Photo Tour of Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles

Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles unfortunately had to close earlier than planned on the 17th March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We hope that the following photographs of the exhibition, alongside Assistant Curator, Lotte Crawford’s introductory videos in the previous post, will offer as a second best to visitors who didn’t make it to the exhibition (and a good reminder to those who would have liked to have seen it again).

Alongside the images are some main introductory pieces text, however, the main purpose of this post is to include as many images of the spaces and object as possible.

On arriving at Two Temple Place, visitors would be encouraged to begin the exhibition through the double doors to the Lower Gallery. The object visitors encountered is the Giubba from Bankfield Museum, a magnificent, heavily embroidered overdress from Albania.

This object is part of the introductory section featuring seven objects (or small groups of objects) described by curator, June Hill, as the 'Desert Island Discs' of the collections, showcasing the breadth of the collections and giving visitors a sense of the variety of objects they will encounter throughout the exhibition. 

These seven objects are complimented by three introductory text panels: Women, Collecting  and Textiles.

The twentieth century was a period of significant change, particularly in relation to women’s rights, education, technology, cultural diversity and the arts and crafts. Unbound traces some of these changes through the work of seven women who each engaged with textiles.
All seven are pioneers in their chosen field who have increased understanding of their subject and extended its boundaries. Their influence endures in the material they collected, the initiatives they championed and the knowledge shared. The importance of their work transcends gender, but their gender is also part of its significance.

The exhibition is presented chronologically, beginning in this room with Edith Durham, Louisa Pesel and Olive Matthews. Each became adults in the Victorian period when opportunities for women were constrained. All also benefitted from family wealth that enabled them to pursue their interests, activities which each balanced with periods of time spent caring for parents.
The Library (upstairs) focuses on Muriel Rose and Enid Marx, two pivotal figures of twentieth century craft and design who established careers of international standing as, respectively, a gallerist and maker/designer. Both came to prominence during the inter-war period when professional women, now enfranchised, began to assume independent roles.
Unbound concludes in the Great Hall with Jennifer Harris and Nima Poovaya-Smith, two present-day curators and academics. Both have held influential roles in institutions and shaped thinking since the 1980s: one documenting changing contemporary art practice, the other responding to historic and contemporary cultural diversity in the UK.
Each of these seven individuals is a significant figure, yet none exist in isolation. They also form part of a wider network of women collectors, travellers, practitioners, educators, academics, activists and philanthropists.

The Victorian fascination with collecting laid the foundations for many of our public museums. They in turn, benefitted from the collecting of private individuals whose knowledge and passions spurred them to acquire a wide range of artefacts. Collectors such as those represented in this exhibition.

Taking textiles as a common thread Unbound illustrates the different ways in which objects are acquired and the varied reasons for their collection. Here we have textiles as anthropology, dress, social history, craft, design, art and international culture; objects as cultural signifiers, technical resources, historic artefacts, creative expression and inspiration.
Each collector brings a different perspective. For some it is a profession, for others the consequence of a childhood passion or long-term fascination. The desire to preserve something on the verge of being lost is common to several, as is the urge to represent a culture or record a particular approach. Most of the collectors have gathered and recorded information about the material they acquired. All have themselves been integral to the history of the subject they explored.
In the hundred years covered by Unbound, the process of collecting has itself changed. Contextual understanding, cultural awareness and contemporary relevance have each come to play significant factors in curatorial decisions. Yet the mark of a good collector remains their ability to acquire outstanding material that connects with people across generations, often assuming new forms of relevance as time passes and knowledge deepens. All these collectors have achieved this and it is their stories that this exhibition explores.

Textiles is an umbrella term for a variety of processes and materials: felt, weave, stitch, quilting, knit, lace, dyeing, print; in wool, silk, cotton, linen, raphia and more. The combinations are endless. Some textiles change with every fashion season. Other forms and patterns are passed down from generation to generation. Many carry symbolic meaning that relate to a particular people, place or belief. Unbound represents something of this diversity, with objects from the UK, Europe, Japan and South America that span four hundred years.
Textiles are part of everyday life. This familiarity makes them a powerful form of material culture, particularly in relation to individual and cultural identity. People can connect personally with textiles. It is the stuff we wear, the material we use to furnish our homes and public spaces. The manufacture of textiles is part of our social and industrial history. It has shaped the fabric of our communities and the language we speak.

