Monday, 1 October 2012

Dovecot's century

On Friday morning we walked the charming cobbles of the Grassmarket and up through the winding steps to North Bridge and then to Infirmary Street to the historic Dovecot Studios, now successfully housed in a complex that used to be the Edinburgh Baths. This beautiful new incarnation of the studio was financed by a private benefactor, Alastair Salveson. With a huge timbered floor space and generously proportioned mezzanine area that surrounds it, it has found a home that compares very well with the gracious interior of our own Australian Tapestry Workshop. Clever management of the surrounding spaces that include exhibition areas, a coffee shop and even apartments mean that income from the whole building subsidises the survival of the tapestry studio.

The main attraction at the moment is the 100th anniversary exhibition, Weaving the Century, which is presented in three large downstairs spaces and also along the upstairs mezzanine that runs above the studio space. I was eager to see how many of the older tapestries would be there as I had experienced first hand knowledge of many of the works from the previous large retrospective in 1980, Master Weavers. At that time I was living in Edinburgh and studying at the Edinburgh College of Art, and my ex - husband photographed the catalogue, an exercise that took us to stately homes and castles including Mt. Stuart on the Isle of Bute, the ancestral home of the Marquess, the Dovecot's first patron, to photograph the magnificent Lord of the Hunt tapestry. An enormous work measuring over 32 feet, it was commenced in 1912 and finished after the first world war in 1924, the two original weavers having lost their lives during the war. Sadly this tapestry was not part of the current exhibition.

We had a very well informed guide, Francesca, who is doing a PhD on the history of the studios. Curated by art historian, Dr Elizabeth Cumming, there are over sixty tapestries in the show. The oldest work is the very impressive The Admirable Crichton that dates from 1930 and was woven over a period of three years. An expansive tableau, it looks like a still from a film and honours James Crichton, a forebear of the Bute family. Its rich design demonstrates the enormous skills of the weavers and the quality of their production. A large, framed sampler also emphasises the rigorous training of apprentices at this time.

Photography was not permitted in the exhibition area, but it was exciting to see the artistic evolution of the Studio as it worked through the design fashions of the 1940s, to the 1950s under the aesthetic guidance of Sax Shaw, and towards what must be seen as its hey day under the directorship of Archie Brennan from the early 1960s. Starting as an apprentice and soon becoming a distinguished artist and designer in his own right he brought a new vitality to the process through his informed insight into the medium and his intelligent collaboration with leading artists of the time including Eduardo Paolozzi, Harold Cohen, David Hockney and Louise Nevelson. These works still have the ability to take your breath away, and as a former production weaver I once again had the opportunity to appreciate how thoroughly the designs had been assessed and explored and how far away they are from mere reproductions of the artists' work.

The newest tapestries are hung out of the main exhibition rooms, around the wide mezzanine that surrounds the actual workspace. Colourful, experimental, textural, and sometimes three dimensional, they display a variety of approach and a desire to engage with contemporary art in all its eclectic forms.

Studio views

After seeing the exhibition we went down onto the studio floor and weaver, Jon Cleaver, demonstrated the basic technique of tapestry weaving to the group. This was particularly useful to four of my participants who had not woven before. We were then able to view work in progress and rugs that were being tufted with a gun at the rear of the studio. There is a large tapestry entitled Large Tree Group on the loom designed by Victoria Crowe as a mark of the centenary of tapestry at Dovecot. The yarn has been sourced from fleece all around the UK to form a palette of natural colour in undyed wool. A snowy scene is emerging as a bleak figure trudges towards a stand of bare trees.

 Jon demonstrates tapestry technique

Victoria Crowe tapestry in progress

At the conclusion of the viewing we were able to have a sandwich lunch in the meeting room - a lovely, light filled space with sleek, modern furniture - during which the Director, David Weir, popped in to greet us. I first met him when I visited in 2009, and it was very good to see that the whole complex is thriving under his leadership. My thanks to Kirsty Sumerling for arranging a very well planned and enjoyable visit.

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.