Brilliant, vivid colours are not to everybody’s taste, but some people live technicolor, dynamic lives and appear to have larger than life personalities. For those opera stars fuchsia pink and scarlet seemed the natural choice.
A little bit of scorching colour doesn’t do the rest of us any harm during a grey, miserable January – so I give you pics of Peacock Wave Pink (no longer with me as this silk scarf was left at the Stage Door).
The enduring appeal of the peacock display of colours recently caught my attention and prompted me to venture into a so-called forbidden combination. I think I first heard my Nanna declare ‘Blue and green should never be seen’, when I was a child.
How ridiculous, obviously nobody told the peacocks. And, when you think about it blue and green has been a popular and classic combination for centuries!
Dragonflies also come along in blue and green combinations providing even more inspiration if you find that splendid peacock not enough.
Since the shock of the financial crisis and a general reappraisal of ‘values’ there has been a move to revisiting some older traditions. People are interested in buying locally, knowing the maker and trusting in the small scale. Perhaps these sentiments, together with the Internet connecting artisans working in the same field though geographically remote, are factors that have contributed to a mini revival in the idea of the Guild.
Guilds, whether merchant or craft, were an essential aspect of European medieval life. They were the groups of organised craftsmen or merchants who collectively provided assistance for their members as well as setting standards for trading or production within their profession. There is evidence of guild activity from as early as the 12th century, and from the 13th to the early 18th centuries guilds wielded significant economic and civic power in their communities.
A guild could represent one or more trade sometimes named for their profession such as Carpenters’ Guild or sometimes named after a saint such as the most powerful merchant guild in Norwich, the Guild of St George.
In 1388 in England King Richard II required all guilds to record their membership details and activities. The returns for Norwich showed there were 19 guilds including the Dyers’, Weavers’, Fullers’, Mercers’, Drapers’ and Merchants’ guilds. By 1444 the Norwich based Worsted Weavers’ Guild was so influential they gained the power to regulate the woollen cloth industry throughout East Anglia.
Nowadays there are a couple of active textiles guilds in the Norwich area. They are the Broderers’ Guild at the Cathedral and the Eastern Region of the Embroiderers’ Guild. Although they are interested in maintaining craft standards they no longer wield commercial power or support their members with alms or perform Mystery Plays, but nevertheless they continue working within the handmade and craft traditions. I, myself, have recently joined the Guild of Silk Painters.
Last month I went to an exhibition being held at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, the University of London. It was called ‘The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’. I was interested in seeing artefacts associated with Zoroastrianism across the centuries from its beginnings in ancient Persia. I first discovered this religion when writing about the visual environment of Late Antiquity looking at the Roman cult of Mithras and early Christian imagery. Light, fire and the light from a flame was of significance for followers of both religions during this period. Fire symbolised purity and there appeared to be a link to Persian Zoroastrianism.
Zoroastrianism is considered to be probably the world’s oldest monotheistic religion originating from the ancient tribes of Iran over 3500 years ago. Central to the Zoroastrian belief system is that there is only one creator God and at the heart of the religious rituals is fire. Fire, the everlasting flame, represents God’s light or God’s wisdom. There is evidence of the Zoroastrian presence in the Bible. In Christianity, the Three Wise Men from the East who bring gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus, are sometimes depicted in Persian dress, and they are described as ‘Magi’, a Persian word for a Zoroastrian priest.
It was a fascinating exhibition with at its core a small fire temple consisting of an inner sanctum and out prayer room. Rooms within rooms and a hierarchy of space is an idea repeated in many sacred spaces and I was reminded of a visit I made to the ancient Egyptian Temple of Edfu.
Of course I’m interested in cloth and the display of 18th and 19th century Parsi textiles caught my attention. The Parsi are Zoroastrians who live in modern day India. The exquisite embroidery and the beautiful designs show the variety of symbols that have been incorporated into the more recent interpretations of Zoroastrianism. This is the first time I’ve come across the notion of the ‘sacred fungus’ which according to the accompanying museum labels is a Chinese belief dating back over 4000 years.
Readers and collectors of Chinese porcelain will be familiar with the motif, the symbol of longevity, as seen on Chinese ceramics.
Centre sacred fungus symbol.
Chinese porcelain sacred fungus motif round the underside of the plate.
The specific fungus, is the lingzhi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), and is commonly used in Chinese herbal medicine. This Chinese motif became incorporated into Zoroastrian culture and was embroidered onto Parsi clothing especially smocks (jhabla) worn by children to ward off evil. It is intriguing to see a motif worked in different media, but retain an essence of its original meaning.
It is strange how in our 24 hours a day wired and connected world we can not truly escape nature’s deep, slow rhythms. This November I’ve been working on some scarves in a range of colours I thought I’d chosen as I’d seen this pleasing combination from the Canadian Interior Designer Jane Hall of Jane Hall Designs.
As I have mentioned before, when I’m painting I often listen to an audiobook and for a couple of weeks I’ve been listening to ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel. She has a superb historical imagination and a descriptive writing style that evokes a sense of place without being overdone. As I was busy preparing my autumn colours I heard this phrase from Wolf Hall
“wearing their fallen fruit silks of mulberry, gold and plum”
Reflecting on the natural colours of fallen fruit retrieved from the fading garden and looking at the colours I’d mixed up, I realised how unconsciously I’d absorbed and then responded to the changing scene. I’ve had a few peaches, figs, apples, pears and plums filling the kitchen fruit bowl from this year’s domestic harvest. It’s been the best year so far for the fan pear, though I have lost all the cobnuts to the squirrels, again. But what a bonus – the muted colours of fallen fruit.