The century represented by these women collectors has seen great change in textiles as a material culture, especially its evolution as an art and design medium particularly (though not exclusively) with women at its forefront. Art education has played a significant role in this, leading to the emergence in the 1970s of influential courses at art colleges in Manchester, Birmingham and London.

Those same decades have seen textiles play a significant role in collections and community-based responses to cultural diversity, wellbeing and social activism. The universality and accessibility of textiles has made them a rich resource for exploring such issues. These are themes also explored by the earliest collectors in Unbound, reflecting the abiding relevance of textiles as a material culture.

As you move through the introductory section into the rest of the Lower Gallery, you will find the collections of Edith Durham, Louisa Pesel and Olive Matthews. These 3 women were all collecting because of personal passions, and are the earliest of the 7 collectors we’ve showcased – hence why they have been grouped together here.

Edith Durham (1863 –1944)
‘It occurred to me that the vexed question of Balkan politics might be solved by studying the manners and customs of each district.’

In 1900 Edith Durham, aged 37, boarded a ship in Italy and sailed down the Dalmatian coast to Montenegro. Years of caring for her invalid mother had taken a toll and this was the recuperative break her doctor had advised. It was a transformative experience, beginning an involvement with the Balkan people, their culture, history and politics which was to last a lifetime.

Year on year until the outbreak of World War One, Durham returned to the Balkans. Travelling on horseback with a local guide for company, she ventured into the villages and mountains – ‘the land of the living past’. An artist by training, she drew, photographed and made notes on all she observed. She also collected examples of traditional textiles, dress and jewellery. During the ‘grey months’ back in London, Durham taught herself the Serbo-Croatian language, lobbied on behalf of the Balkans (particularly Albania with which she developed a strong affinity) and wrote seven influential books on its history, customs and traditions.

Durham’s travels coincided with a period of intense volatility in the area. She did not stand back. During the Macedonia Uprising (1903), Siege of Scutari (1911) and Balkan Wars (1912, 1913), she nursed wounded soldiers, distributed aid and medical supplies to refugees, campaigned for those affected and reported events for the Manchester Guardian and The Times. She remains a celebrated figure in Albania because of these efforts.

The textiles and dress Durham collected on her journeys are outstanding pieces made more significant by the wealth of information she recorded and attached to each item. Some are linked to specific events in history, many are rare examples, all record a culture on the cusp of change.

Louisa Pesel (1870 – 1947)

'Miss Pesel undertakes the Preparation of Embroidery from original drawings and from old models adapted to modern purposes.’ *

One of a cohort of well-connected advocates of embroidery in the early 20th century, Louisa Pesel exerted a wide influence as a practitioner, scholar, teacher, writer and collector. The eldest daughter of a Bradford businessman, she studied design and embroidery at the Royal College of Art under Lewis Foreman Day, a contemporary of William Morris. His ideas on looking and always reverting to the original had lasting impact.

An excellent needlewoman, Pesel was fascinated by stitch techniques and gifted at engaging people, especially in groups. From her first appointment as Designer then Director at the Royal Hellenic School of Needlework and Lace in Athens (1903-7), to her later years with the Winchester Cathedral Broderers (1931-36), Pesel’s approach remained constant. First she researched her subject by closely examining historic examples, their details drawn out and recorded. Then she freely shared that knowledge in encouraging people to stitch for employment, therapy and pleasure. Belgian refugees, shell-shocked soldiers returning from World War One, the wives of unemployed men in the 1920s, and students of embroidery all benefitted from her ‘scholarly and democratic’+ work in person and print.

