Letting In The Light

I very much wanted to write a post for International Women's Day, but was at a bit of a loss until I was mentioned in a lovely tweet by my friends over at Daily Life Ltd.
This decided it for me; my International Women's Day blog post will be dedicated to the women I share the stage with at Daily Life Ltd's light box installation in the square outside Stratford Library, Letting In The Light, which is on until the end of the month if you fancy taking it in (it's worth it; these photographs don't do the scale or the luminance anywhere near justice).

I have to start with Bobby Baker, of course. Several of her diary drawings, completed between 1997 - 2008 and began while she was a day patient at a mental health centre.

This illuminated illustration particularly spoke to me. It's called The Daily Stream of Life, and features Bobby's mind as a river through which life flows, and she in life, sometimes in a rowing boat, sometimes in a canoe, sometimes in a fancier vessel altogether.

After a brief blip in my mental health due to an unfortunate series of circumstances, I feel I am bouncing back to a place where I can leisurely row along on the river of life, enjoying taking in the scenery and getting fresh air as I go.

Liz Atkin is an artist, advocate and speaker who raises awareness of, and promotes recovery from, compulsive skin picking through her art. The work featured in Letting In The Light, Lavish, transforms an illness which dominated Liz's life for more than twenty years into something really quite beautiful.


My favourite piece in the exhibition involved one of my very favourite things; word play.

By Jane McCormick, the piece has a back story that is well worth reading.
Bats in the belfry

An honorary mention goes to male artist (gasp!) Anthony Woods who created a joyous ode to fashion icon Iris Apfel:

My piece is in great company:


I couldn't resist a quick selfie with my work. It was rather wind and rain swept as you may be able to tell; apologies for the quality of all the photos.


Letting In The Light is well worth the trip to a slightly unassuming corner of East London; brighten up your evening, and discover the truth behind Groucho Marx's quip, "Blessed are the cracked, for they let in the light".


Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust

Until yesterday, the most recent exhibition I had been to see was Grayson Perry's Provincial Punk at the Turner Contemporary in Margate. On that wet Sunday afternoon, I left the gallery feeling overwhelmed and underqualified to make art. Following in the footsteps of this country's biggest art star may seem a tall order for a twenty four year old at the very beginning of her career, but I've always had impossibly high standards.

I think part of why I felt so dejected after Provincial Punk is that I can see myself doing similar things to Perry in my work; exploring the lineage of a handicraft with a healthy dose of humour and subversion, and not (at least not initially, in Perry's case) executing this handicraft particularly perfectly; perhaps that's one of the reasons why it's art, not craft? Concept over construction; the ideas are bursting at the seams, the stitches fly as quickly and messily as the thoughts.

I looked at myself and found myself lacking; I should be exhibiting more, I should be selling more work, I should be making more work.

Working almost full time and sometimes at the weekends, even before visiting the exhibition, I had been finding it difficult to locate the motivation to make work. I am still struggling with this somewhat.

Which is why the exhibition I went to yesterday was a welcome godsend. The Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust exhibition is a rather ironic choice for the Royal Academy. When the Academy was founded in 1769 its edict was that "no needlework, artificial flowers, cut paper, shell work, or any such baubles should be admitted". In Wanderlust, cut paper and baubles of all varieties are in much evidence. Admittedly this exhibition occurs in the present day, not the 18th century, so it's reassuring to see that the RA has loosened up somewhat in the intervening two hundred plus years. It's hard not to wonder, however, what the reception of Cornell's work would have been, both now and during his lifetime, had he been a woman. Women of course, as well as the working classes, were precisely whom the Royal Academy intended to bar from their hallowed halls with their proclamation. We see Cornell as alchemist and archivist, visionary and eccentric. Had he been a she, would we have seen her as a frivolous, sentimental, dippy spinster? Certainly it is difficult to separate Cornell's formidable body of work from the aesthetic it spawned. Through the lens of nostalgia this aesthetic is now seen as sentimental, mawkish, twee. It is used to sell everything from records to expensively "shabby chic" pubs and bars.

Joseph Cornell is famed for his boxes, assemblages of bric a brac, artfully arranged but often seemingly thematically unconnected. But when viewed in this retrospective, the mysterious titles of his works begin to shed light on a labyrinthine library of a mind. Because Cornell was a voracious consumer of knowledge. He read everything; from biographies of foreign princes to zodiac charts. He collected papers, documents, photographs and prints of all sorts, from maps to Victorian etchings. These he reassembled into his works, interweaving disparate material and references, creating tangential masterpieces. Cornell's genius is in never quite giving the game away, the full extent of his meaning; he leaves you hungry, as if his hunger for life, knowledge, and even travel across space and time, is infectious.

Wanderlust reminded me to relocate my curiosity; to read for the love of learning; to make for the sake of making, for the joy of it.




Female Matters

The good people at Polyester Zine know how to throw a party. For the launch of the magazine there was a one-night nail bar, DJs, and sangria that was unlike any I have ever tasted (though not in a bad way).

Their latest exhibition-come-knees-up Female Matters was co-curated by Polyester Zine and womenswear designer Clio Peppiatt in aid of the Dahlia Project, which supports survivors of Female Genital Mutilation.

The exhibition could have been a very heavy, dark affair, considering the project it was raising money for, but the curators took a tongue-in-cheek and joyous approach to the subject of female sexual liberation in the 21st Century.

Pop feminism and grrrl power was much in evidence. The first work of art I saw when I walked through the door was my stitchin' sister Hannah Hill, wearing a crop top she had embroidered with her own fair hand. It featured one of her most popular Ghoul Guides designs, "Donut Touch Me".

This was unfortunately very appropriate as Hannah experienced some street harassment on the night. The embroidery shows her resilience and wicked sense of humour in the face of sexism.





Hannah was one of 20+ artists who exhibited customised knickers at Female Matters. Every pair was for sale. Hung on a washing line for all to see, the messages ranged from "No woman gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor" to "Pussy Power", which was featured on several pairs of knickers. Hannah's knickers proclaim that "My body is mine", a statement many of us could benefit from being reminded of, living as we do in a patriarchal consumer society where sex sells and our bodies and ourselves are never enough.

Photograph by Hanecdote









Hannah was also featured in a simply stunning photo series by the phenomenally talented Scarlett Shaney about the social media gaze and how we present our image to the world. Hannah is an utter femme fatale in the series, which is appropriate as Scarlett has an on-going series called Cinema Stills, riffing on Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills.

Photograph by Hanecdote
Ceramics featured heavily at Female Matters. These pondering women, comfortable inhabiting their own bodies (but not sexualised) by playful ceramicist Charlotte Mei, really appealed to me. If I had the cash, I might have bought the pair.


