Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Daniel in the lion's den.

Stitched by Tom Hickman.

When I look at the stitching work I have achieved over two days it strikes me that a machine could have done it in a matter of seconds, given the right program with the corresponding image it could have stitched a perfect leopard far better than I could ever hope to achieve with my failing eyesight and fumbling fingers. So why do we bother doing anything by hand, what is it about the human hand, that human touch that values the handmade above the machine made?
Ever since man stood on two legs he’s been looking for a walking stick to make life easier; when he turned from tanning the hide to shearing the fleece it wasn’t long before he invented a machine to weave. Almost forty years ago I purchased at auction for the princely sum of seventy eight pounds five piece of framed embroidery, amongst them were two 19th century samplers, one early 18th century sampler, a religious embroidery on silk and a the framed front of a silk waistcoat encrusted with the finest of embroidery. On the backing paper of this frame was a text that stated this was the waistcoat of Sir Walter Raleigh. I sold it that same week for thirty eight pounds and since having studied work from this period am now convinced that someone got a bargain. Today it is hard for us to imagine how the human hand could have created certain pieces when spectacles were unknown and illumination was by candles or daylight.
During the heyday of stump-work a glass bowl similar to a goldfish bowl was placed on an adjustable wooden stand between the candle and the work so as to focus the available light.
For nearly three days I sat and unpicking an old remnant of Harris Tweed to get just the right tone of peach thread and reusing it for the leopard’s pelt. I overworked this with black and white to create those spots and watched the menacing image come to life.

According to The Bible Darius the King of Persia cast Daniel into the lion’s den but I decided right from the start to liven that image up to include a variety of big cat species.
The first rough composition sketch put a classical almost sculpted male lion in the centre foreground with the somewhat worried looking Daniel off to the left surrounded by cats, while top right a guardian angel floats unseen by the King who has come to inspect the fate of Daniel in his overnight accommodation. Even though the drawing onto the canvas is kept to a guide line minimum there is still a real sense of magic.
I’m often told that I stitch like I paint and that maybe so when considering mixing of colours and the use of contrast but wool certainly does not behave like paint and I find the slow progress is more like slow motion drawing that gives me the time to more easily access my inbuilt library of information.
I started stitching Daniel in the lion’s den in Western Australia, continuing in France and finally completing it during the summer months in the Outer Hebrides where I could source a more complete range of darker shades from my stock of Harris Tweed bobbins. To get enough detail and expression in the human face stitched in about a square inch is often a matter of chance but I was pleased to have achieved a degree of terror on Daniel’s face. 
As the separate pieces are assembled and stuffed with cotton wool the lay out of the picture changed and in order that the cats were well spaced I introduced an old tree for them to climb on, while pillared architecture was introduced to support the ceiling of the subterranean den and give the image more depth.

While waiting for my connecting flight at Doha airport the entire Qatar Airways on-board crew formed a half circle of admirers around me as I stitched. There is a fascination with textiles across all cultures and as soon as they had moved on two elderly Japanese women replaced them and even with very limited language I was able to explain how the raised work was done. It is very rewarding to be seen as someone special who is not playing on their I-pad but actually creating something with their own hands.
On a recent visit to a textile shop I spotted some sowing machines and their ability to stitch had been well illustrated by a small piece of perfect embroidery showing a beautiful young woman wearing a large hat full of flowers, alongside this was a second identical piece all done with a simple computer program and no human input. The age of the machines is with us but in the field of art it’s that hand-eye coordination via the brain that creates charm and guarantees that the handmade will always be superior to the machine simply because it is human.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Peaceable Kingdom and the loss of a thimble..

This was going to be fun as the image was to contain mainly animals in the foreground and my mind could run free as to what I might envisage as an idyllic peaceable kingdom. The image comes from the book of Isaiah chapter 11 and the verse most commonly and incorrectly known as “the lion will lie down with the lamb” is actually “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child will put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the water cover the sea.” This wonderful biblical image depicts a most bazaar scenario that illustrates the impossibility throughout history and even more so today of achieving a kingdom at peace. I associate this title with the na├»ve American artist Edward Hicks who around 1835 produced at least two oil paintings of The Peaceable Kingdom. He used the biblical text to produce a foreground of the animals mentioned while the historical event of Penn’s Treaty with the Indians is pushed to the background and seem just as unlikely to achieve peace as the juxtaposition of child and animals. Edward Hicks was a devout Quaker and saw Penn’s “holy experiment” which resulted in the establishment of religious freedom and self government in the colony of Pennsylvania as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s Old Testament prophecy.
In my drawing up of this scene I have tried to capture some of Hicks’s vision of the ideal made real in the distinctive portrayal of the animals but to make sure that in these days of aspirations of independence I used the archetypal symbol of the Highland cow representing Scotland and supporting an equally Scottish golden eagle on its horns. The innocence of this ideal is represented by the central joyous dancing child and it was here that I started my stitching. The flesh tones were achieved using four different coloured wool's and it is the beauty of the yarn used in the manufacture of Harris Tweed that it is dyed before being blended and spun so the colour is never solid so allows me to create a graduation of colour that would be impossible using ordinary knitting wool's. From these subtle flesh tones I then turned to the vivid yellows and oranges of the leopard which is then over-stitched with black outlines and further filled with white and a rich rusty red spot. By the end of an 8 hour stitching day my right thumb is beginning to feel tender from the pressure of forcing the needle through several layers of stitched wool. 

