Inspirational heritage – bows embellish Tudor stained glass

Tudor-painted-glass-Bury-St-EdmundsStained glass is more than just beautiful jewel-like windows flooding interiors with shimmering dappled patches of colour. Many stained glass windows particularly those found in churches are a combination of pieces of coloured glass cut and leaded together to form an image, and parts of the window lights where sections of the glass have been painted. In addition to painting people and animals often vegetal motifs and ornate architectural designs were painted into the backgrounds and borders of the main images.

I noticed an interesting bow motif used by the makers of ‘The Susannah and the Elders’ window in St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds. The artisans who painted this window lived during the first half of the sixteenth century and were either Flemish or French.

In one of the lights you can see the style of dress worn by the Elders and it is typical of the first half of the sixteenth century as compared with oil paintings such as the 1520 painting ‘Portrait of a Man’ by the Flemish artist Quintin Massys. These images immediately made me think of Thomas Cromwell in his legal guise flexing his power and working his charm round Henry VIII’s court. Although, I can’t imagine he wore any flamboyant bows himself!

Currently, I’m working the ‘Tudor bow’ motif with a blue palette.

Creativity, inspiration and mining the past

Sometimes it’s colour combinations, sometimes it’s motifs and sometimes it’s just the overall essence of an image that provides a creative spur when searching for inspiration. We all do it and the Victorians’ passion for mining their past is proudly visible in their cultural output.

Most of the stained glass windows that decorate St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, are the work of three leading stained glass firms of the nineteenth century. Stained glass by Clayton and Bell, Hardman & Co and C E Kempe fill the cathedral windows with their work inspired by long-gone and unnamed medieval craftsmen. There is, however, one window whose lights are not Victorian, but date from the late medieval period. At first glance maybe they all look the same, but one has a different ‘feel’! (I’ve labelled it).

Textiles set the scene – Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall Rylance Cromwell tapestries
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell from the BBC’s dramatisation of ‘Wolf Hall’
Interior walls enriched with tapestries and floor bedecked with sumptuous textiles.

It’s not often that I wish I had a gigantic television screen, but last week was one of those rare occasions. Watching the first episode of Wolf Hall I was captivated by the lustrous beauty of so many of the shots. The creativity, knowledge and skills of all the designers (costume, interior/set and lighting) came together and gave us, the viewers, an enticing version of the Tudor elite lifestyle – as long as you kept your head! The overall impression was that displaying luxury textiles was the key to the making of a lord, his lady and their noble abode.  And, of course, up until the Renaissance tapestries were the most high status wall coverings a wealthy individual could acquire.

(Above couple of my photos showing the natural lustre of hand painted silk.)

The critical reception of ‘Wolf Hall’ has been good although a few people have moaned about the dark lighting – apparently real candlelight in some instances. I thought the lighting was superb, and as somebody who is used to photographing silk you don’t want powerful harsh artificial light. It is the soft reflection of diffuse natural light from the surface of the silk that captures its rich lustre and intense hues.

Lines of resistance

Thistil-hand-painted-silk-scarfHand painting silk is similar to using watercolour on paper when you apply background washes that diffuse into each other. Dye on silk flows and pigment is dispersed across the cloth. The nature of concentrated dyes radiating out across the silk often reminds me of some of those simple chromatography experiments we did in school chemistry.

dyes diffusing on silk
Dyes allowed to flow into each other.

One of the principle differences with dyes on silk as opposed to watercolours on paper is that the moment a line of resist is drawn on silk a barrier is created and the colour is then clearly contained and defined. Most commonly these barriers, these resist lines are gutta (a form of liquid rubber) or sometimes artisans use hot wax. The design can be simply drawn out and then coloured in with dye.

basic design drawn out
Design drawn out with dark grey coloured gutta.

Of course, you can use thin (fine nibs) and thick lines (broad paint brushes).

The resist can also be coloured with dye and painted onto the silk.

thick brush gutta lines
Using coloured resist to paint thick bold lines and shapes.

Antidiffusant can also be sprayed on to the fabric before painting which makes the silk more like paper or canvas and allows a more painterly effect.

hand painting silk
A mixture of techniques. Thin and thick resist lines in different colours. Pure enclosed colour and areas where colours have bled into each other.

Finished, steamed and modelled.
Finished, steamed and modelled.

I think more interesting silk work is achieved when a variety of methods are used for one piece. Thin and thick resists, different coloured resists and some dyes kept pure and enclosed whilst in other areas the colours are allowed to flow and bleed into each other.