But my very favourite pieces of the night were also perhaps the least subtle. They reminded me of many varied references; Gustav Klimt, icon paintings, landscapes.

These bead and paint works by Melissa Eakin lavishly depict the female body as a shrine to worship at. Menstrual blood becomes a seam of rubies; the pearl clitoris reminds me of the Carol Ann Duffy poem Anne Hathaway:

The bed we loved in was a spinning world
of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas
where he would dive for pearls.


The woman's body becomes the archetypal woman's body; every skin tone is daubed on to one body, and the scale becomes as cinematic as the Grand Canyon.





More ceramics by Georgia Grace Gibson initially reminded me of Grayson Perry, with their scrawled writing and collaged images.

However, on closer inspection it became apparent that Georgia was doing something very different, and difficult. One pot was daubed with the obscenities and teasing of the girls' toilets at school and battered and borrowed text books. The second pot was an undeniably filthy and foul-mouthed diary of a gobby teenage girl who has thrust herself with gusto into sexual experimentation.

These uncomfortable examples of the young girl's gaze which is often swept under the carpet are contrasted with the third pot, in which naked, nubile young women contort into grotesque parodies of lesbianism exclusively for the male gaze.



















Female Matters was absolutely packed, and rightly so. I was so impressed that such talented and varied artists were brought together and curated so beautifully for just one night. I met a number of people in "mutual" follows on social media, and everyone was so friendly, chatty, and creating fascinating work in different remits and mediums. Here's to the next Polyester Zine event!

Stitch For Survival: My E17 Art Trail 2015 Exhibition

Once again the yearly E17 Art Trail has rolled around. I am going to do the grand tour next weekend; I set up my exhibition earlier today; well, my "installation technician" (my mother) did most of the hard graft.

For last year's Trail I showed work as part of the Zoology exhibition at E17 Art House, which has since moved to bigger premises on Hoe Street and has some very intriguing exhibitions and events on for the Trail this year.


This time around, applying was a bit of a last minute affair, so I decided to exhibit in the bay window of my parents' house as I did in 2011 and 2012.

This year we decided to ditch the slightly "primary school" blue baize display board we'd used previously, and used white frame boards to display the embroideries on instead.







A wide variety of embroideries are on display, from pages and pocket contents from my artist's books On Being SoftBig Teeth and Milk Thistle, to embroideries from the zine I recently sold at DIY Cultures, Treasures For Your Troubles. My favourite of the #secretsofselfpreservations stitched thus far are exhibited too.







The theme this year seems to be whimsy; the exhibition is less in your face provocative than it has been in the past; more gently subversive, gently parodying the Romantic movement and its romanticisation of mental illness (particularly the Milk Thistle pages and pocket contents). I have really amassed work since 2011, and I feel the exhibition is far more cohesive and well presented than it has been in the past.














If you're local/in the area, please do pop by - the exhibition can be viewed from the front garden from today, Sunday 31st May, until Sunday 14th June, from 10am - 8pm daily.

Next Saturday 6th June I will be holding a #secretsofselfpreservation workshop stitching self care potions from 4pm in the living room; the workshop is limited to ten places, so please email katerolison@googlemail.com to book your place.

The details of my exhibition and workshop can be found here. I do hope you'll visit.





Witches and Wicked Bodies

Supposedly higher sex drives are sometimes given, not so much as an excuse as a reason, for "men behaving badly" (whether that may constitute cheating behaviours or even sexual assault). However, the thinking in bygone centuries was that it was more difficult for women to "control their carnal desires". It was also thought that women were "more open to persuasion", and that these two sinful vulnerabilities were a result of intrinsic feminine frailty which made them "weaker vessels" than men.

To learned men of the day, this meant that women could be more easily seduced, both physically and mentally. And who is the greatest seducer of women - think of Eve and the serpent - the Devil. These ideas, inherited from Biblical depictions, led to the demonisation of witches, who were characterised as evil devil worshippers.

But even in pre-Christian societies witches were a prevalent archetype. Circe and Medea were characters of Greek mythology, and Medea was a priestess of the goddess Hecate, who was strongly associated with witchcraft and sorcery. Harpies and sirens were also popular adversaries in Greek and Roman myth. These two often interchangeable monsters are the first subjects of the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition, at the British Museum until the 11th January. The siren harpies are depicted attempting to lure Odysseus to a watery grave on a Greek vase with a wide neck.


The majority of the exhibition, however, is given over to the witches of the title - and their wicked bodies. The exhibition ranges from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century. The majority of witch hunts occurred during the Renaissance, and the exhibition is, in part, a chart of their progress. What is almost immediately apparent is the huge regurgitation of the same hysterical imagery. Compare these two prints: the contorted, grotesque bodies; the ghoulish, phantasmagorical horse-like creatures; the supernatural elements whipping up the witches' hair, flowing like banners behind them. The two prints are variations on a theme, and the exhibition is full of prints which are equally as similar.



Prints like these could be mass-produced and dispersed via the tabloids of the day. Indeed, they very much put me in mind of both the tabloid press and car crash TV; they are just as titillating, vulgar, and abject, with perverse acts, copious nudity, and drooping breasts, and they contain handy scapegoats for societal ills. During the Renaissance, it was storms and natural disasters which were blamed on witches; now, for example, the jobs market and housing are blamed on immigrants, but the principal is the same. Both groups - witches and immigrants, are, to differing extents, marginalised, misunderstood members of society, and most importantly, they are Other - then, ungodly, and now, foreign.

As Deanna Petherbridge notes in her book which accompanies the exhibition, "activities such as cooking, healing and midwifery", activities which for the most part excluded men (and Othered women), may have made men suspicious of women. As Petherbridge notes, these activities "gave women an unusual degree of power over their fellow human beings". This threatened the "natural order" of patriarchal society.


This challenge to male power is palpable in the prints of witches created by men in this exhibition. Many of the witches are highly androgynous, even masculine. In the Classical tradition, some of the women portrayed here are distinguishable from men only by the (sagging, distended) breasts which have been stuck on, not so much as an afterthought, but as a reminder of just how transgressive these women are. How dare they have breasts, this symbol of womanhood, and behave aggressively, take on men's role, even men's physical features? This is dangerous, and, combined with the occult, Satanic. It is a threat, not only to men, but to the figurehead of patriarchy, the ultimate father figure; to God Himself. All of which provides the motivation for the horrific persecution, torture, and murder of "witches" during the Renaissance, which is estimated to have resulted in the deaths of 70,000 to 100,000 people.



The most marginalised members of society, just as now, were the most vulnerable to attack. As Petherbridge writes, "early modern ideas about the essential vulnerability of women may have provoked concerns about the weakest members of the female sex, such as poor, old widows without social support or protection, using unnatural means to 'even up the odds'."

