Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Striking gold in the National Gallery

I don't know about gilding the lily, but how do you gild gold? Or, to put it another way, how on earth do I quilt the gold border on the wallhanging I am currently making and which is finally nearing completion?

The Beast is more than capable of managing the inner, stained-glass-style section. But he is too much of an animal to be allowed to trample all over my wonderful, expensive Cloth of Gold. My own hand-quilting skills are even less to be trusted.

The Wilton Diptych 1395-99, artist unknown

I explained my quandary to a textile friend - not a quilter - who came at the issue from a completely fresh angle. Given that I took as one of my sources medieval books of hours and altarpieces, I should look at the Wilton Diptych, she suggested, and see how the artist had treated the large areas of gold.

It was complete serendipity that this conversation took place in a Pret a Manger overlooking the National Gallery - the sort of thing that only happens in Hollywood films set in London where every significant encounter happens in front of an iconic tourist attraction and all the characters, even those on meagre salaries, live in Notting Hill, Soho or Bloomsbury Square. So we finished our coffee and hastened past the lions of Trafalgar Square, into the Sainsbury Wing and up the stairs to "Paintings 1250-1500". And there was the Wilton Diptych; rather smaller than I remembered but just as glorious.

The Battle of San Romano, detail, Paulo Uccello, 1435-60

It is fascinating looking at works of art with a narrow focus (I once attended a guided tour of  National Gallery paintings exploring the changing significance of white fabric drapery, sheets and clothing). We whizzed past numerous paintings looking only at the gold backgrounds. And what did we find? The large areas of gold on the diptych itself were filled with tiny repeated patterns, indented into the gold leaf and gesso with, presumably, a small metal stamp. Other pictures displayed the same technique, used mainly for the intricate, highly decorative halos. Even when tempera was beginning to give way to oil and religious scenes to battles - as in one of my favourite paintings, Uccello's The Battle of San Romano - the stamped decoration was still in evidence.

Coronation of the Virgin, detail, Lorenzo Monaco, 1407-09

All very lovely, but somewhat impractical. Then I found the solution in a delicately patterned garment worn by the Virgin Mary in Lorenzo Monaco's Coronation of the Virgin:  simple clusters of spots repeated at intervals across the surface. Once I had seen that motif, I began to find variations everywhere, in groups of three, four, five and seven, and I was away...

Executed in gold beads - thanks to the delicious Bead Shop in Covent Garden (in a movie, we would have hailed a passing black cab from the steps of the National Gallery to get there)  - backed by not-too-shiny gold sequins, the effect is decorative but discreet. As a bonus, it is easy to sew.

My life may not be a Woody Allen film (my neuroses are all rather mundane and I don't have the right clothes) but I have once again been reminded by this small foray how extraordinarily rich in opportunities London, with its free museums and specialist shops, can be.

P.S: Added a couple of weeks later, here is the result .....

Detail of beads and sequins on gold border

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Dear George Osborne, can I make you a quilt?

I ask because I've managed to catch the wonderful Richard Hamilton retrospective at Tate Modern just days before it closes. I won't attempt a review here, except to say I was thrilled by his collages, which in reproduction cannot show the subtle transition between print, paint, cutouts and actual objects such as mirrors, a pencil and pieces of fabric.

But I was especially intrigued by the label on a small, modest watercolour from 1951 that read: "Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery in 1992."
My idea of offering a piece of work to the Government - David Cameron and the Chancellor look as if they could do with some comforting at the moment - remained on the level of a happy fantasy until I came to the last room of the exhibition and a large work of 2007 titled Portrait of a Woman as an Artist depicting said woman in a gallery setting wrapped in a sheet-like white gown and holding a  palette and brush: see it here.

Behind her - and this is the really exciting bit - two technicians are hanging on the wall a framed painting of A PATCHWORK QUILT, with blue borders and cream and pink floral fabrics. (I have no idea what message Hamilton was trying to get across, but given his almost fetishistic portrayal of women in the 1960s, 70s and 80s I can't be confident it was a feminist one.)

So here's the deal, Mr Osborne: You let me off my taxes for this past financial year and I make you a quilt like the one in the painting. This way, the Tate can have not a quilt in a picture in a picture but a REAL ONE to hang on its walls. Please think about it, Mr Chancellor. HM Government would be getting a bargain.  

Sunday, 18 May 2014

A few lines on landscape...

I find myself caught up in the contemplation of landscape: a somewhat unexpected statement because my enjoyment of it is normally of the moment, when I am actually in it. But it is as if several artistic paths I have been mentally ambling down have unexpectedly merged into a broader track with a sudden and wonderful view of hills, fields, beach and wide sky. That I have spent the past few days actually walking such countryside (minus the hills) in glorious sunshine has been an added pleasure.

What has inspired such musings in a townie more used to dirty pavements and the Tube? First, the newly chosen theme for next summer’s Prism Textiles exhibition – Lines of Communication. (This year’s show, Coded: Decoded, is at the Mall Gallery, London, May 27-31. I am anticipating some wonderful work – the standard seems to get higher each year. Please come along.)  Secondly, a highly enjoyable  book, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, in which the author, Robert Macfarlane, having walked some of the ancient routes and paths that criss-cross Britain, writes of them with a deep knowledge and love that border on the poetic and mystical. The overarching theme is the marks that man leaves on the landscape. Several times he refers to paths as lines of communication, and at one point even compares the making of footsteps to stitching.

Diana Bliss, Bosigran: Iron Age Fort

Diana Bliss, Landwrap

Diana Bliss, Field 

I was immediately reminded of the work of my good friend the textile artist Diana Bliss, who creates impressionistic landscapes using textiles, paint and minutely executed embroidery, the mark-making with tiny, repetitive stitch becoming almost a meditation.  One series explores ancient field boundaries, “lost paths, plough marks and mysterious markings from the past”.

Landscape and poetry again merged in visual form at a delightful exhibition of Ross Loveday’s Land Lines, at Eames Fine Art, which I came across by happy chance near London Bridge on my way to the Fashion and Textile Museum. Here were paintings and etchings again on the fine line that separates figuration and abstraction: “Time, place, weather and light alongside gesture, glimpse and memory.” (I have kindly been given permission to reproduce some of the works here.) Unlike Bliss's soft, foot-friendly lines of stitch, the lines are hard, fine, dry, like wire or primitive scratches on stone.

Ross Loveday, Mudflats, drypoint with carborundum

Ross Loveday, Breakwater, drypoint with carborundum

While I have been away this past week in North Norfolk, I have been exploring some lines in the landscape of my own. (Not necessarily lines of communication, although aircraft vapour trails could well fit this category.)

I have also been looking again at the later paintings of Patrick Heron, who in his sixties left behind his purely abstract, flat areas of dense colour to return to the landscape and, as Mel Gooding describes it, “forms and configurations that we recognise, not as being directly descriptive but, rather, reminiscent of things seen”. His scribbles, scumbles and lines of raw paint in lemon, scarlet, mauve, pink and sage green on bare white canvas evoke an aerial view or map of the rocks, paths and garden around his home perched above the sea in the far west of Cornwall.

I have been amusing myself trying to work out how I might recreate his paintings in textiles (mainly reverse appliqué I think), not with the intention of doing so, but more to absorb his aesthetic. I’m not a landscape artist and never will be, but sometimes I do so wish I was.