In the hands of a master the most simple images can come to life and spring out of the past with uplifting vitality. I know it is, as usual, down to personal taste, but I think this oil and coloured wax picture by Paul Klee has its own intense energy that grabs your attention. Anyway, I have attempted to plug in and channel some of the energy for my own work by using his restricted colour palette for a painted silk scarf.
Although the colours are quite similar and I’ve used them in roughly the same percentage, it is nevertheless definitely very different.
Then I thought I’d use the basic overall design, but with different colours.
Every now and then I’m asked to create a silk piece guided by the colours and decorative qualities of a non-textile form. Sometimes a commission is quite personal, a customer may wish to have a special scarf to remind them of a person or a pet or an event. Or sometimes, and this is more difficult, a sentiment.
People often turn to nature and, in particular, flowers for inspiration for silk painting, but I suggest shape, colour and the decorative details from other human made artefacts can also elicit visually creative solutions. In order to get a firm idea of what a person is looking for I suggest they select pictures that fit their mood. Often beautiful glass and ceramics are a rich source of inspiration and can be reinterpreted and reworked to produce the type of scarf that they are looking for.
Head of the Patriarch Semei, c. 1180. From Canterbury Cathedral now in the V&A.
Detail of silk scarf inspired by early medieval stained glass.
A couple of months ago I was asked to design and paint a ‘stained glass’ scarf.
When undertaking a commission the easiest way for me to understand a client’s wish is to ask for a ‘mini’ mood board. This can be a small postcard-sized piece of card covered with torn pieces of magazine pictures, snippets of cloth, small cuts of wool and screwed up cotton thread that give me an idea of the colours required. In the past when one customer wanted a scarf to complement her new winter look she gave me a snippet of cloth from the inside seam of her new coat.
However, more recently, the wealth of beautiful photographs on the Internet, has allowed mood boards to be generated very easily on platforms like Pinterest. The advantage of this approach is the ease with which ideas come together. Unfortunately, the downside is that accurate colour portrayal of ‘real-life’ on screen is notoriously unreliable and even the same image across different screens/devices can vary significantly. So, if an accurate tonal range is critical then an old fashioned, mini mood board is still best.
With the light shining through, early medieval stained glass panels photograph well (if not too high up in a window!) and the frequent use of bright reds and blues imparts a recognisable aesthetic. It is such a strong visual form that it was easy for the Victorians to mimic and then extensively develop in their Gothic Revival church windows, and, is probably what springs to mind when most people think of stained glass.
Silk scarf stained glass design.
Childebert receives St Germanus from a window in Saint Germain des Prés, Paris, c1240-5. Displayed in the V&A.
Stained glass inspired silk scarf as worn.
With my Art History hat on my personal preference is for the work of the late-Victorian Christopher Whall particularly his early 20th-century windows. This example panel depicting St Chad dates from 1901-10. It is now in the V&A Museum, London, and is from a collection of stained glass produced for a commission for a new window in the Lady Chapel at Gloucester Cathedral.
St Chad by Christopher Whall (1849-1924). Slab glass with painted detail. Displayed at the V&A Museum.
St Chad by Christopher Whall – robe detail.
St Chad by Christopher Whall – detail showing nature of slab glass.
It has been a very mild autumnal day here in East Anglia with the thermometer on my sheltered terrace reading 22°C (72°F) at lunchtime. This mild spell has saved my sunflowers (they were planted out too late – my fault, I forgot them) and they are only now just in full bloom. But what inspiration? We can all see why a certain amazing Dutchman worked so hard to capture their intense yet fleeting vibrancy.
I lived in Holland for a short while and when friends and relatives came to stay I used to love to take them to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I was so inspired I even had a go at copying his sunflowers and made a summer top from the finished silk.
Recently, I found the old top in a box in the loft and was struck by the change in my own style of working. But, I was also reminded of the admiration I had felt for Van Gogh as when you settle to copy a great work of art, even in a very small insignificant way, you notice more of the choices the master has made in creating the original work. Copying is a valuable tool for teaching.
It is not just the colour that is striking as even the sunflower’s outline is unmistakable.
I have now settled on the design for this new banner. I’ve worked up the sketches and have drawn it out on the silk. It will also be a scarf.
It takes me about an hour to mix up the dyes in the shades and dilutions I’m looking for. I dab them onto a small off-cut of silk, but quite often I find once I start painting that I need to mix up one extra special highlight colour. This time it has been the dark green of the sheath-like leaves.
Like many people who work from their own studio or from home I spend many hours engrossed with my work – not great company and often resentful of interruptions, sorry. Whilst painting I listened to unabridged audiobooks borrowed from my local library. When I look at some of my past work it triggers memories of the novel I was listening to at the time of painting especially if it was a deeply moving or passionate story.
As I’m working on this piece I’m listening to ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ by Sebastian Faulks – it is beginning to get moody and intense.