I planned to spend four weeks in Europe and a fortnight in the US; I wanted to use my time in the States in particular to engage with contemporary practitioners as well as studying tapestries, but it became apparent as my research continued that I needed more time in Europe and so I reduced my time to a week in the US. I had planned to do it all in one go, but came to realise after recent events I will need to break things up, have some time back in the UK to recuperate, but also useful as a time to reflect, and so will now be spreading my travelling across March, April and May.
The amount of juggling this has taken, the amount of virtual travelling, researching accommodation options, scouring of train and bus timetables has been legion and how anyone ever managed to organise their Fellowships before the rise of the internet is beyond me. I am a control freak and I have a Spreadsheet Of All Things, outlining my trip day by day almost. But I accept that in all likelihood it will be thrown out of the metaphoric window within days. The Churchill Trust encourages us to be flexible in our planning, and in fact only arrange our accommodation for the first few nights, we need to be ready and able to follow leads on the ground. The process has also involved engaging with museum curators, gallery owners and tapestry weavers and this is a process that is still ongoing. Folk have been very welcoming and having this dimension to the project is what makes the Churchill Fellowships so special.
I still have a phenomenal amount of reading to do, and a language to learn (!), as well as all the practical things any trip like this will involve, and to identify routes and accommodation options and to make sure everything is in place with my own practice, this is a busy time of the year for applying for events, for example. But my itinerary is now confirmed, my Eurostar tickets and flights are booked, and accommodation in Paris and New York secured. It is very hard when someone tells you they will pay for you to travel around Europe and the States to study medieval tapestries, and take them seriously. The nature of my profession means frugality is a prerequisite so I am also petrified of spending money, even worse when it is someone else’s. I suppose I should also confess I am a little unsure of myself following recent events, not entirely clear of what I am physically capable of. So actually clicking on buttons to commit to bookings, has proved itself to be the hardest part of this whole process, but it is done. I really am going. No more second-guessing, no more prevaricating. I. have. tickets.
So where am I going? As I said the aim is to be flexible, but will rotate around some meetings as fixed points but I will generally follow my nose from Brussels, through France and at some point either in this leg or another, head over to Switzerland. There will also be a trip to Germany and another over to New York. Loosely the plan is to visit:
Musees Royaux d’art et d’histoire, Brussels
City of Brussels Museum, Brussels
Manufacture De Wit, Mechelen
TAMAT/Museum of Tapestry. Tournai
(Would be great to get over to Oudenaarde if there’s time, but alas suspect not)
The Louvre, Paris
Musee d’Cluny, Paris
Musee des Arts decoratifs, Paris
Musee d’art modern, Paris
Galerie Chevalier, Paris
Manufacture des Gobelins, Paris
National Tapestry Gallery, Beauvais
Manufacture nationale de Beauvais, Beauvais
Palace de Tau and other museums, Reims
Angers Castle, Angers
Jean Lurcat Contemporary Tapestry Museum, Angers
Liciers Angevins, Angers
Church of Notre Dame, Saumur
Although the tapestries produced at Aubusson post-date the period I am interested in, it has strong links with Jean Lurcat, and houses a new tapestry centre as well as smaller galleries and museums, and contemporary weavers, and the Ateliers Pinton is at nearby Felletin, and so if there is time to visit here I will certainly try.
Jean Lurcat Museum, Saint-Laurent-les-Tours
Museum fur Geschichte, Basel
Thun Castle, Thun
Bernisches Historisches Museum, Berne
Quedlinburg Abbey, Quedlinburg
Cloisters, New York
Metropolitan Museum, New York
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Vojtech Blau, New York
Studio visits to Erin Riley, Archie Brennan and Susan Martin Maffei
Of course this project is not a whistle-stop tour to cram in as many medieval tapestries as I can. I won’t get to all the places on my list, that is not what is important. This project is to study first-hand the techniques of my predecessors, it is about taking the time to have the most constructive conversations I can with weavers who died five hundred plus years ago, and to learn from them. To that end a huge part of the preparation for this project has been working out the best way to get at those hands and minds, a systematic methodology I can employ when standing in front of their work, a guide for myself on how to study a medieval tapestry as a weaver within the restrictions of how they are curated.
I am not asking to see tapestries held in storage, it is wholly impractical and impossible for a project like this. But from the get-go I had to accept there would be limitations to studying tapestries on show. Tapestries during this period were woven from the back and ideally that is the side you want to read from – outrageously museum and galleries generally display tapestries showing the front. Tapestries were woven on the side, and again, museums tend to hang them the other way up. There will also be issues regarding how close I can get. I haven’t yet resorted to licking tapestries, but I suspect it is clearly only a matter of time. How tapestries are hung and their eye level will also be a restriction.
I am a scientist, I like forms, I like order, I like a nice strict methodology. But I realised this is a project that demands a more organic approach. Much of the recording process will be photography where permitted and practical, but this will not always be so. I will be taking a plethora of notebooks, to record sketches and thoughts. But at my side will be a reference sheet I’ve devised, something that will force me to really look and see what is in front of me, a visual excavation of the surface as it were. Not all points will be answerable, some information will only be available from printed sources, but it is at least a start, and I can adapt it as I go. Much of it is in shorthand for me, but I’ll explain more what it contains as the project progresses and publication looms (seewhatIdidthere).
So there we have it. How grateful am I to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust? I think you can imagine. The amount I have learned is legion, and I haven’t even got on the train yet.
I would like to say thank you for your good wishes after my last post, it is much appreciated. I think it was in preparation really, for trying to think how I might start slowing things down, something I am trying to put off until I come back, but this plan has now been scuppered by a rather lovely surprise. I was super pleased to take part in the Craft Open at the Platform Gallery in Clitheroe a few years back, it was my first event off my home turf. This year I was delighted to be selected again, it was a great chance to see several of my tapestries hanging together. In the end we couldn’t fit them all into the car and a smaller one had to be substituted, for which I am very grateful to the Platform Gallery for accepting. With much regret I wasn’t able to get to the opening, but learned the other week I had won the Selectors Prize for Innovation, which includes an exhibition next year running alongside Craft Open 2018. I feel terribly proud and honoured. To get enough new pieces designed and woven in time will take a phenomenal amount of work but I was quite shocked to find myself instantly up for it. I think it was just the kick up the bum I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself, to brush myself down and plan ahead more positively. Craft Open 2017 runs until 22nd April. After that I am pleased to say I have been accepted for the Saltaire Arts Trail Open Houses, always a great event and I’ll talk about that nearer the time. How I ever thought I would be taking things easier is starting to look really rather ridiculous!