Dovecot tapestry studio celebrates century of apprentices' craft

When the two master weavers who had set up the pioneering Dovecot Studio in Edinburgh were killed a century ago in the First World War, they didn't just leave behind an irreplaceable loss in their families' lives.

Dovecot apprentice Ben Hymer and studio manager Naomi Robertson.
Dovecot apprentice Ben Hymer and studio manager Naomi Robertson.

There was a giant gap too in a massive tapestry, The Lord Of The Hunt, that was intended to celebrate the full range of their craft .

Now a free exhibition, The Weaver’s Apprentice, is being held next month in the city’s Dovecot Gallery to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the deaths of master weavers John “Jack” Glassbrook and Gordon Berry. It also celebrates the teenage apprentices who completed the enormous tapestry and ensured that the studio kept going.

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The Dovecot was originally founded in 1912 by the 4th Marquess of Bute to produce tapestries of historic interest for his Victorian stately mansion, Mount Stuart, on the Isle of Bute.

Glassbrook and Berry came from William Morris’s Merton Abbey Workshops to set up the studio, which was then based in Corstorphine.

The exhibition tells the story of how the apprentices, who also fought in the war, returned to the mothballed Dovecot Studio and completed the massive half-finished tapestry The Lord Of The Hunt, the studio’s first work intended for Mount Stuart.

As a tribute to Glassbrook and Berry, the apprentices wove their initials into the tapestry’s border.

Despite fighting in the trenches, master weaver Glassbrook, a 28-year-old gunner with the Tank Corps, wrote a letter home to his sister a month before his death on 26 September 1917 at the Battle of Ypres expressing concern about The Lord Of The Hunt.

He wrote: “Well, Emma I am very pleased to say that I’m in the best of health, and having a very good time. But give me dear Auld Reekie and I’ll be as happy as anybody.

“I’m very anxious to get back to see how the tapestry is getting on. It has been covered up for twelve months now, and I am wondering if Mr Thomson [the studio manager] has ever given it a look. But Cheer-i-oh I don’t suppose it will be so very long before we are back again.”

Kate Grenyer, Dovecot’s exhibitions curator, said the first four local apprentices chosen to work in the studio learned skills such as setting up a loom, using patterns and eventually how to transform an artist’s design from a picture on paper into cloth.

“I think getting such apprenticeships would have been an exciting opportunity for the 14-year-old boys who were chosen – Richard Gordon, James Wood, David Lindsay Anderson and Ronald Cruickshank. It was a chance to be creative and to learn both a trade and an art from the master weavers.

“They would have been selected for their good draftsmanship and eye for colour. They would have sat next to the master weavers and helped with poses to learn how shadows fell and where they should be woven.

“Setting up a tapestry studio was something new for Scotland and gave the apprentices the chance to be involved in something really historic.

“But after they returned home from the war there would have been a real fear of what to do next. There was a danger of skills being lost, but looking at The Lord Of The Hunt which they completed, you can’t see the difference.”

The studio, now known as the Dovecot Tapestry Studio, was re-established in 2001 in the former Infirmary Street baths. It currently houses seven weavers, a rug tufter and an apprentice.

The exhibition will include Hipsters Love Triangle by Ben Hymer, the studio’s current apprentice and The Chance, an important tapestry by Morris & Co woven by Dovecot’s founding weavers.

The Weaver’s Apprentice - Dovecot’s Apprentices: 1912 to the Present Dayruns from 10 March to 1 July, Dovecot Gallery, Edinburgh.