Brunel Broderers’ Exhibition at Newark Park


On my recent visit to Newark Park I was lucky enough to see the Brunel Broderer’s exhibition, which was of work made in response to the house and gardens.  I really hate singling people out in exhibitions, because often it is just a matter of taste as to whose work you prefer, but there was some glorious embroidery on display.  I particularly liked seeing the sketchbooks accompanying the work, and I liked the way that it was spread throughout the house and not just in the gallery.  For example, my good friend Liz Hewitt had this rather lovely piece in a little ground-floor reception room:


This is a little taster of the rest of the show:

The combination of this very high quality contemporary needlework, and the older pieces I mentioned in an early blogpost make this a really good day out for sewers of all sorts.




My last post was about Newark Park and the Laura Ashley bedroom.  While I was there I also found time to admire some of the wonderful needlework around the house.  There is a good range of embroidery, although nothing very modern.  This is just a picture show, as I do not know enough to make sensible comments:

I begin with a selection of cushions.  The one at the top is an outstanding example of shabby chic.

Chairs and benches also got a look in.  I liked this florentine needlepoint armchair, again on bare boards and doing its bit for shabby chic country house charm.

This is a nice, and I think, quite modern needlpoint rug.  Rather brave to have a cream background here:


I felt a pang of recognition about the star quilt hanging in the stairs.  It was mounted on a cotton bedspread.  Doing all that work over papers clearly was enough and the idea of quilting it was just too much.

There were some very old fragments of embroidery but these had to be kept in very dim light.  These photos were taken with a phone camera and so are not brilliant, but I wanted to include some of the older work.

I might well do something with these images.  I love the way the stitches are used to create volume.

Apart from the pieces of needlework themselves, there was a lot of inspiration in the gardens:

Because the day was rainy and overcast the white flowers in particular really glowed.

A period Laura Ashley bedroom open for visits


The Medieval Historian and I brushed the gathering dust off our National Trust cards and went to Newark Park to see a bedroom specially decorated to feature in the Laura Ashley home catalogue:


I was told about this at a quilting group I recently visited.  The room was featured in the catalogue, and the entry had been photographed and laminated, but sadly no date was included:


The whole room felt like a trip down the memory lane of Laura Ashley at her height:


I am not sure if this is original but it looks like some of her high victoriana fabrics:


This was a rather nice little terrarium-type decoration:


And this was the landing with a rather nice mirror just outside the room:


I don’t have anything very profound to say about the visit to the period bedroom, except that it felt very familiar and it was interesting to see the whole soup to nuts decor.  I knew that the family used their own homes as room sets for the catalogues but not that they used other people’s.

What I did at the weekend


This weekend was spent filling up the reservoir, as it were, as I spent a lot of time with my Grate Frend Beatriz at exhibitions and in art shops.  On Friday we went to the blockbuster exhibition about Alexander McQueen at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and on Saturday we went to the Fitwilliam Museum in Cambridge to see the Treasured Possessions exhibition.

I may get round to writing about the McQueen exhibition at some later point, but for now all I can say is that it is every bit as stunning as all the publicity for it says it is.  It is more like art than fashion, visually stunning with brilliantly chosen music.  It is disturbing and horrifying and delightful and enrapturing.  If you like beads, embellishment, fabric, beautiful technique, which you probably do or you wouldn’t be reading this, then this is paradise.  But equally you could see demons around every corner and it wasn’t hard to see why he took his own life.  So sobering as well as seductive.

On Sunday morning Beatriz and I spent some time in her studio working with what we had seen and, in my case, pouring liquid watercolour as a starting point for a design based on the impression McQueen had left on us.  This is mine:


Treasured Possessions, on the other hand, was small and rather restrained, certainly compared with the ravishing excesses of the McQueen experience.  It was about material culture, and in particular, shopping and consumption, with a big emphasis on the eighteenth century.  Something I would never have predicted was just how lovely a set of Meissen figurines depicting people selling things would be.  The very word Meissen brings back Sunday teatime and ‘Going for a Song’ (I am that old) and ‘Antiques Roadshow’.  But these were delightful.IMG_4423

My very quick sketch of the Meissen figurines.

I got a huge amount of inspiration for my work on Laura Ashley at this show, which I will write about later, but what I really I want to talk about is an accompanying exhibition to the main show called ‘A Young Man’s Progress‘.