There is a certain sense of urgency, even impatience when starting a major work to put in as much work as possible so as to see how the image in my head appears when transformed into wool. The raised stump-work effect is further complicated when two animals which require padding are set one in front of another and touching. In some cases it is better to stitch the two animals together where they touch as must be the case with the leopard and the goat. The days are long this far north and with an unseasonable cool summer I find myself sitting and stitching full of excitement to be creating my peaceable kingdom.

The foreground animals soon took shape as goat sat tucked in behind leopard and tight curled lamb comfortably before the wolf. The general appearance looked well balanced on paper but I was still unsure about what sort of bear it might be and am now drawn to perhaps a polar bear which would help to keep the general light feel. The large horned ox is very cheerful in bright oranges behind the child and the massive eagle with outspread protective wings should give a powerful feeling of the Kingdom being safe as well as at peace.

22nd July and just passed the hundred hours of stitching the Peaceable Kingdom. There is a certain obsessive compulsive element to the work much like that of a jigsaw puzzle that is hard to leave alone when the image is beginning to take shape, particularly if like me you prefer those puzzles where the finished picture does not appear on the front of the box. With most of the animals in place the background can begin and this is where usually it remains most fluid and free style. Changes from the original drawing are frequent and as the picture develops I can already see that to the right there will be at least one tree to help create the vista through to the distant view of the mountain on the left and that will help to maintain balance. It is now that the complexity of the image really starts and the choice of colour combinations and contrast allow each animal and object to find its place within the overall picture. 
On seemingly very rare occasions this summer I’ve been able to sit outside and enjoy the clarity of a Hebridean summers day.
Already the 20th of August the month has flown by with major works on the house but still I manage a couple of quiet hours stitching morning and evening. Having lit the fire I needed to put a bit more peat in the small stove but didn’t think to remove my thimble so much has it become a part of me. Having loaded the fire I returned to my needlework only to find my thimble had gone, I glanced around and then I realised it must have dropped from my finger as I pushed the blocks of peat in place. Opening the door resulted in clouds of smoke and no sign of a thimble and more frantic searching left me only with the confirmation that it had gone in the fire. If it had been plastic then I would have smelt the result but it was ivory and from my great aunt Flo’s sewing box and an avalanche of sadness descended with the thought of all the hours of work it had seen over the years. The "Peaceable Kingdom" will forever be linked in my mind to the final work of that ivory thimble.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Adam and Eve.

 My first stitching on the theme of Adam and Eve was based very much on the traditional sampler layout but now I wanted to make an image more from my own imagination that kept the same roots of a central tree of knowledge and snake but in which the figures of Adam and Eve were treated very differently. 
This was to show Adam and Eve their body’s snake-like entwined having had their first nibble of the fruit. In the tree many other forms of life are present and either are looking at the recumbent naked bodies or contemplating taking a bite of the nearest fruit. There is a general sense of curiosity or perhaps shock in the case of the swan that helps to focus attention on Adam and Eve. 
The work started during my mid-winter hibernation over in Brittany where I loaded up the wood burning stove each morning and kept the shutters closed against days of seemingly endless rain. Having as usual worked the image more or less out on paper I started the individual animals and mass of fruit. The two intertwined naked figures posed the greatest challenge as to how to obtain the three dimensional quality and a certain sense of modesty as well as to make it quite clear just what tasting the fruits of life meant. 
The serpent I chose was a python which allowed me to reproduce the fabulous patterns while the tree of knowledge with its mass of fruit helped to convey a certain sense of confusion within the image. Although God is out of the picture it is clear that he is on his way and none too pleased.

