Weaving The Century: Tapestry from Dovecot Studios 1912-2012

October 2012

Publication: The Times

Dovecot Studios celebrates its centenary this year. This is a versatile, tenacious and highly imaginative artistic organisation that deserves greater recognition and support. As a tapestry and weaving studio, Dovecot has been staffed by and worked with some of the greatest talents in Scottish, British and international art.

The names of artists such as Robert Motherwell, Alan Davie, David Hockney, Louise Nevelson, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Graham Sutherland, Eduardo Paolozzi, Elizabeth Blackadder and Jean Dubuffet crop up alongside those of others who have worked with Dovecot as members of staff.

One such is Archie Brennan who was a weaver between 1948 and 1953 and filled the challenging role of Artistic Director for 15 years from 1963. Brennan’s tapestries featuring Mohammed Ali in the ‘seventies (his study for one, borrowed from the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland can be seen here) demonstrated that tapestry was not a quaint, anachronistic pursuit but a viable contemporary medium, capable of handling contemporary imagery and idiom.  Brennan believed that much could be learnt from the skills of the past as well as finding much to innovate.

Another talented weaver, Maureen Hodge, worked at Dovecot from the early ‘sixties before joining Edinburgh College of Art where her work in the tapestry department influenced generations of students. Hodge’s description of weaving from an artist’s design and transferring  imagery from one medium to another is succinct and informative: “The people who actually make the tapestries are the weavers, and to do this effectively they need to have the confidence of the director, artist and client and ….not just weave in a manner akin to painting by numbers. [We]….were always very aware that what was being produced was something entirely new, not just a woollen copy of paint on paper.”

The show has been lovingly and thoughtfully curated by a team which includes the art historian and writer, Dr Elizabeth Cumming, and the current Director of Dovecot, David Weir. Elizabeth Cumming’s relative William Skeoch Cumming  was a founder member and worked hard in the early years to produce some of the studio’s best work.  Such familial ties, strong friendships as well as associated loyalties have characterised the studio over the years, ensuring its survival through thick and thin.

Judiciously, some sixty exhibits have been divided into three sections: 1912 to 1950s; the 60s to the mid-80s; and from the mid-80s to now. The firstshows a number of important works, besides Cummings’ and illustrates – in more than one sense – the beginnings of the studio, founded by the fourth Marquess of Bute and employing the weavers John Glassbrook and Gordon Berry  from William Morris’s Merton Abbey workshop.  Dovecot’s first commission, ‘The Lord of the Hunt,’ was  for Bute’s home, Mount Stuart, on the island of Bute. Skeoch Cumming’s sketch from this time provides a valuable insight into the working process.  As a patron of the arts, Bute’s home had the scale and atmosphere to accommodate such works as Alfred Priest’s‘The Admirable Crichton’ (1926)  and ‘Verdure Piece’ (1938).

 

Tapestry is a remarkably adaptable medium and accommodates work from the monumental to the domestic. Thus commissions from industrial and commercial concerns, or from educational institutions with large areas of wall spaces, have often been willing clients. John Craxton’s ‘The Four Seasons’ (1975-76) commissioned to commemorate the University of Stirling’s first Principal, Prof. Tom Cottrell, is one such example, as is Tom Phillips’ suite of six tapestries for St Catherine’s College, Oxford, completed in 1981.

Now occupying a recently converted premises in the former Infirmary Street Baths, tastefully transformed, enhanced and expanded by Malcolm Fraser Architects, Dovecot can look forward to the beginning of the second century of innovation and talent with confidence and pride.