This is a collaboration between sisters, artist-photographer Maisie Broadhead and fashion designer Bella Newell (Burberry); and Professor Ulinka Rublack.  In it they take a remarkable book, a collection of images commissioned between 1520 and 1560 by Matthäus Schwarz of his most fashionable outfit of the year and recreate or reimagine them telling the fictional story of Matthew Smith, a young man from North London, who is obsessed with clothes.  The modern photographs are sumptuous, I think lifesize, images of exquisite clothing, but what makes them so arresting is the witty reworkings of the original picture.  Now, while the Fitzwilliam has postcards of the contemporary pieces, it does not have the corresponding images of the sixteenth century source material so I can only demonstrate using this not very lovely snapshot taken with my phone:


So we can at least see the substitution of the North London scooter for the horse, and possibly appreciate the way the cut of the coat echoes the folds on the original tunic.  I really liked the weapon being replaced with the mobile phone in this image.



It’s a shame these aren’t clearer but there is a very good video on the Fitzwilliam site.  I loved these photos and the process to create them because they were clever, inventive, aesthetically lovely and they made me laugh outloud.  I really recommend this little show, which is separate from the main one, and free and on until 6 September, if you happen to be in Cambridge.

The Evil Eye Collar


This piece is based on a very common amulet.  Amulets to ward off the Evil Eye are found all over the world, and the eyes are often blue, as seen on the cover of Desmond Morris’s book containing glorious photographs of his personal collection:


Inside there is a montage of this sort of amulet:


The idea behind these amulets is to meet like with like, so the evil eye will be deflected by another evil eye looking right back at it.

My eye is very stylised.  It is a big square glass bead which I bought in the extraordinary bead shop on Derby Road in Nottingham.  The shop is exciting because it sells a good range of really flashy or big or unusual beads.  I couldn’t resist the blue of this one.  Then I surrounded it with all sorts of blue beads which I bought as a collection in the Covent Garden Bead Shop, which I have already mentioned:


Once again this is influenced by tribal beadwork:


I have no idea why I love serried ranks of beads so much, but I love these incrusted beads and particularly when they are in rows.  This image taken from Sheila Paine’s book on amulets gives a brilliant example in the headdress above.

The strap is a cheap necklace from Sainsbury’s half-price sale.

Learning Medieval Embroidery at the Ashmolean


I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that there were several things I wanted to blog about: drawing armour at the Wallace Collection, and drawing zentangles,  then there was the Kevin Coates exhibition and the workshop I did at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford on medieval embroidery with Tanya Bentham.  I’ve done the zentangles and the armour  and now it’s the workshop.

The workshop was held in conjunction with the exhibition which was of a bestiary of jewels associating animals with certain people such as Flaubert’s parrot and Montaigne’s cat and so on.  So in the workshop we were invited to take a fantastical animal from our imaginations or a manuscript and combine it with a person we would like to make it for.  We were also learning to do laid and couched work, which was the embroidery technique used on the Bayeux Tapestry.

I did the course because it was taught by Tanya Bentham.  We have been in touch for a couple of years via our blogs but we had not met, so I was in a bit of trepidation in case we did not get on.  But, Tanya turned out to be fantastic.  She is a very good and well-prepared teacher, and the workshop was an absolute bargain as we not only got the tuition but a generous supply of all the materials, and the frame, and the most delicious biscuits imaginable, including some raspberry macarons that will live long in the memory.  Plus she gave me a big bag of beads.  Fantastic.

Anyway, I decided against one of the bestiary animals as I was totally enchanted by a lovely unicorn jewel that Coates had made for his wife.  I made a sketch of it:


It was a very beautiful piece set with various precious stones.  I decided I wanted to do a unicorn because  I had done some work on the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in Paris for a scholarly piece of work.  Although unicorns now seem to be viewed as horses with a horn, I know from the Medieval Historian, that originally they were as much like goats as horses and often had beards and a lion’s tail, like the one in the following zentangle:


This is a technique in a second book on zentangling that I bought, in which you define an outline using the patterns and the  silhouette is a sort of negative space.  Here’s a detail:


I decided to combine the unicorn with my dog, Harry’s ludicrously fluffy tale.  Here’s the working sketch:


And here’s the shocking zentangle of a unicorn I did while waiting for my tutorial with Tanya:


