Obituary: James More, innovative designer whose passion helped to ensure the survival of Dovecote Studios

James More who has died aged 65
James More who has died aged 65
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Born: 3 June, 1946 in Kirkcaldy, Fife. Died: 27 September, 2011, in Melrose, aged 65

JAMES More was an innovative and experimental designer who once eloquently described the Edinburgh tapestry studio he ran as a place where “magic hangs by a very fine thread”. An emotional and intellectual artist, he was writing to its founder Lord Bute at a time when the organisation was facing the not unfamiliar threat of redundancies.

Thanks, in large part to More’s passion, it survived and thrived. He then went on to become a visionary academic whose drive and enthusiasm propelled Northumbria University’s school of design, of which he was dean, into the global league of excellence, cited as one of the world’s top 20 design schools.

However, it was to the dismay of his teachers in the music department at Kirkcaldy High School that he chose to go down an artistic path. Equally talented in both subjects, music had been the dominant interest as a schoolboy. He played piano, was in a dance band with his brother and played the double bass in the school orchestra and the organ at a local church. But when it came to deciding on a career, he opted for an art degree, specialising in textiles at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee. He won a scholarship to study as a post-graduate before embarking on a year’s teacher training.

His first job was as a carpet and towel designer for BMK Carpets in Kilmarnock. Around this time he and his wife Lyn also started an arts and crafts business, Linden Arts, which they continued to run for about 20 years. It produced hand-woven silk ties, bookmarks and hand-drawn cards and won a Design Council award for its quality of design and products.

More joined the Scottish College of Textiles in Galashiels as a lecturer in visual studies in 1974 before being appointed in 1987, by the then Marquess of Bute, as artistic/managing director of the Edinburgh Tapestry Company, also known as the Dovecot Studios.

He was heavily involved in proactively marketing the work of the studios, both nationally and internationally, as essentially a Scottish tapestry studio but he also brought his own design work to the organisation.

His first tapestry commission was for Edinburgh’s Dunedin Fund Managers and he was involved in creating a number of significant collections as well as overseeing the largest tapestry ever to have been woven in Britain. Commissioned for the British Library, the piece – probably the best known work of RB Kitaj and titled If not, not – was created on a specially-built loom measuring 7 metres by 7 metres.

He collaborated on a series of works, known as the Scottish Collection, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the studios, working with artists including John Bellany, William Littlejohn and Dame Elizabeth Blackadder.

More was firmly supported by Lord Bute and, as a result of that relationship, Bellany described the studios as one of the most creative places in Scotland. It was confirmation of More’s contribution to the space which included a new energy exuding from experimental pieces such as the graffiti image Charlie’s Retired, based on the Berlin Wall.

His marketing drive also resulted in some major commissions, such as Duncan Shanks’s The Source of the Clyde for the Royal Glasgow Concert Hall.

And he persuaded the board to invest in a new process, started by one of his colleagues Douglas Grierson, for making tufted rugs, work that has been developed by the organisation ever since.

Today there are collections from the studios all over the world, including a piece designed by David Hockney. Important pieces designed by More himself include a work for the chapel at Mount Stuart on Bute

Current Dovecot Studios director David Weir said: “He is certainly leaving a legacy. James was a very important part of the Dovecot story.”

More joined Northumbria University in 1993 as head of the department of design and became a professor there the following year. He led the department through its transition from part of the faculty of arts and design into a school in its own right in 2002.

Under his leadership, the school enjoyed significant growth in the number of students and developed an enhanced portfolio of programmes, leading to a lengthening annual list of students and graduates winning major national and international awards.

He also travelled extensively to Japan and China and led the development of high- quality international collaborative partnerships. His guidance was instrumental in the school becoming renowned as a centre for innovative thinking and creative design practice, listed by the magazine Business Week as one of the top 20 design schools.

He announced plans to retire early in 2009 and his contribution to the school’s considerable success was recognised when he was named a school design fellow that year. However, his interest in his former studios had not waned and he remained enthusiastically committed to helping Dovecote to ensure its future when it was on the verge of closing down around a decade ago.

“He was very generous with his time and it was clear he had a really deep passion for the studios,” said Weir.

That generosity was a hallmark of More, a man of wisdom, a warm sense of humour and an infectious laugh whose presence left an impression on a gathering. Always able to get the conversation flowing and discussions going, he loved words and, having written children’s stories for his own entertainment, took creative writing classes in retirement.

He was also persuaded latterly to put a collection of new paintings together for an exhibition at his friend Wallace Shaw’s Arthouse in Leith.

More recently, More had been recounting the story of his time at Dovecot for a book on the studios’ centenary year – Dovecot 1912-2012: 100 Years of Contemporary Tapestry.

It is hoped to show some of his pieces at a major exhibition of tapestry celebrating the anniversary, a testament to his design skills. He is survived by his wife Lyn, their children Jonathan, Ashley and Stephanie and grandchildren Ruaridh James and Madeleine Scarlet.

His funeral is being held today at 1pm at Warriston Crematorium, Edinburgh. ALISON SHAW