Words, words, words – Lorina Bulwer’s inspirational embroidered letters (part 1)

Lorina-Bulwer-red-manEarlier this year I went to the exhibition ‘Frayed: Textiles on the Edge’ at the Time & Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth. The aim of the exhibition was to highlight examples of embroidered work that had been created by people at times of mental distress. Perhaps the most eye-catching works were two long embroidered ‘letters’ sewn by Lorina Bulwer.

These two pieces are 12ft and 14ft long by about 14 inches wide.  Each ‘letter’ has been worked in coloured wools on pieced cotton grounds using various colours to ensure the text is clear and readable on every different ground.

Lorina (born in Beccles, Suffolk in 1838) made her letters whilst residing in the lunatic wing of Great Yarmouth Workhouse between 1900 and 1910. Many of the words are underlined as she angrily relates her story including writing about her family, neighbours and her troubled life.

Been-to-Sandringham

When I saw Lorina’s work I remembered Tracy Emin’s provocative textile creations. Maybe the soft pliable quality of embroidered cloth and the frequent prettiness of embroidery magnifies the power of angry text. It was an inspiring exhibition and has led me to work a design for a scarf using text. My words are places in Suffolk and Norfolk surrounded by a few lines of verse from various poems by William Blake. I chose Blake as his words were also the words of an angry outsider.

 

A creative process – medieval art, craft and artisans (part 1)

Ranworth-ceiling-decorationRecently I have been working on my ‘Ranworth Collection’, a series of painted scarves that have been inspired by the medieval rood screen of St Helen’s church, Ranworth in Norfolk. The painted rood screens of East Anglia make a stunning contribution to the region’s heritage. Also as they can still be found at their original sites they provide a very tangible connection to the past lives of medieval East Anglians within some physical context.

Nowadays, these painted screens are appreciated as exquisite examples of medieval art, yet at the time of their construction and painting they were created by artisans and craftsmen and were objects of religious piety. Of course, in the late-fifteenth century the very notion of ‘an artist’ as we understand it today was a developing concept that was only just becoming established.

I don’t call myself an artist, but an artisan as my current creations do not have an overt, considered content other than their visual design. Not even if my collection of one-off pieces was to be presented as a whole in an exhibition could I name it an ‘art installation’. I have made art in the past when I set out to produce a visual representation of a sequence of experiences that were personally significant to me. However, I arrive at the creation of a painted scarf in a very different way although I employ the same techniques.

For a textile design my creative process begins with a visit to a place that has caught my attention. Sometimes it is the exterior architectural details of a medieval structure or a small carved detail found inside a church that offer potential to be translated into a two dimensional design. But with the ornate detail of the painted screens it is not just the intricate patterns that are so carefully rendered, but also the delicate, fading colours of the images that I find inspirational.

On a visit I take between 50 to 100 photographs of the various panels that make up the rood screen. I check the website for the parish church before I visit to ensure I won’t be intruding on a service and I try to start early before the tourists and visitors arrive at the more popular places. It takes at least an hour to shoot an interesting screen and, of course, there is absolutely NO FLASH when photographing 500 year old paintings.

Back at the coal face, sorry computer screen, I then start the process of selection and elimination. This procedure clarifies my visual impressions from standing in front of the originals and my own designs for pattern and colour combinations gradually crystallize as I select images from which to work.

Painted-image-medieval-carving

To capture what “a 1000 selfies never could” Grayson Perry

Self-portrait-not-selfieLast night I watched the artist Grayson Perry’s new series ‘Who are you?’ documenting his creative process as he makes portraits. I use the word ‘makes’ instead of the more familiar ‘paints’ as although he starts by sketching the individual first, only one of the finished artworks was a traditional painting. Together with a painted miniature he produced portraits that were a Benin style bronze, a pot and a silk scarf (a hijab). ‘Who are you’ as the title suggests is a series about identity. That is identity as perceived in our 21st-century lives and mediated through visual culture.

Alex by Grayson Perry  Bronze in Benin style. (Photograph National Portrait Gallery Twitter)
Alex by Grayson Perry
Bronze in Benin style.
(Photograph National Portrait Gallery Twitter)
It was a fascinating programme as he chatted to and quizzed each sitter in an attempt to understand the multiple layers that they melded together in forming their identity. Grayson commented that when an artist works on a portrait he is part detective and part psychologist in his quest to capture the sitter in a single image. He opines that if successful a portrait “tells you something a 1000 selfies never could”. Now, we have a problem here with the format. I hugely admire Grayson Perry, I think he is a gifted visual interpreter and an extremely intelligent and astute individual, but the moment he as the artist starts to work with a camera crew on his shoulder his subjects begin to morph into a hybrid TV version of themselves. I know we are getting into a philosophical area, but if we are considering the nature of identity then surely we have to acknowledge the effect of being observed. Isn’t one of the points of a selfie that it is a version of you by you at a given moment and not you knowingly mediated by Grayson Perry, by a cameraman, by the TV production company and Channel 4?

