Monday, December 19, 2016

Sumptuous stump work.

Sumptuous stump work.
My first encounter with the art of needlework was with my great aunt Flo who lived along with three other aunts in the top floor flat of my grandparents’ house. She had been a court dress maker but now in retirement stitched wonderful silk work pictures and dressed dolls for charity raffles. On our arrival at my grandparents I would be whisked off by Aunt Flo at the earliest opportunity to show me her latest creations. A large white painted Edwardian chest of drawers contained all her fabric offcuts and making materials. As she open each drawer the ever familiar scent of lavender billowed out but it was in the bottom drawer that the real treasure lay, wrapped in tissue paper was the latest finished doll dressed in the most intricate and heavily petticoated costume, every item of which could be removed with the smallest of buttons. On her bed nestled in lace cushions was her old wooden doll which I still treasure along with one of her little silk pictures.
During my days as an antique dealer I admired the extra ordinary skill and beauty of 17th century stump work but could never afford it. Only after five years of being up on the isle of Lewis did I decide to try sowing with yarn left over from some of our six local Harris Tweed weavers. After several years of collecting discarded bobbins of wool from the local weavers and charity shops I started my first picture and was delighted to find friends describing it as painting with wool. The dying process and mixing of wools before spinning for tweed yarn is such that the wool does not have a solid uniform colour and so lends itself well to pictorial work. Needlework is by its nature slow and whereas I could paint a picture in a matter of days stitching one takes me months. Experimenting with stump work (the padding out in order to raise areas of the picture) brought another dimension and depth to the images as I started on a series of six tapestries inspired by animals in the bible. The work took three years to complete and as such remains work to be seen rather than sold. Each image carries with it a story of its creation during the months they took to evolve. They were of a size that proved easily transportable and so I worked on them wherever I happened to be, in Western Australia, Brittany, Cornwall or the Outer Hebrides. So given that they take so long to stitch for me they are also images that capture my time. I can see a tiger that I worked on during a long haul flight to Perth and remember the young man sitting next to me enthralled by the intricacy of the work. Camping on the island of Bernara a weather beaten elderly shepherd wandered across the machair intrigued to discover me stitching a blackface sheep. While waiting to catch a homeward flight at Doha airport the entire cabin crew gathered round as I sat cross legged on the floor stitching the background of Daniel in the Lion’s den. Then in the midst of a Breton winter there are countless hours sat under an angle poise lamp with the roaring warmth of the wood burning stove, or early summer mornings stitching at the bedroom window of the croft house on the isle of Lewis; the neighbour walking his two sheep dogs, the school bus passes while others head off to work in Stornoway.
After three months working the image is well and truly imprinted so much so that I have to make a conscious effort to eradicate it from my vision I order to proceed with other work. The final of the six biblical stump work images was finished at the end of this summer and now seems a fitting season’s greeting card.

More often than not I already have in mind the next project however I try to make myself take a break between major works, however this latest project has been brewing in the back of my mind for the past three years, to make a stump work casket in the 17th century manner. I estimate this will take a full six months and will incorporate images of birds inspired by Audubon’s birds of America. The box is made and I’ve started work on the two side panels and am loving the sumptuousness of the work.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Time and the passing of it.

