ULITA, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and Echoes of Devon

For over a year I used to take a Thursday away from composing to spend  time in the workshop of Bradford College. I’ve now translated that ‘day out’ into some activity linked to my continuing interest in textiles. Recent Thursdays have included a day passing on to a friend what I’d learnt from my recent weekend in the studio of tapestry artist Fiona Hutchinson, a walking and sketching day in the snow near Settle in the Yorkshire Dales to experience for myself how tapestry weaver Jilly Edwards assembles a woven image sequence from a journey, and last week a long-awaited visit to ULITA in Leeds to see their International Year of Fibre exhibition.

Double ikat from India


Natural Fibres: A World Heritage highlights the use of natural fibres in textiles from across the globe. It is essentially a presentation of carefully chosen selections from ULITA’s constituent collections. These include silks from Qing Dynasty China, shawls of Kashmir, Mediterranean embroideries of linen and silk, Javanese batik cottons, an embroidered ship cloth from Sumatra, ikats from Indonesia, crafted items from New Zealand, West Africa, Malaysia and Turkey, and various twentieth century textiles. The footprint of this exhibition is quite small, but the content is extensive, and for me enough for several visits. What I loved about this exhibition was the idea of grouping a selection of items of varied style and historical period according to fibre. But let me set the scene.

19 C Silk apron


The University of Leeds International Textile Archive has its origins in the 19C when  this area of West Yorkshire was the textile centre of the world. The collection today has important contributions from its former academic staff, most notably Aldred Farrar Barker’s Qing Collection of traditionally decorated Chinese textiles. The archive is now based in St Wilfred’s Chapel, formerly belonging to Leeds Grammar School and built in the mid 19C. A key feature of this building is the construction of a building within a building, a conservation ark, providing an ideal environment for textiles. It takes its inspiration from the silk worm, which spins a cocoon for its own protection. It cleverly creates a modern interior, whilst maintaining the elegance of the Gothic Revival interior. As well as dedicated storage, the design has specially designed display cabinets, making it possible to display ULITA’s aesthetically rich resource to students, members of the general public, designers and manufacturers.

Japanese stencil on mulberry paper


The exhibition is presented in eight of these display cabinets beginning with an overview display bringing together all the different fibres the collection focuses on. A camel saddle bag in wool from Iran, a wall hanging from India, a linen sleeve from Bulgaria, cotton table cloth manufactured in the UK, a Chinese court apron in silk from the 19C, and a fascinating student design book from Bradford College, whose own extensive archive lies sadly in storage.

Qing Dynasty Dragon Coat


The displays that follow this are each focused on a single fibre. The first of these is Silk and gives pride of place to the Dragon Robe from the Qing Collection. This magnificent piece was made from different kinds of silk brocade and damask. The design of the robe carries symbols reflecting the rank and association of the wearer.  Aside from nine five-clawed flying dragons there are rhinoceros horns, cranes and bats. I sketched the base the intriguing play of colours and shapes at the foot of the robe.

Sketch of a display case at ULITA


I didn’t get very far along the presentation cases of fibres because I got really interested in the Cashmere exhibits, a case of Kashmiri and Paisley shawls, one of which really perplexed me. Its background was a woven twill, but the borders and ‘butas’ (those so distinctive shapes we associate with Paisley patterns) were meticulously and extravagantly embroidered, but the shawl’s intricate borders appeared to be a mix of print and weave. While I was puzzling over this one of the attentive staff appeared and very kindly placed in my hands ‘the’ book on The Kasmir Shawl by Frank Ames – she’d just acquired it from the Brotherton Library.  Well, I could have spent the rest of the afternoon pouring over this fascinating book. These shawls it appears use so many different techniques in their construction: tapestry, dobby and Jaquard weaving, embroidery and print.


A 'Buta' from a Kashmiri shawl


The brilliant thing about this whole collection is that it is almost all on-line. You can research and examine pieces in the comfort of your studio, pick out the items you want to study. E-mail the Archive with your choice. Make your visit and the staff will enable you to investigate the ‘real’ piece. The archive service is completely free and for any serious designer or student you could do some serious work here.