As we move to the end of the 18th Century, the images change, and become perhaps even more misogynistic. Certainly, they are objectifying; these witches fit the temptress template. Men have sketched and painted them nude or scantily clad, and then blamed the women as immoral seductresses, all whilst they and their audience feel a frisson of excitement at the scandal. It reminds me of John Berger in Ways of Seeing: "You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting "Vanity", thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure".




Their very bodies are sinful, and will lead to the downfall of man. And so we return to the idea of the fault lying with the very nature of the women themselves - to original sin - to Eve.

Tangled Yarns: Alke Schmidt at the William Morris Gallery (Part 1)


The William Morris Gallery is very canny at showing contemporary artists whose output would have been looked upon most favourably by Morris himself. None more so than the latest exhibition by Alke Schmidt, Tangled Yarns. If Morris was alive today I'm sure he would have felt as passionately about Alke's call for social justice through her exposure of the murky world of the textile industry as about her highly skilled handicraft.

Alke plays up this dichotomy between Morris the socialist and Morris the designer in her exhibition. One of the first works which the audience is confronted with as they ascend the stairs to the main exhibition space is entitled Morris's Dilemma. "Confronted" is perhaps an apt word; rising like steam from the two arms of a mill engine, Morris's Honeysuckle and Tulip pattern, repeated on a grand scale, weaves like a mirage in and out of the engine painted over it. I'm not sure whether the work should be classified as a painting or as a collaboration with a bygone craftsman. It could easily be an assault on the senses, but Alke blends pattern and painting so seamlessly, confronting Morris's romantic longing for a pre-industrial, hand-crafted age with the means of production that made his career possible.






One cylinder of the mill engine is entitled "CAPITAL"; the other, "LABOUR". On Alke's blog we learn that this is not her own invention intended to "illustrate the complex and conflicted relationship between Morris the entrepreneur-designer and Morris the socialist", but an unbelievably fortuitous discovery on her part; such an Orwellian mill engine may genuinely have existed. At the very least, it did as a Victorian illustration.

The composition and colouring of Alke's piece is redolent of both right and left wing propaganda for me, but particularly trade union, socialist, and suffrage banners.



In the very last piece completed for Tangled Yarns, Alke pays direct homage to these suffrage banners, appliquéing an early 20th century patchwork (which would have been a "contemporary" of the Suffragettes) with the Suffragette rallying cry and banner proclamation Deeds Not Words.

Though the work harks back to the 1900s and the suffrage movement, and is in part a collaboration with a needlewoman of the past, it feels decidedly modern. It could be the jumble of colours, which are warm, inviting, even cosy; in marked contrast to the rest of the exhibition there is a sense of the handcrafted here that is perhaps not entirely polished; this is highlighted by the unfinished, raw edges of the patchwork. Alke posits on her blog that the woman who created the patchwork may have been a professional machinist making this piece at home for personal pleasure; she was certainly a skilled stitcher. 



Alke's choice to leave the patchwork unfinished signifies the never-ending nature of "women's work", and lends the piece a vulnerable air. The domestic furnishing and dressmaking cottons used for the lettering, the shirting stripes of the patchwork, show that craft is for everyone, and can be (and certainly was in the past) a part of everyday life. Just as Morris would have wanted. 

The phrase which keeps repeating in my head as I look at this work is the old rallying cry of Second-wave feminism, "The Personal Is Political". Its execution puts me in mind of Craftivism, as does its simple, yet impactful and perennial message. It has readopted the Suffragette call to arms, but divorced it from its austerity. As with the campaigns of the Craftivist Collective, "unlike some of the more traditional, extrovert forms of activism", Deeds Not Words is quietly beautiful. 

Alke created her text from fabrics used in the other works in the exhibition - thereby tying up the loose ends of her Tangled Yarns. A fitting conclusion to Alke's exhibition, calling us to bring about real change in the textile industry, whilst honouring the women who intersect with it.

A group of women whose lives were utterly transformed - for worse - by the textile industry were the victims of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. Disaster makes it sound like an accident; textiles workers in the Rana Plaza building were literally told "If you die here, so be it. But you can't leave, get to work". 

The building collapse is considered the deadliest structural failure in modern human history, leaving behind countless unanswered questions. Due to failures at every level, from highstreet brands whose clothes were manufactured in the building neglecting to take responsibility towards their workers, to local government turning a blind eye to the lack of planning permission, to managers at one of the factories in the building threatening to withhold a month's pay if workers refused to come to work following structural cracks appearing, 1138 (and counting) people have died. The majority of these workers were women, and a number of their children were also killed in the collapse.

Just writing these words makes me angry. It is incredible, therefore, that Alke has created such touching, peaceful, and appropriate memorials to these women in her exhibition, restoring them the dignity that they were so brutally robbed of.




In each of her two works commemorating the workers who were killed, she uses 1138 pearlescent-tipped sewing pins - one for each victim who died. Alke therefore honours the work that they did as seamstresses, though it was not respected during their lifetimes.

1138 and Counting presents the pins on a scroll of cotton and muslin, grouped together like a tally. The pure yet warm off-white is peaceful and spiritual, and together with the ethereal muslin is reminiscent of ghosts and angels.


Memorial presents us with a shroud-like length of cotton (the fabric which ties the entire exhibition together) on which pins delineate the shape of a woman's body. Although the pins pierce the fabric, the body appears to be resting on it; this calls to mind the stories of volunteer rescuers bringing victims out of the wreckage of Rana Plaza on bolts of fabric.



Alke has incorporated the survivors' testimony into both pieces:

They would not pay us if we didn't work that day.

One supervisor forced us to go inside.

We tried to get out but they wouldn't let us.

Our managers said, 'We will all die some day'.

If you die here, so be it. But you can't leave, get to work.

My hand got stuck when the roof came down. So I tried to cut off my hand but I couldn't.

I was buried alive. I never thought I'd see sunlight again.

I can't work anymore. I can't support my family, can't afford my treatment.

They didn't even pay my kids' due salaries. They said there is no salary for the dead.



Alke's neighbours transcribed this testimony from videos published by Labour Behind the Label into Bengali script, a further example of her collaborative process. Alke transferred the script on to the cotton of the works. In 1138 and Counting, the script rises from behind a haze of muslin, reminding us, like Morris's Dilemma, that the chain of supply in the textile industry is obscure and murky.

The Expert View

Louise Bourgeois' scrawled slogan "Art is a guaranty of sanity" and Tracey Emin's "I need art like I need God" are both saying the same thing. That art is at once proof of our humanity, and also transcends it. That the human spirit is endlessly resilient and capable of greatness, whatever hardships have befallen us, whether external or internal.