Pesel’s collecting was integral to her work. Every lecture or group meeting included an opportunity to see and handle original examples. Design, colour and structure were key interests. They fuelled her study of embroideries from Turkey and Greece, ‘the masters of colour’, first encountered during her years in Athens. Each piece held valuable information on how stitches were constructed, colours combined, and patterns made or modified across years and cultures. It was a heritage to respect, and a model to copy in the making of modern designs.

• Quote from printed leaflet produced by Louisa Pesel promoting her work, c1910.
+ E G Selwyn, Winchester Cathedral, February 1948

Olive Matthews (1887 – 1979)
‘I am interested in costumes up to about early Victoria, styles I have known and worn I don’t care about. They are not Antiques to me.’

Olive Matthews’ collecting began in childhood funded by the weekly allowance she was given by her father. She was twelve years old, home tutored by a governess, with 2s 6d – 5s (12.5p - 25p) to spend on whatever captured her imagination. An initial interest in antique furniture was discouraged due to lack of space, and her attention shifted to historic dress. It never wavered. By the time Matthews donated her collection to Chertsey Museum in 1969, it was 3000 items strong and contained exceptional items of national significance.
An active collector for over forty years, Matthew’s acquisitions were characterised by her diligent research, ‘a good eye’ which enabled her to identify high quality examples of key fashion trends, and her ability to spot a bargain. It was a matter of pride that she never paid more than £5 for any item. In later years she bought from auctions, but most early purchases were made at the nearby Caledonian Road Market. There she befriended market traders and delighted in finding treasures at a time when historic dress was valued only as fancy dress or theatrical costume.
A modest and private person, Matthews left little information on the rationale for her collecting. The material is rather left to speak for her. Concentrated on the period of 1740 - 1840 it covers a time beyond living memory. Garments that show exceptional workmanship in their construction and decoration are especially valued. The degree of focus is significant and extends to Matthews placing of the collection at Chertsey, her purchase of the Museum building, and their continued development of the collection in line with her taste and preferences.

After the Lower Gallery, visitors are directed to the stairwell. Hanging in the space are three indigo dyed banners, above 74 indigo balls displayed on the stairwell floor. These works are part of a major installation Shindigo Space 07 by the Japanese artist Hiroyuki Shindo, originally displayed as eight banners in total alongside the 74 balls, commissioned for the Whitworth’s exhibition ‘Indigo: A blue to dye for’ (2007).

On passing through the stairwell, up the stairs and on to the Upper Gallery, the next space is the library, featuring the collections of Muriel Rose and Enid Marx.

Muriel Rose (1897 – 1986)
Rose was described as having ‘an immediate eye for separating the genuine from the spurious, and who had a way of discovering abilities in people they had not discovered for themselves’. *

Rose first worked as an assistant at the Three Shields Gallery with the accountant Peggy ‘Margaret’ Turnbull. Together they set up the Little Gallery in a converted laundry depot in Ellis St, near Sloane Square in West London in 1928. In opening the shop gallery she wanted to promote examples of modern craft, particularly textiles and ceramics ‘in which creative imagination and fine craftsmanship were combined’ but was adamant that it would ‘not resemble a gift shop’.

Over its eleven-year trading period the Little Gallery exhibited modern textiles in solo and group exhibitions-from quilts and embroidery to weaving and Mexican rugs as well as contemporary English and Japanese ceramics. Rose also staged exhibitions and workshops that showed how the craft processes, such as block printing and weaving worked to the public.
Although the gallery would close on the outbreak of the Second World War, Rose remained active in the craft scene. She curated exhibitions abroad for the British Council, including The Exhibition of Modern British Crafts at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1942.

Ultimately, she founded a ‘handling collection’ of craft, which included objects by leading craftspeople of the twentieth century. It is significant to English crafts history as it represents the earliest effort by a government organisation to bring together a ‘national’ craft collection which now resides at the Crafts Studies Centre, Farnham.

* Quote from Alan 'Sam' Smith.

