Thursday, 12 February 2015

From Ruskin to Morris

I have to tell you that  I feel like a I am a gerbil madly running on the wheel of London life at the moment...I am doing so much it is difficult to keep the blog updated with all my news.
However, by far the most wonderful day I have had (besides the Cultural Threads Symposium!) was to take the train to Braintree to the Warner Textile Archive.

High Tea and Talk flyer@Warner Textile Archives
I had been sent a link to this talk by my good friend, Barbara Rogers, who happens to be on their mailing list. As soon as I realised it coincided with my trip to the UK I was up for it! Especially as the talk was being given by Mary Schoeser, textile historian, President of the Textile Society and author of numerous tomes on all things textile, including the most recent and very impressive 'Textiles: The Art of Mankind' published in 2012.

I know most of you wish you could have been there too, so I will take you with me now on the journey....
The exterior of the Warner & Sons Textile archives.
Braintree, in North Essex, is about an hour out of London by train and in the early 19th century became  a centre for silk manufacturing when Courtaulds opened a mill there.  This was followed by Warner & Sons who originally set up their silk weaving business in Spitalfields in 1870. By 1895 they moved to Braintree when they took over the weaving business of Daniel Walters & Sons who had gone into liquidation. The whole history is extremely fascinating, but unfortunately not enough space to share it all with you here.
A small information park on the way from the train station gives us a taster of what is to come...
The large metal printed plaques on the walls depicted 19th century woven silk designs in different colourways reflecting the, madder, indigo and weld.
The design reflects the 19th century fascination with scientific exploration of the natural
world and the appropriation of the 'exotic other'.
Now to the best bit...inside the Archives! Unfortunately there is strict policy for no photography, and I couldn't even get a photo of the shop, so you will have to make the trip yourselves one day to fully experience it.  Needless to say, I did remark to one lady that it was like being let loose in a candy shop and not being able to decide what to taste first....never mind the calories!
The Warner Textile Archive booklet
Luckily, Warner's do produce this A4 soft cover catalogue on the history and types of designs and textiles represented in the archives, so I am sure you could order this through their website.

Mary Schoeser delivered a wonderful talk 'From Ruskin to Morris' to a capacity crowd of enthusiasts.  I can't say how many people were there because of course I was right up the front and only had eyes for Mary and the textiles (LOL!) but it is a small showroom, so perhaps about 40-50 people. Mary has an amazing knowledge of not only historical textiles, designers and manufacturers, but also the social and economic conditions of the time.  She transported us on a journey of design with Ruskin, explaining his belief in social equality and design for everyone;  the sustainability of craft and design and his passion for conservation not restoration.  Mary then spoke about AW Pugin and his commitment to gothic design and the quest for the truth to nature by advocating flat representation of pattern (as opposed to trompe l'oile).
Mary is an animated and engaging speaker, never needing to look at notes as she continued our journey though to Owen Jones, obviously someone she has done a lot of research on and has a lot of time for.  He was also interested in social equality and was determined to provide products at different pricepoints, so that the masses could also benefit from good design, not just the elite. Some of his high-end wallpapers were printed with "best-prepared metal" and would cost the equivalent of £2000 for a 12 yard roll, whilst the cheapest were a couple of pence per yard.  Jones is best known for his publication 'The Grammar of Ornament" in which he articulates his Propositions for Design, that Mary knew off by heart (!). 
And finally, she took us through to William Morris and his continuation of the previous design concepts by creating flowing natural elements with secondary patterns in the background. She also spoke about the opening up of the East to the West in the 1860's and how textile and wallpaper designs were inspired from designs bought back from Japan by Christopher Dresser.
Now, if that wan't enough, we all went into the Archive room itself where there are over 100,000 catalogued items!!! We were in the capable hands of Kate Wigley, Archivist at WTA and who has considerable knowledge of the weaving process itself as a practitioner.  I feel this is extremely important because someone who has practiced a craft or process can bring so much more knowledge and is more sympathetic to understanding the collection than just an academic. Kate had pulled out many paper and textile examples from the archive that not only supplemented Mary's talk but enhanced it. We had wonderful discussions in an intimate setting about the use of mordant printing and the natural, synthetic, VAT and mineral dyes used; the types of looms and printing processes used to create both the paper croquis and the finished fabric. My favourite,  favourite items were the small thick, tattered dye books used to record the dye colours used in printing the fabrics, and the order in which the colours need to be printed. My heart leapt when I saw them and I was itching to get my hands on them as Mary picked them up and flicked through them for us.  I have never been so envious of someone in my life!
So I am afraid the rest of the event was a bit of a blur after that, I had already gone to heaven and no amount of scones and cream and chocolate cake was going to top that!
Oh, except I did have some personal conversations with both Mary and Kate afterwards, which were intellectually stimulating and have provided me with ideas for future research.  They were the cherry on top!
Painted Vases, printed textile by Willy Hermann in 1954
(photo taken from the catalogue 'Two centuries of Creativity')
Of course the WTA also houses 20th century designs as well, and most of you who know me and my work know that it is mid-century design where my inspirations and passions lie.  So there is a whole other field of discovery to be done at another time.....

Mary and may not have seen the last of me yet! Ha ha! 
Thank you so much for a truly wonderful day.

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