Architecture, journeys and tapestry weaving

This is going to be a blog in two parts because in the last seven days I seem to have covered so much ground (literally and metaphorically) that this blog has to be a Part 1. This part will cover Tuesday to Friday: attending a meeting with an inspirational architect in Hull, a rehearsal and preparation day in Shipley, the bi-monthly ArtWalk at Westgate Studios in Wakefield, a meeting with tapestry artist Jilly Edwards at her studio in Exeter, a trip (with Jilly) to Dartington taking in the extraordinary Bauhaus-influenced High Cross House designed by William Lescaze in the 1930s, the beautiful estate gardens and a chance to see tapestries by Bobbie Cox in the mediaeval refectory of the Great Hall.

Tapestry at Dartington Hall by Bobbie Cox


Part 2 will cover a nine hour train journey to Edinburgh for a brilliant weekend course in the studio of tapestry weaver Fiona Hutchinson and my book discovery of the year, Weaving as Metaphor: a monograph on the weaver Sheila Hicks.

The 'Lock-keeper's Cottage' Graduate Centre at Queen Mary College, London


Technically my meeting with architect Richard Scott has nothing to do with weaving accept that that it connects rather nicely with my visit later in the week to High Cross House in Devon, the location of a forthcoming installation by tapestry artist Jilly Edwards (for which I am creating the music). Richard’s striking work is, to use the words about the paintings of Bridget Riley (who he admires) ‘full of light and colour’. Richard is currently ‘Design Champion’ for the city of Hull and will be designing a number of new schools for the city under the Building Schools for the Future scheme. I’m currently associated as a composer with the Hull Philharmonic Orchestra and keen to make links with the BSF scheme. Richard is fascinated by music and often expresses his architectural ideas through musical descriptions and language. He worked originally with maverick architect Will Alsop after whose Objects of Curiosity and Wonder I created a work about for string quartet (Kronos Quartet) called SuperCity.

Warping board or Inkle Loom?


The following day, after suffering the coldest train journey of my life from Hull, I was in Shipley to rehearse with my friendly soprano who had the weekend previously put her first warp on her grandmother’s loom after a little mix up with what turned out to be an Inkle loom. I’ve mentioned our musical collaboration many times in this blog so I think it is definitely time for a photo of the two us in rehearsal – this was taken in my studio last summer before our first recital.

Rehearsal at Westgate Studios


After a most valuable morning rehearsing lute songs of Thomas Campion, John Dowland and my own songs to Quaker texts called Improving Silence, I had the pleasure of a few hours peaceful preparation in her quiet and beautiful house for my two days of forthcoming meetings. Back  in Wakefield the resident artists were putting the finishing (and noisy) touches to what is known as the Art Walk, a bi-monthly opening of all the visual art venues in the city. One feature of Westgate Studios contribution was an extraordinary installation by Julie Clarke of 1000 plus origami cranes occupying the stairwell of this four-storey listed building. On the walls of the stairwell there was a sequence of my own poems called The Origami Letters (the final poem inspired Julie’s crane installation), words for music I’m writing for Mark Padmore and the Brodsky Quartet.

A Thousand Cranes


Very early the next morning, after some pretty frantic late night list-making and gathering together of stuff needed for four days away, I’m on the train down to Exeter, a four and half hour trip. Rail travel can be such a very civilised way to travel – when it’s not too crowded – with lots of time to write letters and study The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons by the 5th Century Chinese scholar Liu Hsieh. I’m writing a novel (provisional title  Summoning the Recluse) about two poets, brother and sister, who lived during the Two Kingdoms Dynasty . . . strange but true.

Altar Tapestry by Bobbie Cox


Down in Exeter for coffee time, Jilly took me to meet Christine Sawyer in a lovely little café looking across the green to the Cathedral. Christine is one of four weavers who live close to Exeter and meet regularly with Jilly to share their work and ‘news’. From there we went to see briefly an altar-piece tapestry by Bobbie Cox, about whom more later.

