I’ve already mentioned that, although I have more yet to do on the Dreams of Amarna, I have little thoughts, now and again, about my plans for the next Really Big Project, the Vision of Placidus, inspired by Pisanello’s “Conversion of St Eustace”, Elizabeth Goudge’s “Herb of Grace”, my mother’s fine binding of “The Wind in The Willows”, and the kingfisher I saw at Flag Fen. Oh, and the “Chasse a la licorne” tapestry in the Musee de Cluny.
The Stag with the crucifix in his antlers is going to be the major character, and while I know I’m tearing into a genius of the past, I think Pisanello’s stag is a bit too tame for the story…
My first thought was to start from Sir Edwin Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen. After all, he’s full of personality and presence, and a recognisable figure to add to the layers of meaning and reference. But no, I think the crucifix won’t settle well into the antlers, and the pose isn’t quite right, either….
Then I spent more time rummaging online for pictures of stags, and came up with another to try. I like the challenging, direct stare of the pose here, but it puts the onlooker in the position of Placidus (according to the stories, he took the name “Eustace”, or more probably a Latin variant thereof, when he became a Christian), and I want Placidus to be in the picture. That said, he was a second century Roman, and I’m intending to dress him in florid fourteenth century dress, so don’t expect too much accuracy…
My next thought came from a book about the landscapes of Capability Brown that I bought for my cousin for Christmas. I’ve told her about the plans for Placidus, and she opened her gift, leafed through it, and then turned the book to me and said “Would this help?”
This is by no means the first time my cousin has helped me with design planning – it was talking to her that enabled me to crystallise the ideas for the Dreams of Amarna – and I like the photo enough to have three attempts at it. I still don’t think I’ve got it right. That said, all of these sketches have allowed me to think, not just about the pose, but about how I will use my threads to create the effect I want, of the illumination in the scene emanating from the crucifix.
A good use of time, even if not a stitch was set!
The pashmina, when it arrived, was a lovely caramel colour, with rather unanticipated silver spots on it, and it was a good deal flimsier than I was expecting. The others I have are all in fairly sturdy twill weaves. In truth, I’m not sure that would be easier, and if I ever finish this one, I may choose to find out..
Regular and long term readers of my blog will be aware that I have a thing about scale – scale of thread, scale of stitch, scale of weave. I’ve even discovered – much to my surprise – that the dreaded Plaited Braid Stitch isn’t always easier when it’s stitched wider and longer. So it will be no surprise that I spent a bit of time playing with various different threads to see what I thought of them, before settling on a final choice.
Scale isn’t the only concern, either. The right texture and sheen matter as well.
In the end I have settled on silks. The Medici yarn might have worked if I had had more of it, but I don’t think it is even made any more. The Appletons crewel wool was too heavy, and the Gumnut yarns (although I love them) somehow didn’t settle in comfortably.
Now I have to unpick my experiments and get started. I already have a newfound respect for any lady of the period who embroidered her muslin dresses, or her silk gauzes. There’s a story that Jane Austen embroidered a muslin dress with satin stitch spots, and the mere idea gives me cold shivers!
Although I doubt they had to contend with stuck-on paillettes!
Rummaging around on Twitter, I found a most intriguing idea. A research team at the University of Kent, headed by Dr Jennie Batchelor (@jenniebatchelor on Twitter), is investigating the content and development of an eighteenth century periodical, The Lady’s Magazine. The magazine was sold with pull-out song sheets – and pull-out designs for embroidery. Generally speaking, they don’t survive, having been pulled out and used as they were intended to be.
But recently, a bound volume of a half-year (1796) came to light, with some patterns included. A little more discussion, the idea arose of scanning those designs for modern stitchers to play with, and The Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch-Off was born. For more on that, visit the project’s blog post on the subject.
I couldn’t resist the idea. I’ve downloaded the first five designs, and started to stare at them thoughtfully. The project suggests that stitchers might like to work modern versions as well as in some cases working versions which are as historically accurate as possible, so there is going to be quite a variety to look at.
I’ve decided that I’m going to work the designs on a pashmina shawl, and while I am waiting for it to arrive, I’m contemplating what I might choose to do, from highly modern needle-felted versions, to more or less classical embroidery.
I wanted to share it with you before I started stitching, because the vagaries of the post may substantially delay my first stitch, and a few of you may want to join in. Do let the project know if you do, they’re really enjoying what they’ve been seeing!
Update: They have recently posted their first round-up of Stitch Off contributions and planned contributions.
Recently we had a visit from some Portuguese friends, who we last saw when we were in the Azores. They had obviously remembered my delight when I found the embroidery shop in the main square at Punta Delgarda, because for their hostess gift, as well as bringing some coffee and olive oil, they brought a set of vintage Portuguese sewing and embroidery patterns!
Although they look like magazines, each one is in fact a large sheet that unfolds to provide drawn-out patterns for a multitude of types of embroidery, including surface embroidery, appliqué, cutwork and drawn thread work, some of it crisp and simple, some of it bright, colourful and really quite ornate. Suggested applications for the designs appear as well, so next time my inspiration flags (er, and I’ve finished the Azorean Cutwork!), I will be able to leaf through these to refresh it!
