Teaching Meg to weave and other delights

Visiting the gardens at Hestercombe was such a revelatory experience I’ve been lost to know how to present it in words and images. It was the first of three celebrated gardens I visited during three days I spent in the West Country at the beginning of May. I’ve ‘done’ gardens before now but I’ve never truly engaged with them, or understood them in any way at all. I’ve never had my own garden, as my partners have always owned these spaces, and I suppose I’ve never staked a claim and said I’d like to get involved. But then I didn’t engage with the music of Beethoven properly until I was in my mid 40s. I didn’t begin to understand the textile world until 2 years ago, and now I’ve been knocked sideways by what I’ve begun to understand a garden can represent.

Hestercombe House from the rear with a view south towards the Quantock Hills


Hestercombe is some 40 acres of house and garden a few miles outside Taunton.  It encompasses three gardens that span three centuries of garden history. In that respect it proved a perfect choice for my first immersive experience of the affective and expressive nature of the garden. I visited it on an afternoon when the wide skies above the Quantock hills were rich in floating and gathering cumulus clouds. There was a continuous play of sunlight and shade, and because of the nature of the ‘combe’ or valley north of the house there were many opportunities to look beyond the garden into a wider landscape of meadows broken by copses and rising slowly towards gently hills in the south. There are few tight enclosures, rather a consistent play of spaciousness, long lines of perspectives in all directions.

Lutyen's design for 'The Plat' at Hestercombe


It was this handling of space becoming form articulating structure that I found so invigorating about Hestercombe. Even whilst I was there I wanted to capture the whole of it as an entity and discover how it worked, how the very different parts of it interacted. For me gateways and the transitional areas of steps and paths became ever more a delight.

The gate linking the Plat with the Orangery garden


Such a point was the gated corner from which the visitor moves from the great Edwardian complex of rills, walls, paths and borders known as the ‘Plat’ into the natural upward flow and simplicity of an adjacent parkland space of an equivalent size. As one descends by steps from the Plat to this parkland you are suddenly walking on a lower level and the Edwardian garden you’ve just come from is no longer visible. In a few instants you are in a completely different world walking beside high walls and the richest of deep herbaceous borders, and in the distance the honey-coloured Cotswold stone rectangle of Edward Lutyens Orangery.

The Orangery by Sir Edward Lutyens


This lovely building is the centrepiece of a complex of spaces that abut the house itself, only a discrete clump of trees masking it from the kitchen and service areas. Architects (like composers) are usually adept at the joins between spaces, and here is a triumph of connecting steps and paved areas with a wonderful use of local limestone from the Mendip Hills in the high walls that frame the entire space and surround the Dutch Garden to the East.

On the trail from the house to the combe


Having spent three hours or so in the car I needed a walk more than anything else (apart from lunch) when I arrived, and Hestercombe supplies this in a trail up its ‘combe’ or valley. This is in essence a Georgian landscape garden still undergoing an extensive restoration started in 1999. It is a true arcadia, but not one modelled on that region of Greece or the idea promoted in those paintings of Poussin of rustic, secluded areas. This arcadia has a feeling of the new world being discovered and settled in the mid 18C. Early images of America and New Zealand come to mind because of its spaciousness, glimpses of far distant hills, trees high up on the sides of the surrounding combe, columbine (aquilegia – that symbol of fidelity, though in Shakespeare it had an opposing meaning) everywhere, and the presence of water in streams, lakes and falling from a ‘great cascade’. Small intimate buildings and shelters punctuate this area and surprise the walker. They appear where you don’t expect them, and they have a curious strangeness, an otherness about them. Most are newly imagined and recently built, but in their present hardly weathered state seem to make the experience of this part of the garden vigorous and of the present.

