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THE LEATHERSELLERS’ TAPESTRY


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Introduction DAVID SANTA-OLALLA DSO MC, CLERK TO THE LEATHERSELLERS’ COMPANY

It was in early 2010 that I first heard Eric Parry, the appointed architect for the new Leathersellers’ Hall, mention his wish for the Company to commission a modern tapestry as the central feature of the dining hall. However, the tapestry was not part of the main project so it was not until 2012 that I began to think about how we might go about its commissioning. Eric suggested that we start with selecting an art consultant who would help us through the process of choosing an artist to create the design and then a weaver to create the tapestry. In retrospect, that all sounds very straightforward and, thanks to the guidance of Philomena Davidson, so it proved to be. However, the tapestry sub-committee had never done anything like this before and it appeared to be a hugely daunting project in both scale and cost. By May 2013, we had selected Philomena Davidson, who in turn began to prepare long and short lists of artists which at one end of the spectrum included Grayson Perry and, at the other, young graduates from Central St Martins. Through a process of briefs, workshops and many hours of meetings during late 2013 and 2014, the sub-committee supported by Eric had selected Victoria Crowe and the Dovecot Tapestry Studio, both by coincidence being based in Edinburgh.


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There then followed a period of nearly three years during which, through visits and photographs, we were able to monitor and marvel at what was underway in Edinburgh. The fact that the Company was involved in a major commission of a traditional craft that had sustained both master and apprentice weavers was a source of joy to our members. This sense of satisfaction was only enhanced when the panels began to arrive in our new Hall; it was the vibrancy of the colours, the intricacy of the story and the skill of the weavers which delighted the members. The result was clearly a wonderful partnership between artist and weavers. Over 9,000 hours of labour had produced an amazing tapestry which says so much about the Company, offering hours of conversation, pride and pleasure. March 2017


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The Commissioning Process PHILOMENA DAVIDSON PPRBS RWA HON SWA, THE DAVIDSON ARTS PARTNERSHIP

The Worshipful Company of Leathersellers is one of the ancient Livery Companies of the City of London. Situated at Nos 5-7 St Helen’s Place, the Leathersellers’ new six-storey Livery Hall comprises a contemporary building behind a retained 1920’s façade. An important part of the Leathersellers’ vision for the building was the desire to commission a new tapestry or wall hanging. It was agreed that the commission would form an integral part of architect Eric Parry’s design for a splendid and substantial dining area situated in the lower basement of the building. Eric describes the dining hall as richly finished and immensely tall, providing the level of intimacy required for fine dining within a space imbued with a sense of grandeur and reference to its situation. The floor is dark timber with an inset carpeted central section and the walls are finished with contemporary timber panelling, including perforated panels to allow for the provision of fresh air and acoustic control. The timber panelling provides a datum relating to the intimacy of the dining experience and, above this level, a commissioned artwork frieze of tapestries is mounted on acoustic panels and circles the room on three walls. The Leathersellers’ objective was to find an artist to design and produce a finely crafted and exceptionally beautiful frieze covering the 40 metre length of panelling along the combined East, North and West walls of the room.


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The ‘hole in the ground’. From left to right: excavations showing the Leathersellers’ site and the wall of the mediaeval church of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate; interior view of the elliptical staircase leading down to the dining hall level; the bracing machinery supporting the retained façade of St Helen’s Place, 2013.


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In 2013, the Davidson Arts Partnership was appointed to work with an Advisory Panel of representatives from the Leathersellers and the architect Eric Parry RA to commission a design of the highest quality, illustrating references to the Company and its history and in so doing provide a conversation piece for Livery dinners. The Panel were particularly interested in finding an artist whose design concept involved an innovative application of traditional skills and technologies. An artist’s brief was drawn up and described how any narrative to be applied to the tapestry should be sympathetic to the Leathersellers’ historic context in the building and sit comfortably within the contemporary style of the new Livery Hall. The brief described how the tapestry might soften the wall surface and improve acoustics. It emphasized the need to use materials that can best achieve these objectives. The brief also described how the application of distinctive depths of colour, as well as a design to be easily read from a distance with bold, ambitious motifs, were important requirements. Artists were also encouraged to consider the light source for the tapestry and think about how it might add drama and lend a theatrical effect to the surrounding magic of dining at the Leathersellers’ Hall. After an extensive review of work by a variety of artists, six were contacted and invited to consider the brief. The group of six comprised two young up-and-coming artist designers, three well-established artists of some renown and one artist weaver.


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There were three broad avenues of interest for the group to investigate when reflecting on a possible idea: leather and trade; charity and education; fellowship and the City of London. How each of the six artists might choose to interpret their ideas was assisted by themes or influences arising from the long history of the Company, the redevelopment of their site in St Helen’s Place, as well as advice and guidance given by members of the Advisory Panel. The archivist Jerome Farrell was on hand to introduce artists to historic text and design elements from the archive and to share with them objects from a wonderland of material stored in vaults below ground in St Helen’s Place. Jerome’s knowledgeable assistance was to prove invaluable to the artists. Following on from a group workshop in October 2013, artists submitted short written and illustrated statements showing how they would go about forming their proposals. In November, each artist met with the Advisory Panel on a one to one basis to discuss their proposals in greater detail. Two of the six artists were then selected and invited to expand on their proposals and more closely describe their ideas, materials and method of manufacture of the proposed tapestry. Many meetings and long hours of discussion took place before the Panel came to a final decision. By the end of the year the Advisory Panel invited Victoria Crowe to proceed to the design development stage of the commission programme. Early in 2014 Victoria commenced work on the preparation of a black and white storyboard sketching out how her initial design ideas were distributed around the room. This proved to be a useful test of scale and visual impact of the various motifs. Here Victoria had a chance to adjust elements of her design to sit comfortably within the architectural plans for the dining hall.