Chris Huhne - Grayson Perry. Ceramic pot with Kintsugi restoration.
Chris Huhne – Grayson Perry.
Ceramic pot with Kintsugi restoration.
Interestingly, the one sitter that was most resistant to revealing any other aspect of himself other than his public image was the disgraced politician, Chris Huhne. I thought that his obviously posed and considered domestic styling contrasted so sentimentally with the roadside cafe shots after his release from prison that it had me reaching for the sick bucket. In his response to Huhne’s incredible self regard, Grayson constructs him as a beautiful, slickly glazed pot. Then in a grand, dramatic televisual moment he purposefully smashes the pot into pieces. The finished portrait is actually the reconstructed pot restored in the Kintsugi tradition where restoration is overtly visible displaying the gold repair/fracture lines. Flawed – need we say more!

Of course, a portrait is acknowledged as a construction of the artist usually in collaboration with the sitter. A multiplicity of choices concerning materials, format, lighting, clothing, setting, pose, full-length etc are considered before the first brush stroke marks the canvas. Additionally, there is the interpretation of self by the sitter whether they are aware or unaware of what they are projecting and then how this is recorded by the artist. Will it be a ‘warts and all’ representation? Any cursory glance at the output of a class of art students all producing a portrait of the same sitter will see as many different versions as there are artists in the class.

Grayson Perry Cromwell warts and all
Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper. Photograph: Philip Mould Gallery

We have Grayson’s portraits of his subjects and you can go and see them at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The works will now have a life of their own detached from the television and now installed into a prestigious gallery setting. Identity and portraiture has a long history since the Roman emperors had their ‘heads’ stamped on coins. Our portrait formally rendered as an image of us may capture more than a selfie, but our identity is fluid and even the best portrait does not tell the whole story of our identity.

Appreciating random survivors

The parish church of St Helen's, Ranworth, Norfolk.
The parish church of St Helen’s, Ranworth, Norfolk.

Locally, here in East Anglia, the porous relationship between history and heritage is on display. History as ‘heritage’ can be seen widely scattered across the landscape, and specifically, in our museums, country houses and, of course, our churches. History, a discipline consisting of sources and interpretations gathered from our past mingles with heritage, our collective inherited culture. Whilst history is often contentious it is not easily monetized unlike heritage that frequently becomes a tourist driven revenue opportunity.

interior parish church
Inside St Helen’s the rood screen divides the chancel from the nave.

The other week I went to visit St Helen’s the parish church in Ranworth. It is substantially a 14th and 15th-century church and is known as ‘the cathedral of the Broads’. Many people on boating holidays take the short walk up from Ranworth Broad to visit the church and climb the tower for the amazing views across the Broads. There is a small visitors’ centre with tea rooms within the churchyard. I spent over an hour in the church photographing its outstanding painted rood screen. During that time about a dozen visitors came in and headed for the tower, but only one couple were interested in the screen, the others didn’t even appear to notice it. The rood screen is not only of historical interest, but it also a beautiful part of the East Anglian heritage.

medieval carved tracery
Detail showing the tracery and the panels.

Rood screens were common place in medieval churches as they formally separated the most holy space, the chancel with the alter, from the nave. East Anglia has many medieval churches that still have part of their original painted wooden panel and tracery screens. Unfortunately, the top third of these structures are missing. The rood, a wooden cross bearing the crucified Christ, along with carved representations of Mary and St John that filled the upper space were all removed during the Reformation of the mid-16th century.

The rood screen at St Helen’s, Ranworth, is a very fine example of medieval craftsmanship and painting (oil on wooden panels) and dates from the late-15th century. Original documentation, a bequest, has been located and in part it refers to the rood screen. It is the will of Robert Iryng, dated 1479, and provides evidence that some painting was carried out during the 1470s with a direct reference to the painting of the panels above the altar of St Mary (pictured below).

The Ranworth rood screen is a survivor although not in its complete form. It is also somewhat battered by the defacing attentions of the puritan iconoclast followers of William Dowsing (1596–1668), but it is still worth a visit and some up-close scrutiny. The screen looks beautiful even if your not interested in its history.

The Virgin Mary late-15th century, Norfolk
The defaced image of the Virgin Mary. One of the panels of the rood screen of St Helen’s, Ranworth

Inspiration versus just a little bit of copying

There is a fine line between work being inspired by another very similar piece even sometimes actually re-using the original, known in the art world as appropriation, and work that is simply an unacknowledged copy of the original, known in the real world as counterfeiting. In art there is the relationship between the idea or concept and the artist’s intent when using, or we should really say, re-using another’s work. But in the commercial world of design we rapidly descend into the mire of copyright infringement and counterfeiting.

