The Weavers of Magic

The-Caged-Birds-SongEarlier this year between 26 April to 28 August in the Sunley Room of the National Gallery in London, woven art was celebrated. The exhibition was called

Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic

and the finished tapestry, ‘The Caged Bird’s Song’, was the artist’s creative work realised in wool, cotton and viscose by the weavers of the Dovecot Tapestry Studio, Edinburgh.

Preparatory-sketchesThe exhibition displayed the preparatory sketches and watercolours produced by Chris Ofili as he developed his ideas.

The tapestry was commissioned by the Clothworkers’ Company of the City of London and the final preparatory watercolour (below) was translated by hand and eye into the finished tapestry.


Made mostly of wool, with some cotton and viscose, the tapestry took nearly three years and over 6,000 hours for the Master Weavers to complete using 250 different colours.

The Dovecot Tapestry Studio in Edinburgh, where the weavers worked, was mentioned in all the accompanying literature as well as in the 15 minute video shown at the exhibition. In the National Gallery Press Release there was obviously a quote from the artist, Ofili.

“’The Caged Bird’s Song’ is a marriage of watercolour and weaving. I set out to challenge the weaving process, by doing something free-flowing in making a watercolour, encouraging the liquid pigment to form the image, a contrast to the weaving process. With their response, which is an interpretation rather than a reproduction, the weavers have paid a type of homage to the watercolour that I gave them as well as to the process of weaving.”

There were also quotes from Dr Minna Moore Ede, the Curator of ‘Weaving Magic’, from Dr Gabriele Finaldi, the Director of the National Gallery, from Peter Langley, Chair of the Clothworkers’ Collections and Archives Committee and from David Weir, the Dovecote Studios Director, but there were no quotes nor a single namecheck for the actual weavers!

This beautifully and skilfully blended work creates a rich colourful tapestry interpretation of the Ofili watercolour.  And, I think the Master Weavers should be clearly named. After asking my sister when she visited the National Gallery to check, again, for their names as I thought I’d missed the obvious credits somewhere and she had had no luck, I asked on Instagram ‘Who were the weavers?’ Very kindly @Cherry_Stalk directed me to the information. The weavers were

Freya Sewell

Jonathan Cleaver

Louise Trotter

Emma-Jo Webster

Naomi Robertson

The permanent home for this contemporary art collaboration will be in the Clothmakers’ Hall in the City of London. I hope they, at least, will clearly acknowledge the weavers.


And, here is a 44 second video showing the Master Weavers in action creating the tapestry.


Inspirational – Raphael and Botticelli

Just a passing thought on the similarity and differences when directly comparing a couple of famous Italian Renaissance paintings by two giants of the art world. What a difference 30 years makes? Then, add another five centuries to consider how we, now, respond to these images.

Firstly we have ‘The Birth of Venus’ by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) and below it ‘The Triumph of Galatea’ by Raphael (1483-1520).

the birth of venus
The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli c.1486
Tempera on canvas (172.5 cm × 278.9 cm)
Uffizi, Florence, Italy
The Triumph of Galatea
The Triumph of Galatea by Raphael c. 1514
Villa Farnesina, Rome, Italy

The two paintings depict different classical myths and yet each artist has devised interpretations that have a central female figure posed on an enormous shell. Initially I was looking at both pictures as inspiration for a beautiful palette as both paintings are worked with a very similar gentle, tonal range. Then it was the differences that struck me and made me ask why the Botticelli is so popular in our time (reproduced on all kinds of merchandise) compared to the Raphael. Yes, I know that generally Art Historians cite Raphael as more significant, but everyday contemporary taste leans towards the Botticelli. The flat, stylised, less naturalistic Venus appeals whereas the so-called advances made by Raphael in the ‘High Renaissance’ look more suited to a different era.

Is it how we actively ‘look’ at the world these days? With the advent of photography, the march of modernism and the subsequent development of pared back minimalism, are we so used to clean-lines, flat, screen-based imagery that overtly naturalistic art is not so appealing?

The Buzzard
Der Busant (The Buzzard)
Tapestry made in Strasbourg, Alsace, France c.1480-90
Made from wool, silk, linen, cotton, and metallic thread.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

I have read that it is possible that at the time of commissioning ‘The Birth of Venus’ as a painting (tempera on canvas), was the cheaper solution to a decorative, wall covering than a tapestry of the same theme. It is suggested that the flat style and the figures appearing to float in a plane in front of the background is to mimic the appearance of a tapestry. A late-fifteenth-century tapestry of a similar size was far more expensive. Interestingly, Raphael’s ‘Galatea’ is also a ‘wall covering’ as it is part of a series of frescoes decorating the walls of the loggia of the Villa Farnesina.