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At the same time, the Advisory Panel held meetings with two of the UK’s most important weaving studios: West Dean College in Sussex and the Dovecot Tapestry Studio in Edinburgh. The panel chose to proceed with Dovecot Tapestry Studio and, by March 2014, a discussion had commenced between Victoria Crowe and Master Weaver, Naomi Robertson, to identify a colour palette for the tapestry. The total design covering the North, East and West walls had now been divided into nine manageable lengths (three lengths per wall) to be handwoven by six weavers. The materials chosen were wool, cotton, lurex and linen. Victoria had responded to the history and spirit of the Leathersellers’ Company by designing an inspired, contemporary link to the past. It was clear to the Advisory Panel that her consistently inventive and intuitive approach to the visual movement and rhythm of the composition had come together as a vibrant display of colour and powerful motifs which would float through time around the room. But would the rest of the Livery members think the same? A presentation was made of the fully detailed design to Court members of the Livery in June 2014. Without exception, Members were happy to proceed with the production of the tapestry as designed by Victoria. Forming approximately 52 square metres of coloured motifs illustrating powerful and easily readable references to the Leathersellers’ history, the tapestry design was ready to move on to its manufacturing stage.


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The North wall was the first section of tapestry to be woven and, having taken over 2,000 hours to weave, was delivered to site at the end of 2015. This left the East and West walls of the now completed dining hall with empty panels where the new sections of tapestry would go. The Panel felt that a good idea would be to fill the space with a simple outline of what was to come by way of a cartoon used by weavers as a map to keep their weaving on track. Dovecot Tapestry Studio provided the design for the East and West wall cartoons which were then printed by Service Graphics and installed in April 2016. The tapestry sections for the East and West walls were completed by the weavers in Edinburgh by December 2016. In January 2017, the cartoons were taken down and replaced with six tapestry sections, three for each of the East and West walls. The work was now complete and, for the first time, the splendour of nine sections of tapestry could be seen together in the dining hall. March 2017

Right: The first discussion at Dovecot Tapestry Studio, Edinburgh, between Victoria Crowe and members of the weaving team, in March 2014. The original artwork is laid sequentially on the floor with additional colour samples.


Hunted deer: artwork from the first panel in the history of leather use, inspired by the wall paintings of European Neolithic cave dwellers.


The Artist’s Vision VICTORIA CROWE OBE, DHC, FRSE, MA(RCA), RSA, RSW

The brief for the commission was very exciting but also open ended, with so many directions and exciting possibilities to work with. It was only on the first visit to London when I met the architect, saw the site and visited the archives, that I began to have a visual sense of what I might do. There were key points in that initial experience which lodged in my imagination and which have evolved and appeared three years later in the finished tapestry. The strongest response was when I saw the ‘hole in the ground’, that vast space, façades held apart by bracing machinery and the mediaeval church wall above the deep dark space of the three floor basement. Far below me, I could see the contractors in hard hats moving about on the concrete floor which was to eventually become the dining hall level. This put me in mind of time capsules which are often hidden in the foundations of new buildings: treasuries and depositories; records of present and past knowledge; and hopes for the future. I began to see the dining hall as a place which could echo the Company’s rich history, a place of jewel-like colours, warm and candlelit, in contrast to the elegant daylight beauty of the upper floor which I had seen modelled in Eric Parry’s offices earlier in the day. An equally strong visual impression on looking up from the site was the façade of the Gherkin: that symbol of modern London and the powerful new architecture we have come to associate with the City. However, that was eclipsed by the beauty and sense of endurance of the Roebuck weathervane, shining gold against the blue sky. This symbol of the Leathersellers in powerful juxtaposition to the gigantic architectural mass was a


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fascinating image and it was really at that point that the central image of the North wall was born. Visiting the archive with Ray Coleman and Jerome Farrell was another important influence on the finished design. I began to appreciate the breadth of history behind the Company and I was fascinated by the vellum Charters, although I only saw a photograph of the 1444 Charter on that visit. The colour and illumination of these 15th and 16th century artefacts resonated with my original idea of the dining hall being a place of rich texture and glowing colour. The surface of the tooled bindings of the library collection and the leather vessels, the pale ‘points’ and the calligraphy of early account books all fed into my mind. One brilliant piece of advice which the architect gave me on the first visit was not to worry about technical issues but to ‘go away and dream a dream’. I travelled back to Scotland and began researching the history of the Company more fully. I visited the Scottish Leather Group at Bridge of Weir to experience the process first-hand and to look at modern production techniques. I originally worked on separate images, drawings, sketches and collages in order to get my ideas down on paper. The process of investigating the history of the Company in the city revealed many images which I wanted to use to tell its story within the context of the new Hall. Left: Original artwork for the first Charter and Virgin Mary section. To create richness and vibrancy, many printed, embossed and gilded papers were collaged together and worked over with oil pastel, ink and acrylic.

When I put the drawings together, it became obvious that the North wall with the roebuck against the sky, the glimpse of the Gherkin and the plants used in the dying and curing process of leather making would make a strong focal point. At either end of the wall, I used designs from the remarkable Bermondsey roundels, showing traditional leather working skills which made very good end-stops.


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Above: A reference to the Wardens from the second Charter. Right: Drawings based on the elaborate strapwork embellishments from the accounts book, as originally made by the Elizabethan Clerk, John Hatton.


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Victoria Crowe: The Leathersellers’ Tapestry book sample  

A Sample of Victoria Crowe: The Leathersellers’ Tapestry book - showing pages 1-21 of 72 total pages. Available to pre-order from The Sottis...

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