The coffee was presented in this paper bag, which is printed with a design that our friends told us is inspired by a traditional embroidery pattern from northern Portugal. They said they were disappointed not to have found some embroidery for me, but in some ways, I think this is even better.
One of these days I will be able to play with this design, and maybe reinterpret this traditional style in my own way.
I’m looking forward to that!
Last week, not less than three of my assorted interests combined to give me a real treat.
The Queen’s Gallery in London is holding an exhibition called “In Fine Style“. The exhibition uses portraits of the Tudor and Stuart period to show the changes in fashion during the period, and there was a lot of embroidery and passementerie used, so the painters had a lot of scope. I’m interested in painting, too, so I’m always intrigued to see how a painter depicts texture, structure, and colour. Furthermore, major exhibitions these days often have additional events – not just a Private View on opening, but outreach events for schoolchildren, evening openings, tie-in events with other artists. An additional event caught my eye – an evening opening, followed by a recital of the music of John Dowland (contemporaneous with the paintings) given by the lutanist Jakob Lindberg.
Now, I’m an early music girl, so what with the chance to be nose-to-nose with some famous paintings and then to listen to music of the period surrounded by paintings of the composer’s assorted patrons…
I had a great time. There were some very familiar paintings – Elizabeth I as a princess, in a rose-red gown, with sleeves dripping gold embroidery, and a couple of pearl pendants you could swear you could pick off the canvas, van Dyck’s triple portrait of Charles I, Frances Stuart looking seductive in satin, with an entirely superfluous billow of fabric behind her. Familiar in reproduction, and fabulous. But, my goodness, the painting is even better when you can see it for real! Fur, gold thread, damask figured weaves, embroidery, gleaming pearls, glinting gems.
Then there were some unfamiliar ones. Edward IV, who I’ve read described as a blond beautiful giant, six foot tall, charismatic and something of a party animal. The portrait showed me a thin-faced, introspective man with dark red hair and a marked resemblance to the famous portrait of his brother Richard III – I suppose sitting for a portrait encourages introspection. Frances Stuart, in a buff coat like a man’s, her hair dressed to look like a man’s wig. Various unnamed men and women in the fashions of their time, in masque dress, fashionable clothes, clothes to make a statement. One lady wore a beautiful embroidered gown with a silvery gauze overdress set with crystals – imagine how many tiny brushstrokes you would need to bring a single crystal to life!
There were also some real examples – an embroidered jacket (not the Margaret Laton jacket, but very like it), a nightcap, and some gloves. And a Casket. And what a casket. It had a whole grove of needlelace-leaved trees planted on its’ lid, not to mention a horde of people frolicking around the side. And if I’ve learnt anything it’s that my detached buttonhole stitch is nothing like fine enough or tight enough. Sigh.
And the evening wasn’t over yet – after gloating over all that fabulous painted and embroidered finery, the recital! Jakob Lindberg is a great lutanist and a charming and knowledgeable man, so his introductions illuminated the music, and entertained the audience as much as his playing did. Though I did find myself wondering whether the composer had so attentive an audience when he played in the courts of England and Denmark!
Shortly after I had my idea for a panel depicting the Vision of Placidus, I went to London for a lecture. The Pisanello is in The National Gallery, so after the lecture I took the opportunity, before catching the train home, to go to see the painting in real life. It turns out that St Hubert had a similar Conversion experience, so as well as the Pisanello “Vision of St Eustace” I found a fragment of an altarpiece entitled “The Conversion of St Hubert”…
I eventually tracked down the Pisanello, in the Sainsbury wing, and found it very much smaller than I expected – about A2 in size – which is much smaller than I am planning (about five foot by three foot). It was also just as dark as the reproduction I showed you in the first post about this idea. I sat down on a convenient window seat nearby, and started taking notes of the further research I need to do.
I will need picture references for
- a horse reined in from a gallop
- a stag with huge antlers
- hounds alert but not moving
- forest flora and fauna
- rocky outcrop
- suitably rich and exotic clothing for the huntsman
I also want to differentiate the vegetation from the background rather more, pull the rocky outcrop away from the background a bit more, and make the crucifix seem to grow out of the antlers rather more than it does in Pisanello’s painting.
While I was there, I sketched a very approximate idea of the space I want in the picture – the Pisanallo and the altarpiece, and the picture above, are all quite compressed and condensed, and at the moment my idea is to have much more space and “air” in the design.
When I got home I had another go, this time in pastels. Some elements of the pastel work quite well – the horse and its harness, and the crucifix between the deer’s antlers. Others are not so good – the trees in the background are too regularly spaced and too similar in shape, and, like the Pisanello, there isn’t as much space between the stag and the horse as I would like.
I need to be careful, here. If I concentrate too much on creating painted sketches, I might drive out all the stitching ideas, but at the same time, the more I think about the design, the better the chance I have of producing a panel I am happy with!
