Saturday 30 March 2013

Alice in Wonderland

We saw the ballet Alice in Wonderland at the cinema on a live feed from The Royal Opera House yesterday. It was brilliant, especially the special effects. To be able to show Alice travelling down a rabbit hole and then growing larger and smaller on stage requires genius. The story was also cleverly retold to link Alice’s world to the characters she was to meet in the story and to introduce a romance, then to bring it all up to date at the end. My favourite part was Act 2 which included the Mad hatter’s tea party and the Cheshire cat. The cat was base on Tenniel’s original illustration and was made up of separate parts which at times moved very convincingly together in a cat-like way and at others spiralled madly apart. The Mad hatter was brilliantly danced by Steven McRae as a tap dancing, slightly menacing, neurotic character. Sarah Lamb was also excellent as Alice and made the role seem natural and easy although she was on stage for the entire time, performing a demanding role. I don’t have space to praise all the other dancers but the Queen of hearts, the caterpillar and the cook were all brilliantly portrayed as well. It was a wonderful evening and a great way of seeing an excellent production without having to travel to London. Tweets in the interval came from people seeing the ballet in Spain, Belgium, and Brazil and it was exciting to be part of that worldwide audience.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Home intimacies

This conference was held in the Geffrye Museum of the Home; it was the fifth annual conference of the Histories of Home SSN. From my point of view the most interesting talk was that by Jane Hamlett, the keynote speaker, on rethinking the Victorian middle class home. She suggested that we should consider intimacy as a way of understanding the demarcations of the home rather than the idea of privacy and the separation of public and private spaces. Other papers considered non-traditional homes such as Sapphic households and institutional homes were also considered from the points of view of intimacy and the keeping of pets. The day ended with two interesting papers on bedrooms. The first by Catherine Richardson and Tara Hamling considered late sixteenth century bedchambers and how their furniture and use changed at that time. The other, by Hilary Hinds, discussed the history of twin beds, which originated at the end of the nineteenth century to reduce the transmission of disease and became fashionable in the early twentieth century when their identical paired form symbolised the autonomy of the partners in a marriage combined with their ‘togetherness’. It was an interesting day which also allowed us a quick tour of the period rooms in the Museum.

Saturday 23 March 2013

Pairings at Contemporary Applied Arts

This exhibition and project curated by Alice Kettle and Helen Felcey brings together pairs of makers who share their practice, work together and then exhibit the results. It was interesting to hear the makers discussing the project at an informal discussion in the CAA gallery last week. Alex McErlain led the discussion and explained that the pairings were formed after a ‘speed dating’ event when the artists met each other to discuss their practice. Sharon Blakey described this process as quite nerve wracking, she compared it to standing in the playground waiting to be chosen for a team and hoping that someone would want to work with you. In fact her partnership with Ismini Samanidou, through a shared interest in impermanence, had turned out to be very successful and she felt the process had pushed them both in new directions. The other makers described the process of working with another artist as initially challenging but developing into trust. They also agreed that explaining your practice to another artist and allowing them into your studio was unsettling, but because they all shared an interest in materiality they understood each other, even if they sometimes questioned each others processes. It is an interesting exhibition especially if you know the work of the separate artists and can see how that essence has come through in the pairings.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Working with Alice Kettle

It’s great to see Alice Kettle’s new work ‘The garden of England’ is now installed at the Queen’s House at the National Maritime Museum. It includes two of her beautiful embroideries: a portrait of Henrietta Maria, queen to Charles I, and ‘Flower bed’, an embroidered floral carpet, as well as ‘Flower helix’ a cascade of flowers hanging down the central spiral of the Tulip stairs referencing Queen Anne’s lace. Alice is a celebrated embroiderer but had only a rudimentary knowledge of lace so she approached me and Gail Baxter to advise her on types of lace and what would give the effect she wanted. We spent several days with Alice, originally poring over lace books, floral images and a portrait of Anne of Denmark, queen to James I, helping to work out what would be possible in the time available. Alice decided that to provide the profusion of lace she wanted she would need more help to supplement her own flowers. She sent out a call on facebook for volunteers to produce small round floral pieces resembling the flowers of Queen Anne’s lace (the country name for cow parsley) from a pack of threads she provided and was inundated with beautiful pieces.

