Weaving 100 years of tapestry

The art of tapestry has been quietly flourishing in little corners of the world, with artists discovering, many for the first time, the joy of engaging with this particular type of material.
For example, the brilliantly eccentric Grayson Perry is one such visible artist who has found something of an affinity with the heavy cloth, producing notable works like The Vanity of Small Differences and more recently the Walthamstow Tapestry for the newly reopened William Morris Gallery.
Surprising though it may seem, tapestry remains an important part of the art world, even in light of the zeitgeist for imagining new and novel ways of communicating ideas, from soundless sculptures to suspended distorted instruments.
Traditional forms like tapestry, along with printmaking, ceramics and bronze, endure because they remain timeless. An artist’s love affair with classics, tapestry in this case, can be seen in a major new exhibition at Dovecat Studios, the first of its kind in Scotland for over 30 years.
Entitled Weaving the Century, Dovecat celebrates 100 years as one of the leading tapestry-centric institutions in the world, bringing together over 60 works of art from all over the world. Artists represented include Claire Barclay, Cecil Beaton, Paul Gauguin, Sir Peter Blake, Elizabeth Blackadder, Edward Wadsworth, Eduardo Paolozzi, Louise Nevelson and Graham Sutherland.
Curated by Dr Elizabeth Cumming, an art historian, the show is a story of passion, of love for colour, and of collaboration, all of which has ensured that even in the bleakest of periods, tapestry has continued to matter.
While even the most ardent philistines are at least aware of what a tapestry is (in spite of their nonchalant attitude toward all things cultural) most people, it is fair to say, are unaware of the work that goes into making these beautiful objects come alive.
Even artists fall short of a full appreciation. A brilliant example was given in the Daily Telegraph recently, which kind of conjures up a rough idea of the labour required to translate concept into reality. David Weir, director of Dovecat, said that in the late sixties, Pop Art supremo David Hockney popped by the studio to check out how his first ever tapestry was coming together.
He found that a line that had taken him about two minutes to draw had taken the team three weeks to weave. Hockney pointed this fact out to the weavers, and, well, it resulted in an awkward silence for all.
This is the reality for many artists who wish to produce a design through tapestry. It is not something they will be able to do themselves, as it’s a craft, a skill that is learnt and perfected over the years. An artist will never be able to eloquently express a sentiment through tapestry without building up a rapport with talented weavers.
“We think of it as collaboration,” Jonathan Cleaver, a weaver at Dovecat, told the newspaper. “Artists are masters of their own medium, so when they come here they’re dealing with a different set of considerations. Weaving becomes meaningful when you bring something out of the design that couldn’t have been expressed in any other medium.”
Such a wonderful sentiment is made all the more affecting given the remarkable trade the studio is doing in an age of austerity. It is working on a wide range of commissions, which will result in tapestries being created for yachts, private homes and corporate clients.
Given the prosperity of this kind of clientele, the outlook for Dovecat and indeed tapestry is certain to be prosperous for the years to come. It’s a domino effect, which usually begins with bewilderment – is that a carpet we see hanging from the wall – moves onto intrigue and then desire. Before you know it, you have a movement, a new age, where tapestries are considered sound investments.
Well, that is one scenario, but certainly, things have never been better. The exhibition might be a celebration of the last 100 years, but things don’t end here, as Mr Weir was keen to point out in the Scotsman last month:
“We are really just celebrating all those extraordinary building blocks that now allow us to go out and develop conversations with artists as we have been doing for 100 years.”
Weaving the Century: Tapestry from the Dovecot Studios 1912-2012 is on until October 7th.
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