A new exhibition in Edinburgh celebrates the centenary of the Dovecot tapestry weavers.
The idea of hanging your history on the wall started well before 1066, but the Bayeux Tapestry not only made the news for England but still fashions our interpretation of the history of Norman Conquest.
Technically speaking it’s not tapestry but embroidery but we won’t let that spoil things. The word comes from the Norman French tapis itself derived from the original Greek, meaning carpet. And the difference is that tapestry is woven on a loom with threads called warps (lengthways) and welts (widthways).
It became fashionable in medieval Europe for lords to demonstrate their wealth, piety or hunting exploits. They were also portable – handy if revolting peasants occasionally forced you to up sticks.
By the 20th century, tapestries were appearing in board rooms and public buildings as companies, colleges and libraries sought visual representation of their history and heritage. Much of this emanated from William Morris’s workshop at Merton Abbey. Merton also provided Dovecot’s first weavers when it set up at Corstorphine in the west of Edinburgh under the patronage of the Marquess of Bute. John Glassbrook and Gordon Berry joined up for World War One and, like so many others, never came back.
So how do you celebrate 100 years of tapestry weaving? Get something on the walls for an exhibition – preferably the best examples from around the world.
And that’s what Dovecot has done together with a party or two and a sumptuous history by art historian Elizabeth Cumming. Tapestry can simply involve weaving from a photographic image but the Dovecot has always favoured close collaboration between weavers and artists from other disciplines.
Like David Hockney, Henry Moore, Eduardo Paolozzi, John Bellany and Cecil Beaton. And singers and musicians for a world premiere production to celebrate the centenary by Sandy McCall Smith and Tom Cunningham which takes to the weaving floor from this weekend.
Dovecot’s corporate client list stretches from St Catherine’s in Oxford to PepsiCo’s HQ in New York which features Frank Stella’s Had Gadya tapestries. Closer to home in the St James Centre (the otherwise notorious intrusion on Edinburgh’s skyline) you can see a John Lewis commission above the escalator into the centre from men’s clothing. And for those who want to see more than 50 Shades of Grey there is Chris Clyne’s corset, head piece and shoes – all in tapestry.
And yes, Dovecot has often hung on a thread, faced looming crises, and been in deep water but has got weaving to flourish in its latest home – the old Infirmary Street baths, under the direction of David Weir (aka ‘Wheels’ Weir to his cycling compadres in Drem).
It has also shown the celebrated Prestonpans Tapestry in its full glory – depicting almost the last dynastic battle fought on British soil. It’s best seen hanging out but you can also view it online here.
And with the latest project – weaving the William Wallace letters for the National Records of Scotland – it looks like Dovecot will be here in another 100 years.