My problem as with the first drawing is that the unicorn is white, and the wool fabric we were embroidering onto was also white.  I decided to do my couching in blue and also to have a blue tale and blue outline so that the white creature would stand out:


I  thought it gave a sort of fairytale or heraldic flavour to the piece, like the books of hours rather than the Bayeux Tapestry or Lutrell Psalter, which were our main inspirations:


It is a very rough piece of work and not up to Tanya’s standards but I really enjoyed doing it.  The outline is in split stitch, as is the beard, and all the wools are dyed with natural dyes and so are authentic.  I quite liked the discipline of a small colour range, and I forced myself not to add a bead or a gold thread, even though I was desperate to put some sparkle in his eye.  He is probably about four or five inches high.

I also enjoyed doing some sketches.  This one, which reflects my current interest in armour, is a rescue on a terrible drawing:



I found them quite compelling to draw:


And enjoyed working with the head as a design like the original inspiration:


I think a bit of watercolour wash really lifts these drawings.

So this was a fantastic workshop and I really learned a lot.  The technique is easy in theory, but it takes a lot of practice, I expect, to get to the point where you can do it as evenly and accurately as Tanya.  If you want to see how it should be done, check her website Opus Anglicanum

Drawing armour at the Wallace Collection


The first subject on this week’s list of things to blog about was drawing armour at the Wallace Collection.  This all started because I am interested in men’s workwear, and in particular the development of the business suit.  There is a fair bit of interesting material about this.  Anne Hollander and John Harvey are probably the best place to start.  One argument is that men’s suits can be traced back to suits of armour in that they are composed of tubes of cloth which encase the body just as armour is made of tubes of steel.  You get the idea if you think about suits made in mohair or silk which are shiny and metallic.  Here’s a classic:


And a suit of armour:


My argument, of course, is that the suit acts like armour – symbolic armour against the symbolic violence in organisations.  A perfect example of that is Suits (which you can see on British TV on Dave).  The series is about an aggressive US law firm, and the protagonists are all exquisitely dressed:


And style and self-presentation is everything:


The women are also exquisitely dressed in very close-fitting dresses.

One of the things that is really interesting about armour is that battlefield armour is different to ceremonial armour and to jousting armour.  Form really does follow function here.  Jousting armour is designed so that lances glance off it, and ceremonial armour is meant to dazzle.  It was violently expensive, custom-made, and people commissioned it from craftsmen all over Europe, particularly Germany and Italy.  So, despite my qualms about the violence involved, it is interesting in its materiality and functionality.

It also has a complicated relationship with civilian clothing.  Sometimes the armour apes civilian fashion, and sometimes civilian fashion borrows from men’s armour.  Uniforms are a case in point with Jimi Hendrix and his heavily frogged jacket:


The Middle Ages/Early Modern period mixed fashion and opulence and function and utility and back again.  So armour mimicked the very close folds of linen worn by men (and changed very frequently):

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The armour, then, is modelled to look like fashionable civilian dress as seen in these sketches from the Wallace Collection, but equally, there was a fashion for ordinary clothes to ape battledress.  An example of this is the slashing found in much of the clothing of the period.  The little puffs of fabric do demonstrate that the wearer has sufficient money to buy the fine silk required to get this effect, but it also looks like fine underlayers coming through slashes from a sword blade in combat:


My sketch of two portraits in the National Gallery shows many of the features that armour displays.  In the figure on the right we can see the very broad shoulders and tapered waist of the warrior’s armour, the pleated shirt which we see in the plate armour, and the slashes echoing the sword blows.  The military and civilian is collapsed together.  The drawing on the left shows the silhouette found in so many of the suits of armour in the Wallace.  Paintings in The National Portrait Gallery brilliantly show the silhouettes on which the armour was modelled.  The peascod jacket is seen in its fabric incarnation in the famous portrait of the Earl of Southampton:


It’s a great portrait because he looks so dastardly:


So.  There is more to say about this, but that can wait for the summer and the conference presentation.  I wanted to end this post by adding in elements of the Zentangle doodling I mentioned in my last post.  The workmanship on these pieces is stunning, and the catalogue and the commentary in the Wallace Collection urges us to see them as works of art (although it is difficult to see past them as works of murderous intent).  I took some of the armour in the Wallace Collection and added the zentangle patterns I’ve learned so far to turn them into works on paper, to show their proportions and their decorative qualities.  I started by drawing them in my sketchbook and then filled in the spaces with the doodles:



This last one is done with a white gouache pen on black sketchbook paper and gives a nice feel for some of the black armour or the bas relief pieces.  This final sketch is my rendering of a design on one suit of armour’s screw heads into a Zentangle pattern.  It was fun to make:


I really think that the doodles help to capture something about the armour.  I just haven’t quite understood what yet!