There were several pieces in other displays that stopped me in my tracks. A Peter Collingwood no less (sadly not in their on-line catalogue) in the form of one of his Macrogauze series in linen. There was a stunning piece of contemporary ikat from India and a beautifully simple Japanese silk stencil on mulberry paper (see above).

A contemporary ikat from India


 I went on almost the last day of this exhibition and as I was preparing to go (and wishing I’d come months ago and planned several visits) one of the staff told me the show had been extended until May. So go and see it if you can. It is a unique opportunity to experience the wealth and difference of natural fibre, now making such a comeback if the pages of Selvedge are to be believed.

Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery


Drawing by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham


Getting off the bus outside the Parkinson Building before walking through the university campus to ULITA, I remembered that there was another exhibition in its last days at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery. This is where the University of Leeds now keeps its permanent collection. The current exhibition was called Discipline of the Mind: The Drawings of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. This artist was part of St Ives community and almost the contemporary of Hepworth, Nicholson, Lanyon and notably Terry Frost whose wonderful use of colour finds its way in Barns-Graham’s paintings. So she was an artist very much in my research territory (I’m currently preparing to write an opera about a period in the life Winifred Nicholson). If you’ve not yet explored my musical work connected to Barbara Hepworth now may be a good opportunity! To take a look at my series of works commissioned for the Hepworth Centenary click here.

Seven Lines No2


I was really taken with Barns-Graham’s work, and it was difficult to tear myself away – a need for lunch finally solved that problem. I particularly liked her work from the 60s, 70s and 80s, those pieces about waves, currents and glaziers. My favourite, the one I would have taken off the wall and put in my bag, was Seven Lines No.2, a picture I was later to discover was the touchstone of Orange prize-winning author Francesca Kay’s novel An Equal Stillness. I was interested, as someone currently studying ‘expressive drawing’ under the tutelage of Laura Slater, to see a number of drawings on tempera and oil bases. Barns-Graham has a very angular, spare and no-nonsence style. In fact the sparer the work the more impressive it seemed. To look more closely at her work there are good number of exhibition catalogues and monographs available from her excellent website and archive. In addition to an example of her style of drawing I’m going to include an image of a painting that would be just so effective as a woven piece.

Painting from the 1980s by Barns-Graham


I’m having a difficult time with my own weaving just now. I’m struggling with a tapestry piece, but it’s not going very well and each time I look at it (I’m about halfway through) I simply want to abandon it. One morning I found myself thinking about Van Gogh’s recently published letters and how he had written about those times when he couldn’t work. I was surprised to know he was such an astute student of other artists’ work. Not only would he spend time in studying and copying their work, but he also wrote about things he saw and as Andrew Motion said in his Guardian review of the Six volumes of letters, his ‘word-pictures catch the miraculous of the ordinary’. He never gave up engaging with his craft. So I decided I would do the same. Here’s an extract of a letter I wrote to a friend about the outcome of this undertaking:

Echoes of Devon


I started this morning looking at a series of improvisations I wrote earlier this week focusing on Jilly’s (Edwards) work. I feel most of the time I’m stumbling around in the dark. However, I looked at the Telos monograph on Jilly and, as is common in those publications, there are some quite revealing close ups of tapestries.

As I’m trying to get my head around many of the techniques and approaches Fiona (Hutchinson) showed me, looking carefully at J’s work has helped me to connect what I have started to do with what is to J pretty standard practice, but a practice I hadn’t been properly aware of before.

The images I send centre around a piece from 1993 called Echoes of Devon. It seems to have quite a restricted palette of colours (which interests me of course as that’s what I’m trying to deal with). Closer analysis showed me there were at least eight individually different yarns plus many shades formed by blending these different yarns together. What began to really interest me was not so much the colour mixtures and organisation within (what first appears to be) one colour, but the shape and complexity of the movement (one might say the rhythm) of the woven weft.