Watercolour by Jilly Edwards


Next stop was Jilly’s studio at ‘the Castle’, Exeter’s studio community, where we talked non-stop until late afternoon, discussing my role in providing a musical amplification of Jilly’s exhibition / installation opening in May. I’ve promised not to say or show anything of her work in progress for this show, so I’ll simply say ‘don’t miss it’. I will however mention a piece that I don’t think is to be in the show as it was a commission that is finished and ‘gone’ from the studio. It is a piece that holds (for me) a clue to a persistent theme in Jilly’s work – a record of a journey, in this case a cliff top walk. Jilly had a series of different watercolour sketches of her proposed (now finished) tapestry and finally a version painted on fine quality paper, which I photographed.

Dartington Hall and Gardens


Next day Jilly and I got on the train and travelled the 40 miles or so southward to Totnes, the UK’s first Transition Town, and close to the beautiful and historic Dartington Hall Estate. This former College of the Arts has a personal association for me as I was a consultant / composer in residence there during the late 80s early 90s. Its foundation by American heiress Dorothy Elmhirst and her husband Leonard in the 1930s is the stuff of legend. It became in the 1950s the location of a fabulous summer school and music  festival, and the creative home of many significant artists and craft people, notably the potter Bernard Leach, the poet Tagore and musician Imogen Holst. In my time there contact-improviser and dancer Katy Duck, composer Frank Denyer to name but two extraordinary people from a host of others who made my regular visits such a delight. When you visit the mediaeval Dartington Hall itself you can find yourself staying in a room with a Winifred Nicholson on the wall and a Bernard Leach Bowl on the windowsill.

High Cross House


Before reaching Dartington Hall itself our first stop was High Cross House where we spent half an hour taking photos of the exterior and the garden before getting ready for a meeting with the Live Arts officer of Dartington Arts, an organisation that runs an impressive programme of theatre, music and ‘live art’. We walked to our meeting via the beautiful gardens, the sun coming out for us after a brief period of rain, which made plants and trees sparkle.

Dartington Gardens


Finding we’d got a few minutes in hand Jilly took me to see some more of the work of Bobbie Cox, this time two majestic pieces in the refectory. I felt so privileged to being shown and guided around her work by someone able to read this woven work with such authority. Thank you Jilly. Cox was once resident at Dartington and although latterly has become known for her work with ikat, wove some large pieces at and for Dartington using locally sourced wools and plant dyes. Bobbie Cox is now in her 80s and still busy weaving, but now in Gloucestershire. She says of her work:

“I like to think that my tapestries are dialogues between the idea, the material and the methods, between the known and unknown, and ultimately between the finished tapestry and the space it is intended for.”

Before I could come up for breath the meeting was over and I was taking a taxi away from the estate down the road beside the River Dart into Totnes and the railway station for my next destination – Edinburgh. The story of the river has been wonderfully told in Alice Oswald’s award-winning poem Dart. Oswald lived on the estate with her family for some years, beginning her association with the place as a gardener, an experience that features in first collection of poems The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile. Here is one of my favourites from that collection called Prayer.

Here I work in the hollow of God’s hand

with Time bent round into my reach. I touch

the circle of the earth, I throw and catch

the sun and moon by turns into my mind.

I sense the length of it from end to end,

I sway me gently in my flesh and each

point of the process changes as I watch:

the flowers come, the rain follows the wind.


And all I ask is this – and you can see

how far the soul, when it goes under flesh,

is not a soul, is small and creaturish –

that every day the sun comes silently

to set my hands to work and that the moon

turns and returns to meet me when it’s done.

 Jeanette Winterston says of her that ‘Alice Oswald is the real thing – a true poet of great power and capacity. She writes about the natural world and our relationship to it, reminding us that there is such a thing as a world we didn’t make, and one that we badly need, for sanity’s sake.’ A 21C Vita Sackville-West perhaps?


One Response to “Architecture, journeys and tapestry weaving”

  1. Peg in South Carolina Says:

    I love the first tapestry you show in this post. Blowing it up, i thought the center looked like yarn wrappings? Thank you also for the information about Sheila Hicks, another fiber artists who uses small works as inspiration for her large pieces. I continue to think a bit about this in terms of my own work, except my own work, right now anyway, is really quite small! Do you know that the Hicks’ monograph is going for about $279 on Amazon? Though the book itself is apparently a work of art on its own.

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