DOVECOT Studios is celebrating its 100th birthday with a full order book and a secure future. It’s a far cry from 2001 when the Edinburgh tapestry workshop almost closed for good, finds Susan Mansfield.
There isn’t much noise in the weaving workshop at Dovecot Studios, just the soft pull and click of bobbins and threads, the low buzz of a radio. But watch for long enough and you will pick up signs of quiet industry. It may look serene, but this is a tapestry workshop operating at full throttle.
Light pours down on the looms in what was once the main swimming pool at Edinburgh’s Infirmary Street Baths. The £12 million refurbishment of the building in 2008 was a remarkable rebirth for Dovecot, which had faced closure just a few years before. Now, against all the odds, the organisation is celebrating its centenary.
“Sometimes when you have to pinch yourself when you think about where we have come from,” says David Weir, who took over as director when millionaire arts patrons Alastair and Elizabeth Salvesen saved Dovecot from closure in 2001. “It has been something of a rollercoaster ride. I feel really reassured that, 100 years on, the studios are still in existence, and have an ambition to continue the work they’ve always done.”
Tomorrow sees the opening of a centenary exhibition, Weaving the Century: Tapestry from the Dovecot Studios 1912-2012, hung throughout the Dovecot building, which includes collaborations with artists such as David Hockney, Eduardo Paolozzi, Henry Moore, Alan Davie and Elizabeth Blackadder. A book, The Art of Modern Tapestry, by art historian Elizabeth Cumming, will be published at the same time, and the studio’s history will be celebrated in song during the Fringe in A Tapestry of Many Threads, with a libretto by Alexander McCall Smith.
Meanwhile, the studio’s busy order book marks what they believe is a resurgence of interest in tapestry. In recent years, contemporary artists such as Tracey Emin, Grayson Perry and Marc Quinn have experimented with the medium. “I was thrilled to read the other week that tapestry is cool,” says Weir. “And I didn’t even say that!”
While these artists’ works have been produced on state-of-the-art digital looms, Dovecot’s tapestries are hand woven. One of just two tapestry workshops left in the UK, and one of just a handful around the world, they are the direct descendants of the weavers of the Bayeux Tapestry, Henry VIII’s workshop at Mortlake, or William Morris’s at Merton Abbey. Theirs is a slow art, one of the most labour-intensive – and expensive – of all art forms.
For this reason, tapestry workshops have always struggled to be profitable. They rely on patrons – private individuals, corporate organisations, public bodies such as churches and museums – who have both the money and vision. The history of Dovecot is one of booms and (almost) busts – quiet years when the studio needed a little philanthropy to help it through. Not for nothing did a former master weaver, Archie Brennan, once described tapestry as “economic suicide”.
The challenge facing the organisation in 2001 was to prove that hand-made tapestry had a place in the 21st-century world. Weir says: “In a curious way, its craftsmanship, it being so labour intensive, is tapestry’s worst enemy, but it is also its strongest asset. While I used to worry about that, ten years on I now feel something of a pride in it because it represents the skills of the weavers. This is not a huge high-margin business, but it’s the valuing of their craftsmanship and their considered work.”
Despite opening its new premises on the brink of a recession, Dovecot appears to be thriving. There are new commissions for private houses and yachts, and corporate clients. The studio has even taken on two apprentice weavers, its first for 25 years. “It’s quite remarkable to see how often in times of recession tapestry studios have flourished. I do think that when the world slightly loses a sense of perspective, people search back for something that is real. Most people intuitively understand tapestry, and it’s also very beautiful.”
The work currently on Dovecot’s looms illustrates the breadth of styles the studio works in. Weaver Jonathan Cleaver has spent the past three months working on a version of Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen, adapted first by Peter Blake, then into a digital print by Peter Saville. The finished tapestry will be another original adaptation, this time by the Dovecot weavers. “I like the way it ties in to the history of stags in tapestry, but in a very 21st-century way,” he says. “The weaving of it brings new meaning to the image. The digital reimagining is really well suited to weaving, it’s been really lovely to weave – which is just as well because it’s going to be a limited edition.”
Meanwhile, master weaver Naomi Roberson is working between the Monarch of the Glen and a suite of small tapestries made to pop art designs by Peter Blake, which will also be sold as a limited edition during the centenary show. “Every tapestry is completely different from the one before, so every one provides different challenges. The Peter Blakes are all about the curves, the perfection. The Monarch of the Glen is totally about colour mixing. I think it’s one of the things that keeps you going - weaving the same kind of things month after month, year after year, you’d get bored.”
Nearby is a completely different project, an adaptation of a painting by Victoria Crowe from her series A Shepherd’s Life, being woven entirely in the greys, browns and creams of natural sheep’s wool. “Our master weaver David Cochrane did a mapping exercise of different breeds of sheep in UK and their colours, and identified 50 that were suitable,” says Weir. “So there are a lot of worried sheep out there. This project has been nicknamed ‘50 shades of sheep’.”
The studio is also working with a range of contemporary artists. A collaboration with the artist Claire Barclay – a beautiful tapestry left deliberately unfinished and displayed on a loom-like frame – has just arrived to take its place in the centenary exhibition. A new project has engaged a range of artists, from John Byrne and Alasdair Gray to Ruth Ewan and Nicholas Party, to work with the archive of the former Glasgow carpet-makers Templeton-Stoddart to produce new designs for tufted rugs.
Every work at Dovecot is a collaboration between artist and weaver. Douglas Grierson, a master weaver at Dovecot for 50 years, is back from retirement helping to prepare works for the exhibition in the room still known as the Ladies’ Baths. “What I liked about my time at the Dovecot was working with all the artists, getting their confidence. Often I don’t think they had heard of tapestry, so there was a learning curve both ways. Working with Alan Davie was one of the best experiences of my life. He was a wonderful character to work with, he gave us a lot of free rein in the way that we wove the tapestry.”
As the centenary celebrations approach, David Weir is determined not to spend too much time looking back. “I’m very keen to say this isn’t about 1912-2012, and then it stops, it’s a platform for moving forward. We are really just celebrating all those extraordinary building blocks that now allow us to go out and developing conversations with artists as we have been doing for 100 years.”
• Weaving the Century: Tapestry from the Dovecot Studios 1912-2012 is on from tomorrow until 7 October. The Art of Modern Tapestry: Dovecot Studios Since 1912, edited by Elizabeth Cumming, is published by Lund Humphries in association with Dovecot Studios. A Tapestry of Many Threads is performed at Dovecot, 4-15 August.
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