I kept this in mind as I visited The Expert View on Thursday evening. The installation of light boxes in Dalston Square is the culmination of Daily Life Ltd's Experts by Experience workshops, shown alongside Bobby Baker's Diary Drawings. As I explained in another post, I was lucky enough to be a participant in one of these workshops, and, I'm thrilled to say, one of my little drawings is included in the exhibition.




I was surprised that such a humble offering was included, particularly with the wealth of talent on display. Ironically, when I went to art school I became less confident in drawing; to begin with, my work was mostly text based, and then embroidery became an all-consuming compulsion, where I would stitch the design directly on to the cloth without figuring it out on paper first. Experts by Experience has inspired me to pick up the pencil (and inks, and paints, and pastels, and...) and learn how to draw again. I feel it can only be good for my textiles practice.

Despite my misgivings about my artistic capabilities, at The Expert View I was overwhelmed with positive responses to this tiny illustration of my erstwhile expertise at crying. People seemed to find it very touching, which to some extent was unexpected; I find it rather humorous. I think, in mental health, humour about the situations we find ourselves in can be a very powerful resource. That is, so long as we are not laughing at each other, or bitterly at our own "shortcomings", but together at the absurdity of the world we have to navigate.

Bobby's work, of course, is rich with the power of humour. It is very hard to be truly afraid of something if you can laugh at it. Even if that "something" is the amorphous and unpindownable "spectre of mental illness".




 

The drawing above, of Bobby buying Christmas presents for her loved ones, I found particularly heartening. At our workshop, Bobby showed us this drawing and explained that she loves buying presents for others. I think, in mental health, it can be so easy to discount the things that really matter in our lives; the media and society at large can reduce us to how productive we can be; to scroungers sitting around sponging up benefits, feeling sorry for ourselves, and not "contributing". But people living with mental illness have families; have loved ones; have cherished relationships, and it is of vital importance to celebrate this, because so many of us can feel like our illnesses are a huge burden on those we are closest to. We forget what we give; we forget that the world is a better place because we're in it.




I think The Expert View is palpable evidence of this. It is a celebration; a riot of colour, of life experiences, of the whole gamut of human emotion. There are contributions from mental health professionals, patients past and present, and people who intersect with the field in other ways. Of course, you could be all three, and that is, in part, the point. The question being posed is Who is the expert? And the answer, given in the installation flyer, is another question: Who's to say?




People who study and treat mental ill health, psychiatrists, psychologists, support workers, doctors, nurses; can they ever understand these illnesses in the same way as people with lived experience? I would argue not; unless of course, they have lived experience of mental illness themselves. Certainly, mental health professionals can bring expertise to the table that those of us with lived experience may not have; years of training and study, in-depth understanding of individual illnesses and symptoms, and (hopefully) the compassion which brought them to the profession in the first place. But this can sometimes translate to seeing people as just a set of symptoms to be "cured" and not an individual. Perhaps a more holistic approach is required. Which is where art comes in. 

Daily Life Ltd.'s Experts by Experience workshops were not art therapy. They were not an exercise in psychoanalysing our drawings, or a means of alleviating symptoms. For some of us, these may have been by-products of the workshop, but this was not the objective. What I came away with from the workshop was a profound sense that there is very little separating those designated "mad" and those designated "sane". For some people, that is a deeply troubling thought, but as an individual who has been placed in both categories at different times, I found it comforting. 




This is why I think it is so important for The Expert View to be exhibited in such a public and well-frequented place. Members of the public whose lives have been touched, or not, by mental illness, will happen across the installation in their daily lives. I'm already proud to be a part of this exhibition. If even one person who happens upon it reconsiders mentally ill people as people just like them, I will feel I have made a very small but nonetheless substantial difference for mentally ill people in this country. Being involved in this project has already made a difference to me personally; I'm more open, more outspoken about mental health injustices, and more enlightened. 

The Expert View shows what people with experience of mental ill health are capable of; beautiful, riveting, touching, hilarious, heart-breaking, unique art, positively zinging with life.







No Baubles - British Folk Art at Tate Britain

When the Royal Academy was established in 1769, it emphatically stated that "no needlework, artificial flowers, cut paper, shell work, or any such baubles should be admitted". Baubles were all very well for the drawing room; just don’t bring them into the gallery. 

One might well assume that this measure was intended to bar women from exhibiting; this a mere twenty three years before A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published. Art by women has long been devalued and placed firmly in the camp of craft, differentiating it from "masculine" high art; as art historian Roszika Parker noted "historians devalued it ("women's work") in the eyes of society which equated great art with masculinity, the public sphere and professional practice”. Professional practice, of course, was historically barred to the vast majority of women, and even today, the exposés of Guerrilla Girls indicate the extent of the glass ceiling which still exists in the art world. Work by female artists is often couched as female first, and art second, or simply and derisively as "decorative".



But it is not only women that the Royal Academy's proclamation barred; rejection of these "baubles" is in part a question of class. Many male and female artists could only dream of the Royal Academy, with its members wealthy enough to "drop out" in order to turn to a life of painting. Working class artists instead turned to whatever they had to hand for their materials; bone, scraps of fabric, letters and newspapers, pins and beads. Art made from the collections of the rag and bone man.



It is this patchwork art, made from scraps, from snippets of this and that, that we see at British Folk Art at Tate Britain. Literal patchworks are paper pieced with scraps of letters and newspapers. In a time when paper was scarce and expensive, this was the most economical means of hand quilting, even if sacrificing cherished letters was heart-wrenching. Throughout the exhibition we see thrift as evidence of survival and adaptation to trying circumstances, rather than it is often employed today, as guilty afterthought or proof of green credentials. This is make do and mend before the term came into use. The centrepiece is a cockerel painstakingly hand-carved from mutton bone by French POWs during the Napoleonic Wars. The intricacy of this sculpture repudiates the rulings of the Royal Academy almost half a century earlier. It is an astonishing work not simply for the delicacy of the carving, but for the sheer quantity of bones the POWs siphoned off; for the coral wattle and comb which presumably is dyed bone; for the hours it doubtless took to whittle and carve down the bone into individual feathers. The cockerel demonstrates the tenacity of the human spirit; the irrepressibility of imagination.



Time and again walking through the exhibition, the audience encounters art made during hardship. Folk artists have created when incarcerated; when recuperating from illness; when pining for loved ones across the seas.

Whereas needlework and textile craft was thought to be the preserve of middle and upper class ladies in recent centuries (and we do see examples of samplers in this vein), here we see men turning to the medium also, often when convalescing.



Injured sailors and fishermen created woolwork keepsake representations of their ships. Recuperating soldiers in the 19th and early 20th centuries were encouraged to create bright patchworks from their old uniforms. Some might think this emasculating; however, when one takes into account just how heavy duty the serge and twill fabric is, any feminine associations of needlework evaporate.