I have found that many people seeing this work for the first time will ask if they can touch it and I think that is a normal response to both subject matter in the case of animals and wool itself being a natural material that has been with us from day one. It is hard to imagine anyone wanting to touch such an image if it was executed in plastic and I find it shocking that we as human beings have become so closely wed to plastic simply because it is cheap, giving up all rational thought as to whether it is the appropriate material to be using for the job. We give our babies as their first tactile experience plastic to play with. Looking back to my own childhood I can remember only a hand full of toys and we made do with our imagination to transform a few twigs and baler twine into a fortress capable of keeping all manner of evil at bay. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

It takes time.

It takes time.
No one can know what our allotted time might be, some may have a rough idea what time is left, but the importance of time is what we choose to do with it. Today time is often seen as a currency, where the young are rich and the old are poor, however society’s demands and the pace of life leave many in their later years to wonder what it was all about while the pressures on the young to achieve often leaves them with little or no free time. Life is more than accumulating the symbols of success. Man has over the past century done the utmost to invent ways of saving time from doing the mundane or laborious. The washing machine and birth control liberated women so that now they can become as time poor as men. With two earning that means more to tax as well as increased spending power, and what will we buy with that extra cash? I would always advise converting that currency into time. If today having the time to do what you want is seen as a luxury then I am indeed fortunate, but time alone is of little use if you don’t know what to do with it. I have seldom been troubled by boredom as I’ve always seen that as a natural route to creativity. In those efforts to save time the tools of the trade have been abandoned for mechanical automation and handmade has become a thing of the past and yet the handmade still holds a charm that is human and we are more than ever fascinated by what the hand eye coordination is capable of.
The first time I saw a 17th century box covered with stump work I was transfixed by the fact that it had been executed by a girl of only 11 years and I marveled at just how impossible that seemed. One would certainly need very good eye sight for such fine work but also the time to do it. If schooling was not an option and the family was sufficiently rich then sowing was seen as a suitable gentile pastime before marriage and with time on ones hands creative excellence can flourish. Stump work is uniquely found in relatively wealthy households and was not something that would have been purchased or mass produced as with tapestry hangings.
While with age I become time poor so I find myself with more freedom to choose what I do with it. I have no patience when waiting at the supermarket checkout but when it comes to the creative I have it in abundance. After many years in the antique trade I realized I would never be able to afford to purchase an example of stump work but I could have a go at finding out just what it entailed to stitch such work and I soon discovered that all it takes is time.
My aim in exhibiting this stump work is to emphasize that in our computer generated age and mechanization the human hand is still capable of producing beauty.      

The exhibition at the Victoria Gallery in Bath has taken three years to put together and runs from Feb 25th to May 10th 2017. The choice of a biblical theme seemed quite natural given its place in the history of needlework although I myself have no religious belief. The display boxes when open show the relevant text from the bible both in English and Gaelic. The work is relatively easy to transport, and when travelling I often find myself stitching in public on train boat or plane and the reaction of people without exception is fascination and amazement.
I am working at present on a 17th century style box covered in stump work tapestry which I have estimated will take about six months to complete and will continue this work during the exhibition. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Sumptuous stump work.

Sumptuous stump work.
My first encounter with the art of needlework was with my great aunt Flo who lived along with three other aunts in the top floor flat of my grandparents’ house. She had been a court dress maker but now in retirement stitched wonderful silk work pictures and dressed dolls for charity raffles. On our arrival at my grandparents I would be whisked off by Aunt Flo at the earliest opportunity to show me her latest creations. A large white painted Edwardian chest of drawers contained all her fabric offcuts and making materials. As she open each drawer the ever familiar scent of lavender billowed out but it was in the bottom drawer that the real treasure lay, wrapped in tissue paper was the latest finished doll dressed in the most intricate and heavily petticoated costume, every item of which could be removed with the smallest of buttons. On her bed nestled in lace cushions was her old wooden doll which I still treasure along with one of her little silk pictures.
During my days as an antique dealer I admired the extra ordinary skill and beauty of 17th century stump work but could never afford it. Only after five years of being up on the isle of Lewis did I decide to try sowing with yarn left over from some of our six local Harris Tweed weavers. After several years of collecting discarded bobbins of wool from the local weavers and charity shops I started my first picture and was delighted to find friends describing it as painting with wool. The dying process and mixing of wools before spinning for tweed yarn is such that the wool does not have a solid uniform colour and so lends itself well to pictorial work. Needlework is by its nature slow and whereas I could paint a picture in a matter of days stitching one takes me months. Experimenting with stump work (the padding out in order to raise areas of the picture) brought another dimension and depth to the images as I started on a series of six tapestries inspired by animals in the bible. The work took three years to complete and as such remains work to be seen rather than sold. Each image carries with it a story of its creation during the months they took to evolve. They were of a size that proved easily transportable and so I worked on them wherever I happened to be, in Western Australia, Brittany, Cornwall or the Outer Hebrides. So given that they take so long to stitch for me they are also images that capture my time. I can see a tiger that I worked on during a long haul flight to Perth and remember the young man sitting next to me enthralled by the intricacy of the work. Camping on the island of Bernara a weather beaten elderly shepherd wandered across the machair intrigued to discover me stitching a blackface sheep. While waiting to catch a homeward flight at Doha airport the entire cabin crew gathered round as I sat cross legged on the floor stitching the background of Daniel in the Lion’s den. Then in the midst of a Breton winter there are countless hours sat under an angle poise lamp with the roaring warmth of the wood burning stove, or early summer mornings stitching at the bedroom window of the croft house on the isle of Lewis; the neighbour walking his two sheep dogs, the school bus passes while others head off to work in Stornoway.
After three months working the image is well and truly imprinted so much so that I have to make a conscious effort to eradicate it from my vision I order to proceed with other work. The final of the six biblical stump work images was finished at the end of this summer and now seems a fitting season’s greeting card.