Gail and I spent several days helping Alice assemble the pieces; the image above shows some of the flowers, wire and tools on our worktable. It was a great privilege to work with Alice on such an interesting project and fascinating to see the work grow and develop. The opening of the exhibition was celebrated with a display of Alice’s work at the Knitting and Stitching Show last Friday and the exhibition runs at the National Maritime Museum until 18 August. I’m looking forward to seeing it in situ.

Thursday 14 March 2013

Folded beauty

This exhibition at the Holburne Museum in Bath features the linen folding work of Joan Sallas. I had never seen this before, but it is based on linen folding, which was developed in the Renaissance and used to embellish the tables of the elite. Joan Sallas came to it following his interest in origami and it has definite links with paper folding. Some of the designs like the ‘mountains’ above were used to cover food as well as look decorative.
Others like the ‘fort’ shown here were used to trap small animals and birds which were released as the feasters sat down to dine. The exhibition shows the basic folding techniques and some of the designs used throughout the Renaissance. In some cases the guests’ coats of arms were folded into the linen. We were told that the art of linen folding reached its pinnacle in the seventeenth century in Germany, but it clearly is not dead, even at suburban dinner parties napkins are still folded into fans and simple forms to embellish the table.

Monday 11 March 2013

Painted pomp

This small, but excellent, exhibition at the Holburne Museum, Bath, looks at costume, particularly lace, in the reign of James I from 1603 to 1625. It is based on seven of the Suffolk portraits, thought to have been commissioned by Katherine Howard, Countess of Suffolk, of members of her family. The exquisite portraits, all full length, were painted by William Larkin and they shown the costumes and lace in great detail, in fact in such detail that you could make an exact copy of the lace. As well as the sumptuous portraits, Heather Toomer has lent some of her early lace to the Museum including cutwork, needle lace and bobbin lace borders as well as a punto in aria collar. The exhibition also includes a leather punched folding fan thought to have been made from dog skin, a tiny pair of white leather arch heeled shoes and several pairs of beautiful gloves with exquisite embroidery and pearl work, embellished with early silver gilt bobbin lace and spangles. There is also an embroidered woman’s jacket similar to Margaret Layton’s jacket in the V&A and two men’s shirts, one embroidered with fine blackwork and the other with insertions of needle lace. As well as these items from the seventeenth century there are two modern reproductions of costumes of the period made for actors at the Globe theatre including handmade bobbin and needle lace. Jenny Tiramani, the costume researcher and designer has done a lot of work on the dress of this period and a bonus of the exhibition is a video of her showing how the complete costumes would have been put together. Seeing her linking items of clothing with ties and aiglets, ribbons and pins, and knowing the lace only remained stiff as long as the starching did not get wet, was an excellent contrast to the paintings in which the aristocrats pose at ease in their finery.

Friday 1 March 2013

The Bayeux tapestry: the final chapter

Embroiderers in Alderney have just completed three new scenes to complete the story of the Bayeux tapestry. The famous tapestry (in fact it is embroidered) ends in frayed threads and several embroiderers over the years have designed and worked panels to complete the story. The three new Alderney panels show William dining on the battle field, accepting the surrender of the English noblemen, and his coronation at Westminster Abbey. Previous endings to the tapestry have been made by Jan Messent, Annette Banks, and Jack Thomas. Jan Messent also published a beautifully illustrated book (The Bayeux tapestry embroiderers’ story) describing her research into the project and her new panels. There is also a copy of the Bayeux tapestry in Reading Museum embroidered in 1886 by the Leek Embroidery Society of Staffordshire (see my post in January 2012 for more details) but that one ends at the same place as the original.