I then tried to make a copy of one area of the tapestry and chart its ‘movement’ and colour composition. In just an hour or so I’ve suddenly come so much closer to what I know Fiona was trying to demonstrate (and to a certain point helped me achieve in that little fragment I wove in her workshop), and much closer to how Jilly achieves what she does.


some notes on Echoes of Devon


[Note – following the publication of this blog tapestry weaver Fiona Hutchinson generously responded to the letter above with her own take on Echoes of Devon.]

 Jilly’s  tapestry you talk about I think was woven from a drawing done by her son Mark when he was very little (I think – if my memory serves me right) The orange area shows a very interesting selection of yarns and colours blended into a range of mixes, then how they are built up in small the small areas of weaving using irregular cut-back lines – this achieves the gentle and subtle variation in colours. I cant remember exactly what thicknesses of weft she was using but you can achieve some very interesting subtle surface variations when you contrast thick with thin weft. What I mean is that if you use a thicker/chunky white (1 strand) for one area but ply up some very fine orange yarn (4 or 5 strands to approx. the same thickness as the white) for the other area you will get a very slight difference in surface. You can exaggerate the surface difference by using a thick white and finer orange (maybe only 2 or 3 strands) but you will have to do 2 or 3 passes of the orange to every one of the white to balance the thickness. The result of this is that the orange area will have a smother and finer appearance than the white area. Does this make sense!

[A further note: I had a phone call from Jilly the other day during which she talked a little about this tapestry. If you were to look at my notes you would discover I had ‘read’ this woven image as a kind of map of Devon. The dark line in the middle withstanding it seemed to fit this interpretation. Nothing could be further from actuality: Jilly’s then 5 year old son had draw with felt tip pens . . . a tractor crossing a field! It was the simplicity and directness of his image that had been the touchstone. Furthermore Jilly reminded me, when I was puzzling over technical aspects of the piece, that the tapestry image was woven . . . on its side. Of course, how stupid of me not to have even thought of that!]

I often mention on these pages the work of my colleague Alice Fox. Well, Alice can now speak for herself because she now has a blog of her own (designed by my assistant Phil Legard), so she won’t need me to tell you about her own striking and beautiful  stitch, print and weave. I was very touched though that she should invite me recently to write a statement about her work and practice, which I have come to know a little and much admire  . . .  Here it is, because I notice it didn’t make it to her website, and though I say it who shouldn’t, I think it does catch the essence of her practice.

Alice Fox is just so curious about texture. She responds to the touch, the smell, the sound, and the intrinsic detail of organic things. Her acute observation catches that special play of order with disorder found in the natural world. She can inhabit a landscape by stealth and take its essence and surprise into her imagination. The richness, variety and possibility the textile medium affords seems so rightly embedded in her creative practice.

Alice has just relaunched her website that illustrates the range of her work and what inspires her. Some of her favourite blogs are worth exploring, particularly Fiona Wilson’s. The website and blog will formally come together in mid May. I will, however, do a necessary plug here for her work on my Fifteen Images. This gets its second performance on May 10 at Bradford’s Gallery II. In a partnership with the Tamsin Little Music Centre at the University of Bradford it has been chosen to open the new Digital and New Media Project Space. You can find full details of the event here.

Janet Cardiff's 40 part Motet


Briefly, and finally, back to my Thursday in Leeds. After visiting ULITA I just had time before the train home to get to the Howard Assembly Room at the Grand Theatre, home of Opera North, to hear an installation called Voices: the Forty Part Motet by Janet Cardiff. Thomas Tallis wrote this extraordinary piece of music for 8 choirs of 5 voices in 1570. Cardiff’s installation has recorded 40 voices one by one singing in the choir of Salisbury Cathedral. The recording is then played back through 40 individual monitors positioned on stands around a circle. An unforgettable experience . . . but don’t be tempted to listen to it on YouTube. You have to BE THERE.


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