In which it is revealed just how shallow I am



Last week I had a fantastic time in Oxford and London.  I was in Oxford to give a talk to the lovely Oxford Embroiderers, and London for a meeting of a research team.  While I was in Oxford I thought I would use some spare time to go to a show.  The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford had Francis Bacon and Henry Moore juxtaposed.  I sat in the exquisite museum restaurant before going in:


I thought to myself that although I love Henry Moore’s sheep and London Underground sketchbooks, I can take or leave the sculpture.  I actively dislike Francis Bacon’s work after a trip to his major retrospective a couple of years ago.  So, why am I going, other than I feel I should.  What a waste of a sunny autumn afternoon for me at least.  So I had a stroll to the Art bookshop in Oxford and a volume on art and the New Materialism almost leapt into my hand.  I am currently using this theory in my work so this was absolutely perfect for me.  A sign from the universe, in fact, that I had done the right thing.

The next day I went with my lovely friends Beatriz and Alison to the Bellville Sassoon exhibition at the Fashion Museum in London:


I absolutely loved it.  I couldn’t carry the catalogue home because I had too much stuff from the talk in Oxford, so I have ordered it, and I will be doing some work with it, I am sure.  Photography was allowed, so I got some pictures.  What I loved was the geometric arrangements of beads.  I loved the whole thing so much that I came out feeling refreshed and delighted as if I had been eating lemon sorbet.  Perfect.  The photos were taken with an iPhone rather than camera and at least one is blurry, but they gave me inspiration for weeks to come:






I’ve never really known what to do with those scallop-shaped sequins that you often get in mixed packs but this is an interesting pattern.

I think that the grid patterns were very reassuring somehow.  All’s well in the world when the beads are so clearly under control, a new take on the aesthetic beauty of effiency:





I also loved the painted coats from the Indian collection:



And this one where the client insisted on including her pet dog:


This more recent dress showed a fantastic sculptural quality through the manipulation of the cloth:




This one is almost entirely made of beads stitched onto a sort of beige net:




I couldn’t help but wonder if it was heavy to wear.

The one I would have had, though, would have been either this seventies hippy dippy gem:



or this one:



Maybe the one with sleeves would be better, but this fabulous yoke cries out to be reinterpreted in some way.  Watch this space.

A small added bonus was that Mr Sassoon was there in person, looking remarkably fit as he is somewhere around 80, in an elegant midnight blue jacket.  He seemed delighted about the whole thing and happy to pose for photos and talk about techniques.  Being British I was far too reserved to approach him.

On the way home, I was bored on the train so I started to draw beaded flapper or shimmy dresses with the Vellum app on my phone:

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Joyful end to a joyful day.


Kaffe Fassett at the London Fashion and Textiles Museum



Yesterday I went to the London Fashion and Textile Museum with my Grate Frend, Beatriz.  We went to see the Kaffe Fassett exhibition.  She had never heard of him, which I found a bit strange as all knitters and  patchworkers and needlepointers in the UK will know his innovative and colour-soaked work.  Anyway, it was a lovely show – unfortunately it finishes tomorrow, so you will have to be quick to see it.

I took some pictures, but flash wasn’t permitted (understandably) so my photos are a bit murky.  There was plenty of his work on display including his paintings which I think I have only seen reproduced in his books up to now.

What was interesting to me, however, as a raging egotist, was Beatriz’s comment that his work is like mine.  I think it is probably the other way round.  He has been a huge influence on me, and still is, I think.  Since I came across his first book Glorious Knitting at an impressionable age, I haven’t been able to resist a yellow background:


His work has always been highly decorative, with detail being one of the main design elements:

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I love these little crocheted and beaded caps he seems to be doing now.