 An even more macho application of needlecraft is evident in a
frankly terrifying Jolly Roger which flew atop HMS Trenchant in the Second World War. In a gross understatement, the exhibition notes inform us that Jolly Rogers like this one featured "symbols referring to the vessel's various engagements". The "various engagements" are the sinking and capturing of German ships. Appliqué, as employed here, and other textile crafts, have become the site of subversion over the course of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty first century; we see an early subversive, piratical use here. This is textiles divorced from the drawing room and any shred of domesticity; made entirely masculine.  



Alongside the woolwork depictions of ships and “sailors’ valentines” are works of art of a more traditional nature; almost good enough for the Royal Academy.  Appropriately given the flavour of the exhibition, these paintings are by a rag and bone man; Alfred Wallis of St Ives. His naive paintings recall his youth at sea. Unlike the artists who neighbour his paintings, Wallis had some art world success with his work, mostly due to his friendships with the St Ives artists’ colony.

Another folk artist who had success during her lifetime was Mary Linwood, an embroidery copyist of Old Masters. She was not accepted into the patriarchal art establishment, doubtless because her naturalistic, immense silk shadings posed too much of a “bauble”, but nevertheless enjoyed considerable success. However, she fell from grace with the advent of “art needlework”, when, ironically, embroidery artists and designers aped a folk art, pre-industrial style.



As with all that is fashionable, art is cyclical; the Royal Academy may once have been up in arms about the daintily hand crafted, but contemporary artists such as Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry have made careers from borrowing from craft. Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller celebrates folk art in his work, and creates new folk heroes. Doubtless the time will come again when folk art falls out of favour. This would make it all the more vital to celebrate it for what it is; art by the people, for the people.

Zoology

The 2014 E17 Art Trail is upon us! And very welcome it is too, after last year's hiatus. This year I am showing two embroideries as part of the Zoology exhibition at the wonderful little gallery and picture framers E17 Art House.

You might remember these two; a puffin I stitched for my parents' 50th birthdays (and is now finally framed, hooray!) and an ode on melancholyflowers with accompanying honey bee (that one's for sale).



There is a menagerie of talent and media on show; from cute to conceptual, wood engraving to soft sculpture.

Benevolent Mill matriarch Mo Morris shows some of my favourite works in the exhibition; adorably diddy, hand carved wood cuts.



I have a particular predilection for moths.


Bees are a popular subject at Zoology; this one makes good use of recycled materials, as well as being a bit monstrous.


I love the wry, knowing expression of this caged parrot.


This mouse spooked me a little; maybe it's something about its glassy stare? I wouldn't want to run into it in a dark alley!


One of these delightful animal alphabet prints by Build makes up the flyer for the exhibition; these were two of my favourites (who doesn't love mallards and narwhals?!)



These charming illustrations by Darren Hayman commemorate Walthamstow's recent past, and the lovable heroes of the Dog Track.



I told you I had a thing about moths (though I suspect this may be a butterfly), and the metamorphosis is melded perfectly.


This small but beautiful space is bursting with a zoo all its own, with a wide range of prices for art lovers and something to suit every taste whether you're buying or just travelling 'round the Trail. Don't miss it! The exhibition is on until the 28th June.


Book Marks

A wealth of wit, literary references and life's big themes are on show in the current exhibition at E17 Art House. Those literary references are particularly apt as the exhibition is entitled Book Marks, and is part of Walthamstow's inaugural literary festival, Words Over Waltham Forest.

Paens to literature, reading and writing in the exhibition include quick-witted visual puns (an orange with a piece of clockwork inserted where its stem should be), conceptual riffs on the sanctity of literature (a Bible which warns that God is watching you via a security camera in the front cover, another with legislature scrawled over chapter and verse), and the more straightforward, though no less charming (sculptures and photographs of readers enjoying a quiet moment with a good book).

From the moment of glancing at the title of How To Deal With Problematic Neighbours, the reader's mind is set racing guessing what the solution may be. Its contents are almost predictable, though still tickle the funny bone; a pistol conveniently concealed inside for dispatching with annoying acquaintances.




J. Thomas's artist's book was one of a number of offerings lining what I affectionately refer to as 'Conceptual Corner' in the exhibition, and is the next door neighbour of my contribution. Big Teeth, the artist's book which consumed me for around a month and a half, is a hand sewn exploration of the women's language of cloth in fairytales, and of what happens after happily ever after.




To the right hand side of Big Teeth was another artist's book, this time for sale in an edition. Subtitles (of Life and Death) by David Barette also happened to be my favourite piece in the show.

It's a simple idea; collate quotations on life and death in the form of screenshots and subtitles from a variety of classic films. But it works. 


The screenshots take the form of postcards that one could "cut (or rather, pull) out and keep", or keep as a complete work of art. Perhaps it appeals particularly to me as part of an image, iconography, pop culture obsessed generation; the Tumblr generation, if you will. It's certainly very accessible and instantly gratifying.




Between the Lines by Wendy McMillan, UK Law transcribed over Biblical Text

1984 by Francis Long



Insect Travellers Author/artist unknown. This artist's book disperses advice and adages alongside scientific illustrations of insects.



Bible Cam - God is watching YOU by Pure Evil


Genre - Mystery by Hannah Battershell. What tales could this abandoned typewriter tell?

A Soul of a New Machine by Jonathan Thomas
The artist E. J. England uses  book covers as their canvases; of course, one would need to read the words enclosed within to know whether these paintings are illustrative, or what is suggested to the artist by the books' titles.

The Stars Look Down by E. J. England. Gouache paint on vintage book.

The Lion by E. J. England. Gouache paint on vintage book


Of Love and Other Demons by Divya Venkatesh
I've been in a number of exhibitions with soft sculpture and embroidery artist Harriet Hammel, but the attention to detail and accuracy of her illustrative comic book embroideries exhibited at Book Marks never fails to astonish me.


Beano Embroidery by Harriet Hammel

Dandy Embroidery Fragment by Harriet Hammel
Another favourite piece was Jonathan O'Dea's book-sculpture Burning Back the Layers. Created as a tangible embodiment of the artist's struggles with reading as a dyslexic, the work also reminds the viewer that books come from trees; it reminds us of the lengthy process the materials have undergone in order for a book, perfect and complete, to be placed in our hands. The longer I spent with this piece, the more of its layers I unpeeled; a very appropriately titled work.

Burning Back the Layers by Jonathan O'Dea

Reading by Esther Neslen
This exhibition is rich and beautifully curated, many of the pieces situated in such a way that they have a profound dialogue with one another. I am sure book based art is a genre I will return to time and time again over the course of my career; books are my first love, after all (and what better first love to have?) As one of the art works in the exhibition mused, in the immortal words of Morrissey: "There's more to life than books you know, but not much more." Quite.

