Portrait in tapestry, colored by nature
If ever there was a landscape that could be rendered perfectly in the natural colors of sheep wool, it would be “Large Tree Group,” an oil painting of a shepherd traipsing across a snowy field, past a clump of large trees.
The front of the tapestry hanging amid an Edinburgh studio showed visitors a scene from a Scottish shepherd’s stoic existence. The big tapestry’s back, if you wandered around behind, says more about her sheep: The textile artists tagged each color of undyed yarn, shown below, with the names of Merinos, Cheviots, Wensleydales, Shetlands and other breeds that contributed wool.
Lower photo: Dovecot Studio’s quarters in Edinburgh.
The heavy, ruglike tapestry, 9 feet wide, loyally adapts its source material — a 1970s oil painting by British artist Victoria Crowe in the Pentland Hills southwest of Edinburgh.
Crowe’s series of paintings documented the daily life of the late Jenny Armstrong, her aging neighbor and friend who was then winding down her shepherding career in the hills.
The shepherd paintings conveniently filled a need for Scotland’s National Portrait Gallery. The curators already had plenty of famous faces. Now they were keen to display more pictures acknowledging ordinary Scots and their hard, productive lives, as officially revered in Edinburgh.
The gallery’s 2000 exhibition of Crowe’s paintings led, in turn, to commissioning of the tapestry that debuted in 2013 at Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh’s century-old proponent of textile arts. Dovecot artists David Cochran and Naomi Robertson wove the piece.
The public had recently been reminded of the range of natural wool colors worn by various breeds. Starting in 2008, photographers produced flocks of popular books and pin-up calendars showing clean, good-looking sheep in formal poses. Volumes of beautiful pig and duck portraits followed.
Dovecot went with the idea, persuading 70 farms and spinners to provide undyed wool for the tapestry. It was displayed at first at Dovecot’s home, a repurposed 1885 public bathhouse on a sidestreet in Edinburgh’s Old Town, a block east of South Bridge.
In 2018, news reports say Scottish curators are still on an Everyman kick. “Large Tree Group” is now on display in the National Museum of Scotland. But reflecting the diversity of Scottish humans may not meet every demand facing the curators.
Now that class-action lawsuits are allowed in Scotland, as of June 2018, we can anticipate the day when lawyers representing the sheep of Scotland will protest that their clients’ trademark colors, not to mention their wool, were taken without their consent.
- Our Scotland visit extends into the Highlands and to a reindeer farm.
- Visit the viewing gallery at Dovecot Studios at 10 Infirmary Street, Edinburgh, to see weavers and rug tufters at work below in the former public bath’s swimming pool. Many worked with some deliciously unnatural colors of yarn. Some recent Dovecot projects:
For credits and more info on Dovecot tapestries pictured above, choose by title. Top row: The Caged Bird’s Song, Celtic Spirit II, and Ski Rug. Lower row: William Crozier Untitled Rug 2010, Waterbaby, and After After After Monarch of the Glen, an update of Scotland’s famed image of a rampant stag.
More of my photos of Edinburgh and the Highlands.