From fashion supplement of the sunday paper, supplier and price included, but no text description of fabric or detail of finish.
From fashion supplement of the sunday paper, supplier and price included, but no text description of fabric or detail of finish.

I really liked this design for a skirt and have looked at photographs of both. The one on the left is an affordable version by Flying Wardrobe (£40) and the one on the right is the designer version by Stella Jean (£1908) – on sale at the moment for £815 at Saks Fifth Avenue. If you walked down the street in either one it would be difficult, with just a glance, to say which was which. Obviously, they do differ, the motifs on the expensive skirt look more subtle instead of very obviously and artificially floating on top as in the print of the cheaper skirt. For a ticket price of £1908 the fruit and leaves on the Stella Jean skirt are apparently “dusted with glittering sequins and beads for a magical final touch”, unfortunately you can’t see that effect in photographs.

The cheaper skirt is not a fake, but it has surely been inspired by the designer version. There is also a hint of inspiration from the 1950s perhaps this vintage skirt or similar caught both contemporary designers’attention.

vintage inspiration
Vintage 1950s dirndl skirt.

In the end I suppose we should just remember the expression ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!’ Well, nobody really owns ideas do they?

The Poppy – An Inspirational Flower

Poppy-RoseWith this year’s centenary commemorations for the start of World War 1 there will probably be more representations of poppies than usual.

poppy-shirley-series

Various forms of the poppy single or double, annual or perennial and in a variety of colours from white through yellow to salmon pink to deep red are found all over the world.

Katsushika Hokusai poppies
Poppies by Katsushika Hokusai
Edo period (19th century) woodblock print.

The delicate annual field poppy (papaver rhoeas) germinates from recently turned soil, thriving and blooming across the summer. Up close poppies are striking, but still have an ephemeral quality that has long inspired visual artists.

silk Japanese furisode
Vintage silk Japanese furisode with poppy design. Thought to be from the Taisho period (1912-1926).

There’s even the stunning blue Himalayan poppy, meconopsis. I once grew some meconopsis (M. baileyi I think) in my front garden as it provided the best conditions. Eventually in its second year it bloomed. I was so thrilled with the amazing colour, but to my utter surprise the next day somebody leaned over the low wall and picked all the flowers and I hadn’t even had chance to take a picture! I hoped it was a child that was so in awe of the colour that they had taken the flowers home to show to their family.

Kitchen-flowers

How about angry?

'Liberty leading the people' Delacroix
‘Liberty leading the people’
Eugène Delacroix
1830
Oil on canvas
Louvre-Lens, Lens, Pas de Calais, France

Yes I’m cross . . .

Well, I was very cross when I started this post, but the phone rang, my attention was diverted. I quickly saved, dealt with the phone query, then an important email and blah, blah, blah – a week later and I see the above title on my dashboard, but have now cooled down.

As I’ve mentioned before I do a lot of my silk painting with the radio on in the background. Last week we had the European elections taking place which means all kinds of extreme views got aired in tight-lipped mean and unpleasant exchanges. It made me angry and the above famous Delacroix painting came to mind representing the values of the July Revolution of 1830 in France. Nowadays, we seem to be living in a less energetically hopeful age.

Then, another famous painting I’ve always admired followed in the wake of my angry thoughts, David’s ‘Death of Marat’. One of the most famous paintings associated with the French Revolution which had rocked Europe over 40 years earlier than the July Revolution.

La Mort de Marat
‘The Death of Marat’
Jacques Louis David
1793
Oil on canvas
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Of course, a work of art is always the creation of the artists working in their own time for their own patron or audience, but great art lends itself to reinterpretation by future generations. The painting ‘Liberty leading the people’ was Delacroix’s substitution for not personally manning the barricades in the 1830 July Revolution in France. He was also painting in the early nineteenth-century fashion for an artist to be angry, passionately independent and a supporter of fringe causes. He depicts fighting for a cause. Whereas David, a famous history painter of the late eighteenth century, also on what we might say now the ‘anti-establishment’ side, chose to paint dying for a cause. He powerfully represents his colleague and friend, Marat, as ‘martyred hero’ of the Revolution. He paints Marat with a strong, masculine body only defeated by the cunning of an assassin, Charlotte Corday.

Contemporary Europe post the financial crash maybe having a tough time, but these two images forcefully reminded me that violence and revolution is not a solution to contemporary difficulties – (perhaps a trite comment, but a genuine sentiment).