But I think that what I mainly got from him was something about pattern.  I remember going to a lecture by him in Bath years ago and taking away one thing he said which was that if you repeat something, even a mistake, it will look deliberate and like part of a pattern.  This has saved me on a number of occasions:


Pattern making, particularly with beads, is a huge part of my work.

Finally, he gave me what he gave lots of women in the eighties and nineties, a freedom with colour.  Again, I remember reading in one of his books that one red is difficult to work with, but ten reds are easy and give a vaguely faded feel to a piece.  I have used this a lot in my work.  Firstly lots of red which I love, and secondly lots of variations on a colour in one piece of work:


I’m not sure if you can still get this pencil print, but it is exactly how I feel about red, pink and orange.  This is why I will never be a really trendy embroiderer.  I cannot do that bleached out, stripped back stuff.  I think colour is life.  I have taken to wearing bright red lipstick in my fifties just for the hell of it and life really changes.  I had a friend who said that if every woman in the country were given an Estee Lauder Parallel Red lipstick we could do without assertiveness courses altogether.


Confidence with colour marks Kaffe Fassett’s work and I think I owe him a real debt for that.

images-3PS.  Naturally I bought his autobiography in the tiny shop.  I got it home to find it was an autographed copy which was a delight.  On reading it, however, I discover his birth name was Frank.  I seriously don’t think he would have gone so far called Frank Fassett.  Kaffe, by the way, comes from a children’s book about Ancient Egypt that he loved.



Out of fashion at glHoltegaard




I am still in Copenhagen enjoying an extended work visit.  My hosts are quite wonderful and suggested that I might like to see an exhibition just outside the city in a little place on the way to Elsinore, called Holte.  The museum is called glHoltegaard and in a  beautifully restored country house.  It is worth going for the house and its wonderful baroque gardens, but the exhibition, as they say, is right up my street.  First the house:


I really liked the cannon firing a trailing plant:


The gardens are quite beautiful, and there was an exhibition of sculpture on called ‘Secret Garden’.  the lady in the gift shop was quite anxious for me to see the pink sheep.  I can only hope they were sprayed with food colouring type dye, but I did dutifully troop off to find them.  They are strangely tame and instantly wandered over to see me (and any food I might have, I suppose)


The piece is called


Self-explanatory, I suppose.

My favourite piece in the ‘Secret Garden’ was definitely this installation of blue and white china:




Probably just because I love blue and white china.  As Oscar Wilde said:

 “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.”.

There is a great cafe which sells a chocolate mousse cake with walnuts so almost a health food really.

The exhibition I went to see was called ‘Out of Fashion’ and was about artists who make work with textiles and clothes.  So my Grate Frends Alf and Sara Louise were right – completely up my alley.  There was a large tapestry by Grayson Perry.  I have never seen his tapestries up close and they are quite superb.  The work is exquisite.  I took a lot of pictures, but with no flash and just my phone, the close-ups were rubbish.  Here’s a reasonable one of Alan Measles, the teddy bear from childhood who turns up in a lot of Perry’s work:


Blurry, but you get the idea.  Here are a couple more details which I loved just for their decorative feel:




They were also showing Yinka Shonibare MBE’s stunning silent ballet of a masked ball.  New artists to me included Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen who had this compelling video piece about the art world:


Bad photo but spellbinding video.  Which is something coming from someone who finds video art tedious in the extreme.

I really liked these unsettling pieces by Erwin Wurm – probably because I love dolls so much.  These are quite small – maybe two feet high:


Wonderfully detailed, like the tiny buttonholes on this suit:


But sinister, and quite a brooding portrayal of male power.  There was something about the feet that did it:



Probably my favourite piece of the lot was this one by Kaarina Kaikkonen in which she took her dead mother’s dancing shoes and exploded them.  They seemed to turn into winged creatures:


There was a strange rustling as I was typing this outside the hotel door – hope they aren’t trying to get in!  Actually, they weren’t particularly scary.  I don’t know if was her mother’s obvious love of dancing, or her affection for her mother, but they were elegant and charming.  I am interested in this idea that clothing has the imprint of the personality or the emotions of the people who wore them.  I don’t sense it, but lots of people do, and it is an interesting thing to work with.

So, it was a brilliant exhibition, small and compact with some great work and some frankly, dross, but well worth the trip.  And, as the icing on the cake the public transport to get to it was cheap, smooth, fast and regular.