Softer at The Mill

I'm just back from dropping off a couple of framed embroideries at Penny Fielding's for the E17 Art Trail Summer Show (which opens on Thursday), and I thought I would finally get 'round to uploading some photographs from another little exhibition I'm participated in, which opened a couple of weeks ago.

Some of you may remember the Soft exhibition at The Mill that I blogged about around  this time last year. Well, after the success of that show, The Mill decided to reincarnate the exhibition as Softer. There's a very different feel to this year's exhibition (it's jam packed to the rafters, for one thing!), with more varieties of textile art/craft and a slightly more political slant. Everyone from established artists to infant school students are represented; it's truly reflective of the wider Walthamstow community!

Unfortunately, with all the other exhibitions I'm preparing for and submitting work to, I ran out of time to create something new for Softer. Thus my contribution was one of my early embroideries for The Cure for Love, which was exhibited in its entirety at The Mill in December 2011. 

The embroidery I submitted was my "Love is no mythical creature" narwhal (my favourite animal, don't you know; I frequently dream about them!)


He looks quite sweet nestled in amongst the crochet and quilting!



These "stained glass" crochet granny squares were one of my favourite exhibits. I love how each square is unique, yet each compliments the others. Definitely got me hankering after a granny square blanket (if only I could knit or crochet!)




Work curated and created by my old colleagues at Significant Seams was also featured; cushions spelling out "Softer" were hung up in the front window, inviting the public in. The cushions were made as part of Wood Street Welcome, a community art project for Wood Street, Walthamstow.


In addition to the Softer exhibition, there were also a number of inventive oversized animals on display (including my second-favourite animal, a downcast looking fox!)

This exhibition was entitled Wildlife Reworked, and was comprised of animal sculptures made from recycled objects by local families with the help of sculptor Michelle Reader. Although a separate exhibition, the sculptures could easily have been included in Softer as many were made with large quantities of fabric. There was obviously a lot of attention to detail given when selecting the materials to construct the animals; the texture of the fox's fur in particular was spot on.





This piece has inspired some of my hand stitching and hand quilting idea for Big Teeth. Lovely warm colours and homespun, handcrafted textures!



It wouldn't be a textile exhibition at The Mill without a few of Harriet Hammel's signature pieces. She contributed a Campbell's "PopArt" Soup can and a jar of (my favourite) Marmite. Though why these incredibly life like provisions were displayed in a wire cage, I'm not quite sure! They shared wall space with a knitted or crocheted (forgive my ignorance) faux-taxidermy moose head, which very much puts me in mind of one my housemate hung on our living room wall at university.




This cactus was one of my favourite pieces in the exhibition, and I'm very sorry to say I didn't get any better photographs of it. Just imagine how much more practical knitted house plants would be than their living counterparts!



This quilted duffel bag by Significant Seams stalwart Heidi Beach puts me in mind of William Morris's beloved leather satchels; I can certainly imagine him using this bag if he was around nowadays!


I was enthralled by the texture of the undulating seaweed in this piece; I don't know what the textile technique is, but the artist has caught their essence just right.


Unfortunately the photograph of this knitted item doesn't do it justice; it was a riot of colour and texture.


This bird reminded me of both William Morris's original designs, and Nicola Jarvis's drawings, paintings, and embroideries inspired by the famed Walthamstow-born master craftsman.


I loved the intricate volcano design of this quilt; just imagine how long it must've taken to piece it together!


Finally, an incredibly sweet addition to the exhibition was the "Needle Club" book created by young primary school children. It showcased the magic of children's imagination, and both put me in mind of my soft sculpture book On Being Soft, and inspired me to persevere with Big Teeth














The thing with feathers

As the time to begin my training at the Royal School of Needlework draws ever nearer, I grow more and more excited, but also daunted, as it seems incredible to me that human hands can produce something so exquisitely beautiful.

Visiting the most recent exhibition at the William Morris Gallery, The Art of Embroidery, has me even more daunted. Truly, Nicola Jarvis's bird and floral motifs are an exercise in impeccable technique. It didn't surprise me in the slightest that the exhibition is supported by both the Royal School of Needlework and the Embroiderers' Guild, because Jarvis's skill is clearly the result of years of training.



What she is particularly masterful at is replicating the same image in a plethora of individual techniques; from quilting to painting to canvaswork. As well as being a master craftswoman she is obviously also a master draughtswoman; her designs for embroidery are exquisite, and are shown in context alongside those by May Morris, William Morris's daughter and a key figure in the Royal School of Art Needlework as it was then known.



May became director of the embroidery department of Morris & Co. at the tender age of twenty three (clearly a prodigious talent; I'm twenty two, and thus even more daunted!) Though techniques in embroidery have become more complex and refined since her time, there is a clear mastery of the craft in her designs. I was particularly struck with her silk shading, which, though thicker in stitch than modern silk shading, has a gorgeous quality of light.



Because of this juxtaposition between old and new techniques in embroidery, the exhibition is something of a view of the evolution of the craft.

I must say, though I greatly admired the masterful technique of Nicola Jarvis's designs, some of my favourite items in the exhibit were three bags, two of which were designed by Morris and the third is a woven Middle Eastern silk evening bag.This may be because of my romantic tendencies, which are perfectly suited to accessories of the Arts and Crafts movement!







My favourite pieces of Nicola's were her richly embroidered cushions. The beading in particular is breathtaking, and works particularly well with floral motifs, adding jewel-like opulence to the flowers. From her design notes, it is evident that Nicola closely studied Morris's designs, particularly his prints for wall papers and fabrics; she cleverly echoes these in the bodies of the birds, and incorporates them seamlessly. In some cases it appears that the birds are made of lace, the embroidery is so fine.











Nicola will be working on an embroidery in situ at the exhibition on a number of days; unfortunately I've forgotten precisely when and didn't write the dates down, but I do know that they are in August!


I would urge anyone, craftsperson or otherwise, to visit this breathtaking exhibition. It is nothing if not impressive, and irrefutably proves that embroidery is not "just an idle past-time", but a true art.


Big Teeth

Possibly thanks to my little exhibition at Arts and Crusts, I was recently contacted by E17 Art House, a local picture framers and gallery, and asked to participate in a new exhibition there to coincide with Waltham Forest's literary festival in October.

Words Over Waltham Forest aims to incite participants and the public to "tell tales, spin stories, recite rhymes, loosen tongues as Words over Waltham Forest celebrates creative writing, literary inspired art, reading, freedom of expression, language and literature across Waltham Forest."