More often than not I already have in mind the next project however I try to make myself take a break between major works, however this latest project has been brewing in the back of my mind for the past three years, to make a stump work casket in the 17th century manner. I estimate this will take a full six months and will incorporate images of birds inspired by Audubon’s birds of America. The box is made and I’ve started work on the two side panels and am loving the sumptuousness of the work.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Time and the passing of it.

After a long absence I've found a way of signing in once again to my old blog. Therefore a quick update seems in order before going into more detail at a later date. 
Apple gathering is over the best of the unblemished neatly placed in the cool of the old Breton food cupboard; a time of year I love when the qualities of colour and light are at their best, and the slower burning sun rises over a riotous frosty autumn. Longer evenings behind shuttered windows give me time to reflect on my labours during 2016 both in Brittany and the Outer Hebrides. It’s been ten years since I started renovating my croft house on the north east shores of the isle of Lewis and this year was a landmark as my long awaited studio took shape. I’ve had an indoor place to work in France for many years but my studio is more often than not wherever I happened to be; back of the car, the kitchen table or en plein air, so the idea of having a designated space for all my artistic efforts meant that shed at the bottom of the garden would be a serious multipurpose building with woodwork workshop space, cosy fireside stitching and a light airy painting area. Last year I had the good fortune to find a builder in the village. Steve proved to be an expert in every area of conservation as well as modern building construction when during the summer of 2015 we ripped out the entire ground floor of the house to damp proof and insulate. With a combined age of 125 years we worked well together and from the end of July when the foundations went in we managed to build my 56 square meters of tin and larch clad studio. Over this winter Steve continues on with insulation and dry lining and next spring I hope to move in.
When in Scotland I talk of selling up in France but as soon as I return to Brittany the idea of selling up from this house that has been home for the past twenty five years seems a mountain that I simply can’t summon the energy to climb. When I see what has befallen the house I sold in Huelgoat and how all that I did has been destroyed and replaced with today’s bland modern look I realise that if my own home here in Lezele was to undergo the same disastrous transformation I could not return, not even to see my friends. So I will retain my foothold in Brittany for the foreseeable future while I try and rationalise its contents moving those things that I require in my northern studio while keeping open the opportunity to profit from the autumnal harvest of walnuts, chestnut, hazelnuts, apples and fungi.
I have since my days as an antique dealer been accused of living in a museum and here in my late seventeenth century Breton farm house I have known people become seriously uncomfortable with its dark interior. Only during the coldest days of winter do I sleep in the old lit clos facing the fire, preferring the more conventional later 19th century carved walnut bed in the room above; all my furniture has seen between 150 and 350 years of use. My day starts with green tea from an early 19th century teapot, the blue and white print depicting an estuary scene, in the foreground a rural farmyard were a woman carries two buckets hanging form a yolk full of slops to feed the pigs, horses stand ready to be hitched up to the old cart and a ladder is propped against the gable end of the thatched farmhouse presumably to recover eggs from the attached wooden dovecot. In the distance two figures look out across the estuary to a strange world (much as I do today) where all the buildings are castellated and an oversized obelisk seems to serve little purpose. You’d be hard pressed to find anything new in my home; I’m constantly bemused by latest must have irrational objects that the outside world thinks essential and in that respect I am much like the people of St Kilda who when given chamber pots for their new 19th century homes used them for their porridge, or the islanders who when a new telephone box was installed started using it immediately even though there was no telephone inside; there was however a very good little mirror and few possessed such a luxury. The new holds little interest for me as it carries with it no history and I prefer to be surrounded by stories of times past rather than be confused by present day events. I find it comforting to have reached an age when it is now my turn to use the family silver, to have object around me that hold memories from generations past as well as from within my own living memory.
There was a time when I posted regularly on face book concerning my latest artistic creations but after seeing some crass comment receiving over seventy likes while my own art work had managed only 27 in three years I decided to halt all contact. Since then I have had not a single enquiry from f.b.friends into my well-being and can only presume they were either not that interested or thought me already dead. Right now I’m going through a period of sublime silence as radio 4 long wave carries mostly cricket coverage from India. The last television I saw in this house was when the world trade centre collapsed and last winter I finally got round to cutting down and burning the disused telephone post that stood tight against the gable end. I often hear people talking heroically of going a full day without consulting their smartphone, and yet they look at me with disbelief when I tell them I don’t have one, not even a land line. They couldn’t tell me straight out I know, but I am surely their fearless hero, just as the winner of the race is cheered across the finishing line so I am admired for still sitting stubbornly on that same line that doubles as the start.
Some may recall that for the past three years I have concentrated my artistic efforts to that of stitching and on February 25th 2017 for those who want to see it for real I will be holding an exhibition of my stump work tapestry at the Victoria Gallery in Bath. It runs until May 10th and I hope to be around for much of that time, although a fine spell of weather in early April could see me dash north to cut peat.
When people see these needlework pieces they are immediately impressed with the amount of time (around three months) each represents, and that I who has been known to do a runner leaving everything at the supermarket checkout queue possessed such patience when it comes to slow process of painting with wool. Today we have machines to remove life’s drudgery and logically should have much more time available to create than in centuries past. However time is money in the modern world when even your own free time becomes something that someone else can profit from. Out on the islands Sunday is still respected, no shops open and therefore more likely to be truly free time.
I see that I have spoken mainly of time and I am happy that I am still here to note the passing of it although increasingly concerned with the speed at which it passes. For those who still take note of Christmas I hope yours is a joyous one and for the few of us who steadfastly refuse to have anything to do with it beyond burning the yuletide log I lift my alcohol free glass……. Cheers and good health.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Would you Adam and Eve it.