Enid Marx (1902 – 1998)
Textiles,’ Marx wrote, ‘cannot be isolated from their background ever’.
Enid Marx was a leading designer of the twentieth century and collector of ‘popular art’ who was awarded the title of Royal Designer for Industry in 1944 as a pioneering ‘pattern maker’. She was a textile designer who also made children’s books, pattern papers, book jackets and stamps. In her early career, Marx became a well-known designer of handmade furnishing fabrics. Following her education at Central School of Art (1921-22), the Royal College of Art (1922-1925) and an apprenticeship with the block printing duo Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher (1925-1927). Marx would apply her knowledge of painting and wood-engraving to pattern on cloth using traditional craft processes of wood-blocking and vegetable dyes.

She was an innate collector who had been fascinated with ephemeral materials such as silk ribbons since childhood. Her passion for collecting and interest in material culture informed her abstract patterns. From the early 1930s she collected examples of ‘popular art’ with the historian Margaret Lambert. They adorned their home with them and co-authored several books on the subject they described popular art as ‘the art which ordinary people have, from time immemorial, introduced into their everyday lives, sometimes making it themselves, at others imposing their tastes on the product of the craftsmen or of the machine.’ The Marx Lambert collection was bestowed to Compton Verney in 1998 and remains there on permanent display.

After the library, visitors enter the Great Hall through William Waldorf Astor’s secret door, which features the last 2 collections of Dr Jennifer Harris and Nima Poovaya-Smith OBE, both of whom are still alive today.

Dr Jennifer Harris (working 1982-2016 at the Whitworth, University of Manchester) 

‘It is the job of a public collection of contemporary textiles to acquire bold and challenging work that generates debate about the role of craft in the making of art’.

As Curator of Textiles and Deputy Director of the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester between 1982 and 2016, Jennifer Harris built the contemporary collection of textile art. Founded in 1889, the gallery’s collection is focused on acquisitions of fine art, textiles and wallpaper and the historic collection of textiles was originally developed to reflect Manchester’s role as a world centre for textile manufacture.

Harris’ arrival at the gallery coincided with a craft revival and the development of textiles as a conceptual artform in its own right. By the 1990s, textile art had become part of the field of sculpture and was increasingly used to explore the politics of gender and culture. Her collection at the Whitworth includes artworks made with traditional craft techniques, such as stitch and weaving, and demonstrates the artistic practice of ‘thinking through making’ whilst simultaneously reflecting the aesthetic and conceptual concerns of fine art.

As a collector and curator, Harris made ‘statement acquisitions’ of major artworks. She invited artists to select significant pieces of work from their more speculative outputs. Many objects in the Whitworth’s collection draw on traditional craft media but are examples that explore and challenge the possibilities of textile art through experimentation with scale and mixed media. Her collection in Manchester represents Britain’s foremost collection of contemporary textile art.

Nima Poovaya-Smith OBE (Senior Keeper International Arts 1985-1998, Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford).
For Poovaya-Smith, Bradford’s collection of textiles are ‘a small part of a cultural sourcebook: rich design vocabularies, colour palettes and weaving traditions reference the sub-continent’s artistic, social and political history’.

Nima Poovaya-Smith is a curator, collector and writer. As Senior Keeper, International Collections, Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford (1985-1998) she conceived and curated both the pioneering Transcultural Gallery (1997) and later, the radical Connect programme (2008). Connect re-visioned the permanent collections by excavating hidden links, between people and objects across different centuries and cultures, particularly British and South Asian.

Bradford’s textile industry directly led to the transition of communities to the city, particularly from Pakistan. The industry went into a steep decline in the 1970s, but the city remains host to a complex interplay of cultures.

Poovaya-Smith developed the International Collections to reflect the diversity of Bradford’s population. The acquisitions, championed by Bradford Council, were developed in close consultation with local communities. While textiles play a central role in the collections, Poovaya-Smith, also acquired fine art, ceramics, glass, metal ware and Islamic calligraphy. It now includes one of the U.K’s most significant holdings of, contemporary art by prominent artists of South Asian, African and Caribbean heritage.

As Director of Alchemy (2004-2018) Poovaya-Smith’s focus has become increasingly multi-disciplinary, combining different art forms for a richer exploration of varied themes.


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