I have a couple of plans for "literary inspired art" afoot, but first I must create a piece for the Book Marks exhibition at E17 Art House. And, always being one to bite off more than I can chew, I've decided to create a follow up to On Being Soft, my first soft sculpture artist's book.

This new book will be titled Big Teeth, and in keeping with the literary theme, will focus on fairytales and all the allusions to textiles therein, and how there is no such thing as a happy ending. It will have more than a whiff of Hounds of Love about it, being narrated by a heroine who is unwilling to give into love and its trappings.

Here is the design for the book's front cover.


Big Teeth refers both to the wolf in grandmother's clothing ("My, what big teeth you have") and to being afraid of the unruly emotions of life and love (life's "big teeth").

I picked up all the fabric to construct the book from fabric donations at Significant Seams for a very reasonable price; I love the slightly worn, pre-loved look of donated fabric. The fabric this embroidery will be stitched to make up the front cover is a faded "toothpaste stripe", which I felt very appropriate.

Revisiting the Constellation Quilt


The Constellation Quilt has been languishing unloved and uncared for for the past few months, in favour of "quick fix" projects over this time consuming (and daunting!) endeavour. It's not just that though; the quilt just wasn't "hanging together" for me; I wasn't happy with the aesthetic, or with the disjointed narrative of the piece; it all seemed a bit "bitty".

Now that my summer holidays are looming, I'm about to find myself with the time to really take the quilt to task. I toyed with the idea of converting it into a giant fortune teller or cootie catcher structure (and I may still have to make one up in fabric, though on a smaller scale), but it was the concept of the quilt as a giant linear comic strip that most appealed to me.

And so I have written a snippet of text to add into a reworking of the quilt, with much more of a cohesive narrative. I don't think it's quite "done" yet, it needs a decisive ending, and it will be accompanied by a few choice embroidered and appliqued illustrations, but the final quilt will be mostly text; the words will speak for themselves.
I'm excited to make a proper start once my current bee-themed embroidery is out of the way. My hope is that I'll have the quilt ready for exhibition in the Words Over Waltham Forest festival in October. Fingers crossed!

Hysterical Woman

The charming little coffee shop where I work tonight hosted the first of its supper clubs for the Appetite Festival (a month-long festival of food in Waltham Forest for the month of June). To coincide with this, Walthamstow Dad has created a coffee-flavoured art installation, and, thanks to a kindly customer who dropped me in it/suggested Arts and Crusts exhibited my work, I have a little window installation of my embroideries.

Carol (one half of Arts and Crusts) set the embroideries off beautifully by hand-drawing a lace design based on one of my handkerchiefs.

Work old and new is featured; pieces from The Cure for Love, my Melancholy Flowers, a pop feminist piece (which will, fingers crossed, feature in another exhibition soon), two handkerchiefs from my current project Treasures For Your Troubles, and a satirical piece on the perils of hero worshipping Sylvia Plath (as Woody Allen said, Plath was an "interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.")

When Carol was putting the finishing touches to the display, she asked me if I had a name for the little exhibition. As I drew a blank, she took a lead from the pop feminist embroidery featured, and dubbed the exhibition Hysterical Woman; so the display now reads Hysterical Woman Kate Elisabeth Rolison (!)





























I'm chuffed with the beautiful way in which Carol has presented my work. It seems fitting to have a little exhibition at Arts and Crusts; after all, it is an arts and crafts café, and I'm always found stitching away in between serving customers!

I'm afraid to say (according to the Arts and Crusts Twitter feed) all the spaces for the supper clubs are now sold out; I'm certainly very pleased to have made it to one. The tabbouleh, baklava, and Arabic mint tea went down particularly well (though wasn't eaten/drunk all at once!) It was a little like a dinner party but with new faces; a wonderful way to meet your neighbours and socialise, all while admiring the art on the walls (and ceiling!) and sampling Middle Eastern deliciousness. Bring on next year!

Got My Goat


Aside from yesterday afternoon, I honestly can’t remember the last exhibition I went  to. Working at Significant Seams, I am somewhat (almost literally) cocooned in the comforting, cosy world of craft, and could at times almost forget that I have a background in conceptual art, and would indeed primarily consider myself a conceptual artist.
Of course, the line between art and craft is forever permuting. In  A Transatlantic Dialoguethe exhibition I visited at the Ben Uri Gallery, the exhibition notes explained that projects directed by artist Judy Chicago involving craft aimed to elevate this “woman’s work” to its rightful place as art.
Chicago’s career spans more than 5 decades and encompasses a multitude of media, but she is perhaps best known for her work The Dinner Party, first exhibited in 1979, and (in part as a product of The Dinner Party) as a feminist artist.
The Dinner Party, which has remained in residence at the Brooklyn Museum since 2007 and visited London only once, was a project on a grand scale of both skill and imagination. Chicago asked master craftswomen to execute her designs for place settings for an imaginary dinner party which famous historical and mythological women were “invited” to. The craftswomen included potters, ceramicists, embroiderers and seamstresses. In inviting these women to honour women “erased” from history, I feel that Chicago was honouring both the foremothers of modern women, and female craft traditions which have a long lineage and continue to be practised today, whilst placing them in a contemporary art context, thereby forcing society to take a second, much longer look at “women’s work”.
Chicago has been accused by critics of reducing all women to “just vaginas”; that her paintings, drawings and sculptures use the hackneyed female forms of flower-as-butterfly-as-female sex organ. And indeed, there was little subtlety on display here, and this was as much evident in the work of the other transatlantic “speakers”, Tracey Emin, Louise Bourgeois and Helen Chadwick, as Chicago’s! However, there was no doubt that here were four strong, gutsy, fearless women, as vulnerable as their diaristic artworks betrayed them to be.
Reading Emin’s “C.V.” of her tragic early life leading up to her gradual acceptance into the art world and her career gaining momentum was moving, powerful, and inspiring. I was equally touched by Chicago’s Autobiography of a Year, a catalogue of the highs and lows, the mundanity and the ecstasy, of an ageing, but successful, woman artist. In Autobiography, Judy Chicago worries about her husband finding her unattractive, and her ability to make “good” art, amongst other things. I found her emotional honesty deeply endearing and comforting; if this icon of a woman is sometimes weak and fragile (or worse), and yet simultaneously so strong and driven, then I reason that I too can succeed!
Chicago’s line in Autobiography reflects her emotional mood and urgency; intricate yet delicate sketches of trees and flowers accompany texts of calm, and her anger at “the hand that makes bad art” is slopped on to the page with blood red ink. Her sense of colour and its symbolism, and the way this runs through the ebb and flow of the year, is astounding (and I would certainly agree with Chicago that orange is the colour of anxiety!)
The exhibition was so multi-layered and comprised so much of a whistle-stop tour of four prolific artists’ work that it will all take me some time to digest (and I must do some more research on Helen Chadwick’s work!)
On a less cultural note, on our way to the gallery we met a new friend, who was very interested in my boyfriend’s Skittles; a pygmy goat in a school garden! I was adamant that she (I was convinced it was a she; perhaps this had something to do with the exhibition we visiting?) was coming home with me.
photo (1)photo (3)photo (4)
Unfortunately I didn’t get my goat; maybe next time.

