I have been having a serious clear out of cloth. I am trying to be disciplined about this. I am attempting to organise all my work materials so there is studio space that is conducive to work and not one that is so chaotic it drains me of all my creativity.
During this protracted endeavour I came across some of my old silk work. In the photo above there is a bird hidden within all the colours. The original idea came from a medieval bas-relief bird I photographed on a visit to a cathedral (possibly in Germany, but it could’ve been in France) a couple of decades ago. In my memory it was always Speyer Cathedral on the Rhine. However, I have just Googled Speyer and though the magnificent 11th century Romanesque church is the building I have in mind’s eye, I can’t imagine where I thought this bird was ‘perched’. Strange how our memory plays tricks with us, isn’t it?
Anyway, I can now see that my ‘stork’ and ‘heron’ phases had a long forgotten forerunner lurking somewhere in Europe.
Of course, a freehand one-off motif once designed doesn’t remain fixed for very long.
Over time my bird motifs have lost most of their definition and morphed into little more than blobs with spikes!
Might be time to track down my old photos and revisit the original ideas and try working up a new motif or two from the primary source material. I haven’t unpacked either box marked ‘photos’ yet, but I am hoping that I didn’t bin them all the last time I had one of my ‘once every 10 years’ clear outs.
Last month whilst staying with my father I hid behind the Venetian blinds and poked my camera lens through to see what was occurring at the bird feeders. There were several phases of activity when several birds arrived at the same time.
This very beautiful long-tailed tit, timid and nervous, only really managed to tuck in once the other birds had flown away.
Then a noisy chattering of starlings (well six or seven) turned up to muscle their way in.
After initially flying away the long-tailed tit eventually plucked up enough courage to fly back and hang onto the feeder and wait for his turn again. He obviously knew his place in the pecking order.
Not all the birds were interested in the fat ball. The greenfinches were happy to peck away at the sunflower seeds. Much to my amusement I did see the starlings make an attempt at landing on the perches, but they were too big, and, after unsuccessfully flapping around and wasting energy, they gave up and returned to the fat ball.
Scrolling through a selection of recents photographs I noticed how often birds have been used as a source of creative inspiration. Using creatures symbolically is as old as human culture and even if a bird or animal representation is purely decorative, the work still offers an insight into how the maker viewed their natural environment.
There is this fierce goose-like bird from the Anglo Saxons. It is part of the metal helmet (circa CE625) found amongst the treasures of the Sutton Hoo ship burial discovered in Suffolk, East Anglia. The bird design works as part of the structure of the helmet too with the wings shielding the eyebrows, the body of the bird protecting the nose and the tail fashioned into a metal moustache above the wearer’s mouth.
Bird design on Sutton Hoo Helmet.
Bird design, wings and beak more clearly seen on the replica of Sutton Hoo helmet. Bird faces upwards meeting the mouth of a snake coming over the crown.
Then we have a simple, stylised bird on this French jug from about 1300. French pottery was popular during the 13th century when shipped as part of the wine trade to the English royal court from Aquitaine to England. Despite its age this bird motif has a contemporary ‘now’ feel.
Birds often featured in hunting scenes as shown in these paintings which decorated the late-fifteenth-century East Anglian parish rood screens.
And, birds have often alluded to the unworldly or exotic as shown by this needlework representation of ‘A Byrd of America’ from about 1570. This textile was embroidered either by Mary, Queen of Scots, or, Elizabeth, Countess of Hardwick and forms part of the Oxburgh hangings.
Then we have my recent photograph taken in North Norfolk of a black stork and the beginnings of its translation into the design for a silk scarf.
The beautiful illuminated Flemish manuscript, the Huth Hours (c.1485), not only has delightful representations of flowers decorating its margins, but every now and then a bird or animal is depicted within the ornamentation.
Starling detail from the Huth Hours. Flemish 1485-1490. Add. MS38126 f244r
Starling having a splashing time.
Thought to have been produced in either Ghent or Bruges over five hundred and thirty years ago, the Huth Hours contains many miniatures as well as pages of text with decorated borders. It is considered to be the work of Simon Marmion and his workshop in collaboration with other unnamed Master artisans.
Young Great Tit
Great Tit detail from the Huth Hours. Flemish 1485-1490. Add. MS38126 f.179r
Five hundred and thirty years ago sounds a long time to us, but it’s less than a blink of an eye for Mother Nature. Spying birds in the finely decorated margins such as starlings and great tits, and then spying the same species in my back garden evoked a wistful sigh from me as I contemplated the cycling of the years and the passing of the centuries.
Possibly a Blue Tit detail from the Huth Hours. Flemish 1485-1490. Add. MS38126 f.156r
Blue Tit at the bird bath.