Lately I have been re-reading a favourite book, “The Herb of Grace” by Elizabeth Goudge. In it, her fictional family discover in their house – a medieval Pilgrim Inn – an ancient fresco, depicting the conversion of Placidus. It is described as being very like Pisanello’s “Vision of St Eustace”, now in the National Gallery – Placidus changed his name when he converted to Christianity – but with the local wood and its animals forming the background. In fact, so enchanted was the fictional artist by the local wildlife that he filled every gap in the trees with animals, even putting land animals in the sky to fit them all in.
It is this element that appealed to me, as it is reminiscent in some ways of my favourite textile, in my favourite museum in all the world – La Dame à la licorne, in the Musée de Cluny in Paris. This is a set of medieval tapestries, depicting the mythological hunt for the unicorn, and the set is displayed in a circular room, with a set of steps down into it. When I first saw it, I sat down very suddenly on the steps, and didn’t move or speak for a good ten minutes, which gravely disconcerted my companion at the time. I’ve since dragged various friends and relations there, too, just to give myself another opportunity to visit the tapestries, not to mention visiting the Gobelins Manufactory in order to find out how such tapestries were made!
One day, I would like to create my own panel, linking La Dame à la licorne with the Vision of St Eustace. There are so many textures – the fur and feathers of the animals and birds, the splendid trappings of Placidus’ horse and his own clothes, the forest trees and flowers, and the rocky outcrop where the stag turned to face him. Just think of the wonderful variety of stitches and threads I could use!
I did say, when I first began working on the “Dreams of Amarna” panels, that I did not intend to become an Egyptologist. I still don’t, but at the same time, my interest in the Egyptology of the thirties, and in what Mary Chubb might have known or had access to, has extended somewhat as I have discovered more.
Recently BBC4 showed a documentary called The Man Who Discovered Egypt, so of course I pricked up my ears. When I realised that the presenter was the current director of the Egypt Exploration Society, Dr Chris Naunton (@chrisnaunton for the Twitterers among you), and his subject was Flinders Petrie, I made absolutely sure to record the programme so I could watch at my leisure. It was fascinating, and I may very well get further ideas for scenes on my edge panels from looking at it again.
For those in the UK that missed it and are interested, the programme is being rebroadcast on Tues 15 May at 10pm, on BBC4.
As it happens, Chris Naunton was the first person I spoke to at the EES when I started my research, so I emailed to say how much I’d enjoyed the programme. He replied, and added that the digitisation of the archive (which gave me the original picture for the Felucca, above) has been continuing apace. The EES now has its own YouTube channel:
Furthermore, some of the film shows JDS Pendlebury, the Director of Excavations in Mary Chubb’s time, not just working, but playing – organising a sports day for the worker’s children, having a spoof argument with colleagues – and, very importantly for me, there is film of an incident which is described in the book, of bringing back a heavily carved and coloured door-lintel from the site to the Expedition House. Whether I will be able to create a feasible embroidery design from that welter of imagery remains to be seen – but it will be really worth a try, won’t it!
Charles Germain de St Aubin was designer to Louis XV of France, and he wrote a famous work entitled “The Art of the Embroiderer”, which is much referenced among scholars of textiles of the period, but has proven tricky to track down. Not to mention, my grasp of seventeenth century technical French really isn’t up to scratch.
Now, however, I’ve got hold of a recent translation. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art commissioned a translation, and produced the resulting book splendidly, with colour plates of interesting relevant textiles from their collection (annotated by the curator) and a facsimile of the original work, all on good paper and properly bound and presented in a slipcase. I gloat quietly to myself every time I look at it!
The book is of interest to me because he talks of chenille embroidery, and implies that there are two known methods for making a chenille yarn, one of markedly poorer quality than the other. This is very strange, because until some time in the seventies you would have been told that there was only one way to make a chenille, and that the method St Aubin dismisses as being of poor quality. As far as I am aware no one has yet worked out quite what St Aubin meant, or what other technique he was referring to.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find out!
I recently had a trip to London, when I managed to fit in a brief visit to The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology as part of my background research for the Dreams of Amarna panels. Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie excavated at Amarna during the 1890s, finding and recording a fine painted pavement, since destroyed, of which Mary Chubb, who wrote the book which inspired the Dreams of Amarna project, would certainly have known. He also trained Howard Carter, whose discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb sparked the Egyptological fever that took hold in Europe and indirectly provided the impetus for Mary’s career.
I arrived late in the day, and really didn’t have much time to look around, but I did tell the lady at the desk why I was interested, and was rather startled when she said “Oh, then there is something you must see!” and took me to see it. It turned out to be a modern tapestry, woven at the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Centre in Saqqara (itself a place to set Egyptologists a-tingle) and named “Dahsur Lake” . The tapestry is very reminiscent of the Amarna style, full of life and colour, vigorous and joyful. The weavers produce their panels without sketches behind their looms, and I am astonished at what they have produced.
Clearly I am not alone in finding the art and story of Amarna inspiring. I wonder, will I produce something as good?