100th Post

As well as blogging about the Trail, I am exhibiting in it again this year. And my, what a difference a year makes. This time last year, I was just getting properly well again, but this year, I am happy as well as healthy, and things really seem to be working out for me. I am so so thankful for that.

Setting up the exhibition yesterday morning:






The exhibition installed in our front window:


"Bellini Reception" to celebrate. ;)








P.S. This is my 100th post on Poesie Grenadine! I'm glad it's such a happy one.

To conclude, here's my most recent embroidery. If you'd like to purchase it, please let me know A.S.A.P. It's garnering a lot of attention already!



Soft: group show at The Mill

Tonight my parents and I paid a visit to the newly installed exhibition at The Mill, Soft, in which my soft sculpture book, On Being Soft, features (that's a lot of "softs"!)


There really is something for everyone at the exhibition; knitted wall hangings, silk Devoré, soft sculpture, even a cross stitched  QR code! In fact, almost every imaginable type of textile craft/art was featured.




This gorgeous quilted wall hanging by Gilli Haqqani, titled Easter at Kew, is an incredibly intricate (and large!)example of free machine embroidery. It was one of my favourite pieces in the exhibition.



Another large piece, Bambooed by Sba Shaikh, showcased silk Devoré, a technique in which a chemical gel is applied to silk, dissolving it and leaving burnt-out sections. Sba used the gel to create bamboo patterns.


This is a working, cross stitched QR code by Kelly Duggan.




This colourful, hugely touchable piece was created by Debs French and Morwenna Brewitt from hundreds of pompoms.


Another colourful piece, a naive elephant  appliqué  constructed from recycled textiles by Gillian Lawrence.




This series was another one of my favourites from the exhibition; stunningly realistic soft sculpture kitchen appliances by the formidably talented Harriet Hammel.



A Grand Lady appliquéd and framed in velvet by Sheila Aslan.


This quilted wall-hanging by Fatima Ahkrah-kha is a little too traditional for my taste, but beautifully executed.





Having a chat with some ladies who were admiring my book!


William Morris: Story, Memory, Myth

I popped along to the William Morris: Story, Memory, Myth exhibition at the newly opened Two Temple Place gallery today, to have a gander at more Morris textiles, tapestries and embroideries (having previously visited Morris' Red House in Kent)!

The exhibition catalogue describes the "close relationship" between the arts of storytelling and craft; Dr Esmé Whittaker explains how, traditionally, "the craftsman's workshop was the place where stories from the past and from faraway places were exchanged between the resident master craftsman and travelling journeymen", and that "Morris also believed that storytelling belonged within the craftsman's workshop". This makes perfect sense when we consider that Morris was not only a designer but also a poet, and (as I will go on to explain), combined both facets of his creativity. This is particularly interesting for me, being both a writer and crafter.

Unfortunately cameras were not allowed in the exhibition, but I will include photographs from the exhibition catalogue.

The exhibition was centred around four tapestry panels from the Morris and Burne-Jones designed frieze The Romance of the Rose. Le Roman de la Rose was one of the most influential texts of the Middle Ages. The first part of the poem was written by Guillaume de Lorris in 1230, and the second part around 1275, after Lorris' death, by Jean de Meun, but the version Morris and Burne-Jones would have read was a translation by Chaucer, The Romaunt of the Rose.

The poem recounts a dream in which the pilgrim-narrator encounters a beautiful garden, in which he has a vision of a rosebud, symbolising ideal love. A personified Love strikes him with an arrow, and thus the pilgrim is determined to reach the rosebud. He is aided (and hindered) in his quest by a number of allegorical figures.

The tapestry panels, like the Bayeux Tapestry, are in fact not tapestry at all, but an incredibly detailed, large-scale embroidery. The five panels of The Romance of the Rose took  Lowthian Bell's wife Margaret and daughter Florence eight years to complete (from 1874-82), and no wonder; the detail and texture is astounding. The embroidered wall hanging I saw in the Red House pales by comparison! The Romance of the Rose is comprised of silks, wools, and gold thread on linen; unfortunately the photographs in the exhibition catalogue don't do it justice, but here they are:

The Pilgrim Studying Images of the Vices on the exterior of the Garden of Idleness

The Pilgrim Greeted by Idleness at the Gate of the Garden

The Pilgrim in the Garden of Idleness


Love Leading the Pilgrim Through the Briars

The Pilgrim at the Heart of the Rose
A genuine tapestry in the exhibition which was of particular interest to me was The Woodpecker tapestry. This tapestry is "an example of Morris working simultaneously as a poet and a decorative designer." It is one of a series of tapestries for which Morris composed lines of verse (which were later published in his book Poems by the Way in 1891). The tapestry is around 12 feet high (so is no small feat!) and depicts a woodpecker sitting in a tree heavy with fruit. The text, "I once a King and chief/Now am the tree-bark's thief,/Ever 'twixt trunk and leaf/Chasing the prey" refers to the Ovid story of Picus, King of Ausonia, who was transformed into a woodpecker by the goddess Circe because he did not reciprocate her love.

It's good to see that I follow in a rich tradition of combining poetry with illustrative textile art.

The Woodpecker tapestry
The most breathtaking piece of the exhibition was an embroidered wall hanging depicting Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit trees. Also around 12 feet high, the wall hanging is rendered in silk thread which reflects the light, giving a fluid motion to the folds of Pomona's robes. The design the embroidery is based on was actually originally a design for tapestry, from the same series of illustrated poetry as The Woodpecker tapestry. The verse of the embroidery reads "I am the ancient apple queen/As once I was so am I now/For evermore a hope unseen/Betwixt the blossom and the bough/Ah where's the river's hidden gold/And where the windy grave of Troy/Yet come I as I came of old/From out the heart of summer's joy". The embroidery was completed around 1885 by the Royal School of Art Needlework in floss silks on linen.

Pomona
 The final piece of embroidery on display was a frieze by Morris' daughter, May, following in the tradition of her father by illustrating one of his poems. The frieze included quotations from Morris' poem June, from the book The Earthly Paradise. The frieze put me in mind of a giant sampler, with its verse surrounded by a floral border. I will have to do some more research into samplers, particularly since Joetta Maue describes my work as "samplers" in this post.