One of several 'small buildings' from which the visitor can enjoy a 'composed view' of the garden


Thoughts of Shakespeare then Hamlet, now I’ve looked up the scene in Act 4, seem suddenly appropriate. There’s that moment where in her madness after her father’s death Orphelia delivers a litany on the properties and significance of wild flowers, but as she enters Laertes says:

O heavens! is’t possible, a young maid’s wits

Should be as moral as an old man’s life?

Nature is fine in love, and where ’tis fine,

It sends some precious instance of itself

After the thing it loves.

Gardens are certainly the places where we can begin to tie nature down to’ some precious instance’ of a single plant. I certainly saw the columbine as I have never seen it before, in that its special qualities and its arrangement of five petalled dove-like shapes were revealed to me. But alongside the single plant there was such rich confusion, an abandonement, deftly designed yet constrained by a past master gardener. At Hestercombe it was the presence of artist gardener Gertrude Jeckyll who so often looked to J.W.Turner for her inspiration in bringing plants, their colours and forms, together.

A detail from a limestone wall


It was nearly six before I had to drag myself away from Hestercombe and take the motorway down into Devon to Dartington, another magical place in which a significant  garden has been such a catalyst for artistic endeavour, and about which I hope to write in the near future. I have no hesitation though in sharing this quote that I discovered only this week. It sums up for me the essence of Dartington’s unique spirit that, despite so many changes recently to its institutional purpose, still seemed on that glorious day I visited it in early May to be in place. This is from Edward Hyams, The English Garden.

“This is the kind of garden with which it is possible that today’s and tomorrow’s Institutions, industrial, administrative, educational, even residential, could well surround   themselves. It provides recreation not just for one man or one family but for a working   community of people very much dans le siècle. In gardens like those at Dartington Hall the traditions of the great English gardens will, if at all, find their continuance.”

Back in the studio the following week I had the pleasure of an unplanned afternoon with my daughter Meg. I am a thoroughly bad parent because when my children have those days when they feel poor, and school is a sad and uncomfortable burden, I let them stay at home, and then later on I encourage them to make something of the day . . . and we do something together. It may be a walk in Yorkshire Sculpture Park, or a few serious games of Go, some adventurous cooking even. But last week I brought Meg up to my studio and said ‘Right, I’m going to teach you to weave’. And I did, and it was not only such fun, but I also learnt so much because it helped reinforce the experience I’d had in January of a revision day in Cumbria. This had been with the weaver who first introduced me to this wonderful craft. Laura Rosenzweig. Of course Meg and I didn’t weave in one afternoon, we got as far as winding a warp. But it was the right starting point to a series of after-school sessions that followed. These have culminated in a loom dressed and ready for Meg to create a scarf for one of her BTEC Art final outcomes. Of course, it won’t surprise you to learn that she accomplished everything with that consummate ease her father so sadly lacks. Chain a warp, no problem. I showed her once; she did it straight away, and then several times more. When I think how I struggled with that . . .

Meg weaving on a piece of cardboard


Meg winding a warp


She had no trouble choosing yarns and colours, very H & M I thought, but interesting. Then I got her to do a few experiments on a card putting these yarns together, even weaving them together using a slotted card approach to ‘wind’ a simple warp. She managed the cross in the hand pretty well to enable her to warp the American way – front to back. Although I have learnt to do it in the European fashion back to front (with a raddle), when working with chunky yarns it feels more natural to me to do it this way.  

Meg picking of the ends from the cross and threading through the reed


The red nails again! - Meg heddling


I’ve not had a lot of time for my floor loom recently so this adventure with Meg has cheered me up no end. It made me realise that I did understand quite a lot really and could put the basics across with confidence. The warp we put on my Toika is, I have to say, one of the best I’ve managed on this loom.

