Wednesday 26 June 2019

Fire: flashes to ashes in British Art

This thought-provoking exhibition at RWA Bristol looks at the depiction of fire over the last four centuries of British art. There are so many aspects of fire – it can be creative or destructive, put to industrial use or a homely presence that provides light and warmth. It has irreversible powers of transformation when used as a material. In short a fascinating subject for art.

The main gallery was dominated by Tim Shaw’s Man on fire, seen here with Sarah Pickering’s Match in the background. This huge figure of a man being consumed by fire, in a state between life and death, was originally conceived as a proposal for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square and is a commentary on the invasion of Iraq. Pickering’s Match is an image of a replica of the first friction match made by John Walker in 1827. The exhibition combines history, industry and domesticity throughout. Many of the older paintings by such well known artists as Joseph Wright of Derby and Graham Sutherland celebrate the use of fire in industry, the former’s Blacksmith’s workshop brilliantly depicting the effect of heat on the smiths and the play of firelight on the spectators. Historical subject include J M W Turner’s Fire at the Tower of London and HMS Ark Royal in action by Eric Ravilious. 

The modern pieces that appealed to me most were those that used fire as material. Cornelia Parker’s Red hot poker drawings (in the image at the top) combine order and chaos in the neat folding of the pristine white paper pierced by the heat of the fire. I also liked Sian Bowen’s Gaze no 14 which used the heat of laser cutting to produce images on paper. Susan Hiller’s Measure by measure II (image above), a series of test tubes each containing the ashes of one of her paintings, which she had burned to destruction, reflected on the destructive nature of fire and the fleeting essence of life.
I also enjoyed the immersive nature of Sophie Clements’ There, After, a video installation of an explosive burning experience in the studio, filmed in the round and experienced in the dark with the accompanying crackling audio sounds of the burning process. Aoife van Linden Tol also uses fire performances to create her works of art, represented in the exhibition by the remains of the process; a detail of Copper blast is shown above.

This is just a taste of the pieces in the exhibition which varied from meticulously painted depictions of fire in industry, war and home, to conceptual ideas about the fragility of life. It certainly captured the brilliance of fire’s creative potential as well as its destructive power

Wednesday 19 June 2019

Lace designing: the beauty of asymmetry

I’ve long been a fan of asymmetrical designs and used that style in my own designs, like the one in the image above. I like to use the same elements in a design but subtly alter them throughout just to maintain interest and also, to be honest, make working it more interesting too. One of the pieces of lace I admired at the ‘Hidden in stores’ exhibition at the Lace Guild last week was a Honiton fan leaf worked by Emma Radford in about 1878 (see below).
I studied it for a while and I think one of the things that made it so attractive was that it wasn’t symmetrical. Although the edging was the same repeated motif all round, and several elements of the main design, such as the leaves and flowers, were the same they were arranged differently on both sides of the fan. Honiton and other pieced laces are obviously at an advantage here as you can move the motifs around to make a pleasing design once they have been made. So many fan designs are mirror images on both sides and although they may be beautifully worked it doesn’t always make for a good design. I think that so often we expect lace mats and fans to be symmetrical that when they aren’t it subconsciously makes us look again and appreciate the lace even more.

Wednesday 12 June 2019

Figures in lace at the Lace Guild

I went to see the ‘Hidden in stores’ exhibition at the Lace Guild this week. What a treat to see some beautiful lace loaned from the V&A collection and the Dr Spriggs Loan collection. There were some lovely pieces on display and I was struck by the number of them that included figures. The Brussels bobbin lace cravat end illustrated above, from the Spriggs collection, includes several figures playing musical instruments and may date from the 18 or 19 century. Variations of this design exist in other museums and the fact that it is composed of several separate motifs may have meant it was easy to reproduce.
The most obvious figurative piece that dominated the room was the filet lace panel from the Spriggs collection depicting the sons of Joseph with their accoutrements. This was one of the older examples (c 1600) of lace on show and had clearly been worked in separate panels which were then joined together. Another old piece, from the late 16 century, was a scalloped bobbin lace edging showing alternating images of a sheep and a man, probably used as domestic lace bordering a cloth. The catalogue notes that this lace includes woven almond shaped leaves instead of plaits and that this can be used to identify the lace as originating from Genoa or Milan. 

Another very interesting piece was a pair of lappets from the V&A, thought to include portraits of John Churchill the first Duke of Marlborough and his wife Sarah. These are made in Honiton lace and date from 1710-1720. It was unusual to include recognisable people in lace and these may have been made to indicate the wearer’s (or her husband’s!) political allegiance. 

One of my favourite pieces was a bobbin lace flounce, from the V&A, made using a braid lace with linen and silver thread. It was made in northern Italy in the late 17 century. The design, made up of braids and net, is quite solid but what is so attractive is all the little animals, people and angels concealed within it. The silver thread has tarnished now but when it was made it would have sparkled beautifully in candlelight. The final figurative piece in the exhibition was a coloured needlelace purse depicting Chinese figures. It dated from 1700 but looked quite modern in its use of colour and design.

I have only talked about the figurative pieces here, but there is much more to see, including fine Honiton and needle laces. The exhibition ends on 21 June so do try and visit before it closes.

Wednesday 5 June 2019

Buttonhole stitches in needle lace

Buttonhole stitches are so versatile - they are the basis of needle lace and are also used in white work, embroidery and general sewing. It never fails to amaze me how a skein of thread can be turned into the most delicate needle lace using the humble buttonhole stitch. Therese de Dillmont in her Encyclopedia of needlework explains how to execute the stitch in her section on plain sewing and describes many variations on the basic stitch in her chapter on needle-made laces. She shows how to make joining bars with picots and longer branched bars with double buttonhole stitches to form a more rigid structure. She also describes how to make various ground stitches using more open loosely formed buttonhole stitches, which she calls Brussels stitch. In total, she describes 40 needle lace stitches all based on the same buttonhole stitch model. The image shows a detail of some needle lace showing an open Brussels stitch, another worked over a guiding thread, and open stitches over a gimp composed of several threads forming joining bars. All made using the simple buttonhole stitch!