Edinburgh Art Festival: Artists' Tapestries at Dovecot

Florence Waters, The Daily Telegraph, August 7, 2012

Remarkably little has changed at Britain's oldest surviving tapestry studio in the century since it was founded. Two world wars, more than 800 tapestries, and a digital revolution later, the thread is still unravelling in Edinburgh's Dovecot Studios.

Today, five weavers inhabit an almost identical space to that occupied by the six young men who manned the workshop in 1912. They share the same materials, the same habitual routine, the same respect for their materials and the smae ability to resist a primal urge to snuggle up against the soft pointillist blur of yarns that line the walls.

These days, the sight of the weavers' feather–light hands in action is a little more exotic than it used to be, which is no doubt why the workshop is included as one of the exhibits in Dovecot's centenary exhibition this summer. For the first time, the studio is bringing together some of the tapestries from their collaborations with artists including designs by Eduardo Paolozzi, Jean Dubuffet, Frank Stella and Peter Blake.

Dovecot is more than a workplace. It's a community bordering on the familial. For the staff, this exhibition is a momentous event. The result of three years of research, it represents an opportunity to stick a pin into a myth that has ballooned ever since tapestry's medieval heyday.

My own prejudice is exposed when I ask the show's curator Dr. Elizabeth Cumming, "What is it that makes a good weaver? Patience?"

Her answer, "intellectual enterprise", suggests that tapestry has more akin with sculpting or painting than many assume. Weaving has historically been a predominantly male world: Dovecot didn't employ its first woman weaver until 1964.

"Misconceptions about tapestry abound," says Dovecot's current director, David Weir, but he thinks the studio's biggest battle lies in transforming current attitudes towards visual arts. "The valuing of the hand and the heart in the handmade will remain challenging in our technologically driven world," he says.

To illustrate his point about the weavers' sensitivity to our culture's mislaid appreciation of the labour of love, he recounts a story about David Hockney who, in the late Sixties, dropped into the studio to observe progress on his first tapestry.

"A line which had only taken him two minutes to draw had taken the team three weeks to weave. When he pointed this out to the weavers, there followed, well, an uncomfortable silence."

Technology has presented a more literal challenge to the studio's survival. Grayson Perry is among artists whose Comical: a detail from Paolozzi's 'Whitworth Tapestry' (1967) tapestries are mass–produced relatively cheaply on mechanical Jacquard looms in Belgium. The only reason hand–weaving has survived at Dovecot, it seems, is that their weavers are the only ones with access to a century–old inventory of trade secrets.

"We think of it as collaboration. Artists are masters of their own medium, so when they come here they're dealing with a different set of considerations," says weaver Jonathan Cleaver. "Weaving becomes meaningful when you bring something out of the design that couldn't have been expressed in any other medium."

Master weaver David Cochrane designs his own tapestries, tackling complex natural patterns such as Water Surface, a 6ft study in more than 70 shades of blue that shows the sparkling effect of a light breeze and sunlight dancing over the sea.

The story that emerges in the centenary exhibition is that of tapestry's adaptation to modernism from its foundations in the Arts and Crafts movement's romance with the medieval workshop. Traditional hunting scenes were no longer fashionable after the wars, but artists such as Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland took an interest in sending designs to Dovecot.

As you move through the century, the weave adopts a freer and more expressive vocabulary. The most radical change came in the Sixties, says Cumming, when weavers turned from the back of the loom to the front. "Instead of seeing their weaving through a mirror image, they were making decisions intuitively, which magnified their powers of interpretation."

American Abstract Expressionists such as Robert Motherwell, and major luxury brands including Rolls–Royce, began to work with the studio during some short–lived boom years. A few large–scale commissions, including two tapestries for the British Library, kept the studio afloat in the following decades, but in 2000 the studio had to be bailed out by arts patron Alastair Salvesen. That's when Weir, a former lawyer who wears a screen–print hankie springing from his suit pocket, was called in to help revive the struggling business. As part of the change, in 2008, the studio moved from its remote residence on the Isle of Bute to a former Victorian swimming baths in central Edinburgh. "It was a matter of saving the art form from extinction," says Weir.

The tapestry market is looking up too. In May a piece by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui sold for more than half a million pounds at Bonhams. It's too early to predict if this will have an impact on Dovecot (where current prices range between £1,000 and £70,000).

Even so, it seems their tapestries are here to stay. "Only once have we had a client who wasn't pleased with their commission," says Weir. "When the grim day came to burn it, the flames refused to take off. Turns out they're almost impossible to destroy. Sort of – yes – immortal."

'Weaving the Century' is at Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh (dovecotstudios.com) until Oct 7. Edinburgh Art Festival runs until Sept 2 (edinburghartfestival.com)