Adam the first man and progenitor of the human race, Eve wife of Adam and representative of the female sex in Eden a garden where they lived according to the Creation story of Genesis 2; a place of delight; a paradise.
Here we have it, the possibility for each and every one of us to conjure up the picture of a perfect world where beauty and harmony abounds and tranquillity rules over all living things and I wonder just how long it would take for the rest of humanity to destroy that dream. The apples would be left to rot for surely only peasants and those from Eastern European countries pick fruit. Modern man would have correctly surmised that within and beneath the garden there was much he could exploit in order to pay those fruit picker a minimum wage and still leave plenty to embellish the dull winter months with a few plastic flowers of his own design.
For many centuries the pictorial representation of Adam and Eve has been a particular favourite amongst those working a needle. A description of a manor house in King John’s time states that in the corner of a certain apartment stood a bed, the tapestry of which was enwrought with gaudy colours representing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The fifteenth century poet H. Bradshaw describing the tapestry in the Abbey of Ely wrote:-
“The storye of Adam there was goodly wrought
And of his wyfe Eve, bytwene them the serpent”
This tiny early 18th century sampler became my starting point and it seemed almost inevitable that I should turn to that familiar imagery for my next needlework picture. The classical central tree of knowledge divides the evil temptress from the frail contemptible Adam while the devilish serpent coils around the trunk possessively looking to broker a deal. 
Everything floating and in need of a cover up.

Things starting to get grounded.

I left Eve without hair until the background work was complete.

The finished wrk ready to frame

Embroidering the nude figures on a small scale has always proved difficult and resulted in the subject treated for the most part from the point of view of the animals to be introduced rather than our first parents. During the 18th century the subject was again popular in samplers done by children where the charming draughtsmanship of the human figure was at its most primitive. I decided to remain with the technique of stump-work but to use painted fabric to emphasize the shocking nature of that carnal knowledge. Those who saw the work in its infancy were eager that I didn’t delay in applying fig leaves and I was pleased that the startling contrast between the stitched covered wool surface and the naked flesh remained in the finished
picture. Other procreating forms of life that enjoy chomping into a good juicy apple are represented in raised work from mice and birds to insects and snails. In fact all looks very colourful and rosy in the garden however that procreating has as yet born no fruit and the begetting has yet to wipe the smile from the face of the sun or drive God and me to go for a “lets try again” and the next needlework image.