After a long absence I've found a way of signing in once again to my old blog. Therefore a quick update seems in order before going into more detail at a later date. 
Apple gathering is over the best of the unblemished neatly placed in the cool of the old Breton food cupboard; a time of year I love when the qualities of colour and light are at their best, and the slower burning sun rises over a riotous frosty autumn. Longer evenings behind shuttered windows give me time to reflect on my labours during 2016 both in Brittany and the Outer Hebrides. It’s been ten years since I started renovating my croft house on the north east shores of the isle of Lewis and this year was a landmark as my long awaited studio took shape. I’ve had an indoor place to work in France for many years but my studio is more often than not wherever I happened to be; back of the car, the kitchen table or en plein air, so the idea of having a designated space for all my artistic efforts meant that shed at the bottom of the garden would be a serious multipurpose building with woodwork workshop space, cosy fireside stitching and a light airy painting area. Last year I had the good fortune to find a builder in the village. Steve proved to be an expert in every area of conservation as well as modern building construction when during the summer of 2015 we ripped out the entire ground floor of the house to damp proof and insulate. With a combined age of 125 years we worked well together and from the end of July when the foundations went in we managed to build my 56 square meters of tin and larch clad studio. Over this winter Steve continues on with insulation and dry lining and next spring I hope to move in.
When in Scotland I talk of selling up in France but as soon as I return to Brittany the idea of selling up from this house that has been home for the past twenty five years seems a mountain that I simply can’t summon the energy to climb. When I see what has befallen the house I sold in Huelgoat and how all that I did has been destroyed and replaced with today’s bland modern look I realise that if my own home here in Lezele was to undergo the same disastrous transformation I could not return, not even to see my friends. So I will retain my foothold in Brittany for the foreseeable future while I try and rationalise its contents moving those things that I require in my northern studio while keeping open the opportunity to profit from the autumnal harvest of walnuts, chestnut, hazelnuts, apples and fungi.
I have since my days as an antique dealer been accused of living in a museum and here in my late seventeenth century Breton farm house I have known people become seriously uncomfortable with its dark interior. Only during the coldest days of winter do I sleep in the old lit clos facing the fire, preferring the more conventional later 19th century carved walnut bed in the room above; all my furniture has seen between 150 and 350 years of use. My day starts with green tea from an early 19th century teapot, the blue and white print depicting an estuary scene, in the foreground a rural farmyard were a woman carries two buckets hanging form a yolk full of slops to feed the pigs, horses stand ready to be hitched up to the old cart and a ladder is propped against the gable end of the thatched farmhouse presumably to recover eggs from the attached wooden dovecot. In the distance two figures look out across the estuary to a strange world (much as I do today) where all the buildings are castellated and an oversized obelisk seems to serve little purpose. You’d be hard pressed to find anything new in my home; I’m constantly bemused by latest must have irrational objects that the outside world thinks essential and in that respect I am much like the people of St Kilda who when given chamber pots for their new 19th century homes used them for their porridge, or the islanders who when a new telephone box was installed started using it immediately even though there was no telephone inside; there was however a very good little mirror and few possessed such a luxury. The new holds little interest for me as it carries with it no history and I prefer to be surrounded by stories of times past rather than be confused by present day events. I find it comforting to have reached an age when it is now my turn to use the family silver, to have object around me that hold memories from generations past as well as from within my own living memory.
There was a time when I posted regularly on face book concerning my latest artistic creations but after seeing some crass comment receiving over seventy likes while my own art work had managed only 27 in three years I decided to halt all contact. Since then I have had not a single enquiry from f.b.friends into my well-being and can only presume they were either not that interested or thought me already dead. Right now I’m going through a period of sublime silence as radio 4 long wave carries mostly cricket coverage from India. The last television I saw in this house was when the world trade centre collapsed and last winter I finally got round to cutting down and burning the disused telephone post that stood tight against the gable end. I often hear people talking heroically of going a full day without consulting their smartphone, and yet they look at me with disbelief when I tell them I don’t have one, not even a land line. They couldn’t tell me straight out I know, but I am surely their fearless hero, just as the winner of the race is cheered across the finishing line so I am admired for still sitting stubbornly on that same line that doubles as the start.
Some may recall that for the past three years I have concentrated my artistic efforts to that of stitching and on February 25th 2017 for those who want to see it for real I will be holding an exhibition of my stump work tapestry at the Victoria Gallery in Bath. It runs until May 10th and I hope to be around for much of that time, although a fine spell of weather in early April could see me dash north to cut peat.
When people see these needlework pieces they are immediately impressed with the amount of time (around three months) each represents, and that I who has been known to do a runner leaving everything at the supermarket checkout queue possessed such patience when it comes to slow process of painting with wool. Today we have machines to remove life’s drudgery and logically should have much more time available to create than in centuries past. However time is money in the modern world when even your own free time becomes something that someone else can profit from. Out on the islands Sunday is still respected, no shops open and therefore more likely to be truly free time.
I see that I have spoken mainly of time and I am happy that I am still here to note the passing of it although increasingly concerned with the speed at which it passes. For those who still take note of Christmas I hope yours is a joyous one and for the few of us who steadfastly refuse to have anything to do with it beyond burning the yuletide log I lift my alcohol free glass……. Cheers and good health.