Meg putting in the header


Just when I thought I’d finished dealing with this paper on Fifteen Images for the new journal Craft Research back comes yet another few pages of comments and requests for further alterations, this time from the journal’s editors. Of course this is quite usual, but time is so short for such things right now and the comments required much serious rewriting. In the process of providing a secure theoretical framework for our research I found myself dealing with the differences of how we listen to music and how we look at the visual image. Thankfully I had two books on my shelves that discuss the writings of Paul Klee on reception in both music and art. Klee was in a unique position to do this being both painter and musician. My friend Marian, a fine painter, gave me a beautiful book for Christmas called Painting Music by Hajo Duchting. This illustrates just how deeply Klee considered these two very distinct art forms. For further theoretic ammunition I was able to get consult Anton Eherenzweig’s The Hidden Order of Art. This has a whole chapter devoted to The Two Kinds of Attention – that is attention to the ‘figure’ and attention to the ‘background’, and it explores this phenomenon in painting and music. Some time ago I mentioned this book to Peg (Talking About Weaving) and I know it became a touchstone for all kinds of creative thoughts. It used to be on every art student’s reading list, but seems to have fallen out of favour in recent years. Theory in Art seems  to have been marginalised (eclipsed?) by Cultural Studies. Am I talking through my hat?

I’m planning to spend two days at the end of next month in London, specifically visiting the Exhibition of Quilts at the V & A. I have an in-progress musical project with quilting  called Chorales and Quilts, of which more another time. But as a surprise upbeat to both I was given for my recent birthday Diana Boston’s book on her mother’s quilting: The Patchworks of Lucy Boston.

Diana Boston's book on her Mother's patchwork


Well, at a stroke we are back to gardens, because, if you know your children’s literature Lucy Boston created her Green Knowe books set in the mediaeval house she restored and the garden she adored and planted with great skill.Old roses were her ‘thing’ and I remember being shown some of great antiquity (from Roman times I think like Rosa Mundi) when I visited the house to give a recital in her extraordinary music room. I could (and perhaps should) write about my experience of that afternoon and evening. I’ve often bored my friends with the tale, but Green Knowe was everything and more that the books described, and to sit down to tea with Lucy Boston, well . . .

The music room at Green Knowe where I performed with soprano Amy Wickens in 1984


Diana Boston now lives at Green Knowe at Hemingford Grey just outside Cambridge. You can visit by appointment, and for me it remains a place of pilgrimage. I take my special friends there who know and love the books. Just as I love Gallico’s Snow Goose (beautifully and imaginatively dramatised last week on BBC Radio 4) so I love the Green Knowe books, definitely books about children (and a very old person – a kind of female Merlin) for adults.

Garden flowers by my studio window


It was the loveliest of gifts that I know I shall treasure and enjoy so much. With it I also received a bunch of garden flowers (including some columbine!).

I don’t quite know where my suddenly rich experience of gardens will go, but for now it has become the focus of some reading and listening. I’m reading John Dixon Hunt’s The Afterlife of Gardens (all about the reception of gardens, what the viewer experiences) and I’m rediscovering the music of Toru Takemitsu.

I talked in my last blog about my attempts to think of the garden as a metaphor for musical structure, well for Takemitsu that became possible, partly I think because of the very special nature and traditions of the Japanese garden, which so much of his music celebrates:

“I can imagine a garden superimposed over the image of an orchestra. A garden is composed of various different elements and sophisticated details that converge to form a harmonious whole. Each element does not exert its individuality, but achieves a state of anonymity – and that is the kind of music that I would like to create.”

In the 1970s he began to take an increased interest in the traditional Japanese garden and this was reflected in works such as In an Autumn Garden for gagaku orchestra (1973), and A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden for orchestra (1977.

. . . from an orchestral score by Takemitsu


I find Takemitsu’s music very seductive, but I have still to find a way to listen to it with the kind of devotion I think it may deserve. If you can only listen to one work by this composer a work for solo piano called Rain Tree Sketch II—In Memoriam Olivier Messiaen (1992) would be my choice. Rain falling on a garden . . . well just writing that phrase is like a poem in itself.



One Response to “Teaching Meg to weave and other delights”

  1. Monique Comte Says:

    Paul Klee has been a great source of inspiration for many painters, especially me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: