I promised an account of the Whitworth, where we spent a lovely afternoon last week. I had really gone for the textile galleries, but we were distracted by a fabulous wallpaper exhibition. This showcased a wide range of examples from the Whitworth’s decorative arts collection, and you really got a sense of the range of ways in which wallpaper might define and transform an interior over four centuries. The displays paid careful attention to the history of technique, innovations in production, and the exhibition was very thoughtfully and intuitively set out.
Wallpaper often had surprising or unexpected functions and designs—for me this aspect of the exhibition was highlighted in the elaborate decorative schemes of the 1930s, in which ordinary middle-class parlours were transformed by being bedecked with paper vines and flowers hanging from ceilings and picture rails. But my favourite examples were the miraculously preserved wallpapers from the 1770s to the early 1800s:
I really think that the Jane Austen industry has left us with a version of the eighteenth century that is misleading in its pale muslin and Wedgwood-muted pastels. This anodyne, relentlessly tasteful, and terribly washed-out aesthetic is frankly more Nigella Lawson (aigh!) than Austen. This was an era of gaudy exuberance, when classical statues were enhanced with bright coats of paint, and interior decoration embraced colourful excesses. The busy patterns of this French paper seem completely alien to many popular conceptions of Georgian style:
but this is what the bourgeois Eighteenth Century looked like.
We also spent some time in the textile galleries, which were excellent. The Whitworth has one of the best collections of textiles in the UK, only a small fraction of which can be on show at any one time. What *was* displayed was arranged really judiciously. Rather than presenting a historical narrative, or separating the textiles by culture or locale, the curator had chosen several examples from different eras, places and moments to illustrate a particular function, theme, or idea. This approach worked well, allowing the viewer to get a sense of, for example the imperial aesthetics of British textiles by displaying Victorian shawls alongside the much earlier Indian designs on which they were based. The case displaying the original Japanese influences of familiar modern textiles (such as Morris & Co’s now ubiquitous willow bough) was particularly good.
I was blown away by the beauty of the embroidered textiles–those of the Middle East particularly. There were some wonderfully elaborate Iranian and Turkish examples from the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries. But, loving crewel work as I do, I have to say that the best thing I saw all day was this:
A crewel sampler worked by Doris “AR” (acquisition details of this marvellous panel can be found here). I think this is the most superb take on the traditional Anglo-American tree of life that I’ve ever seen. I just love the spirit and audacity of it – her bold modern take on traditional embroidery techniques; the way that every flower head and leaf explores a different stitch; the vibrant blues and greens of the wool against the linen, and the overall sense that this is the work of an accomplished needlewoman showing off her talent. The whole thing is a sort of crewel fanfare, a big “ta-da!” It says “look at me”, “look what I can do.” And yet, because of the nature of the art (a decorative panel for private or social display) and its small scale (appreciated by women who might observe or handle it close to) Doris AR is speaking the language of an aesthetic community rather than her individual ego. It is really quite exceptional. I may take inspiration from this for the panel I am planning to produce for Christmas but feel at the moment, rather too in awe of the original to attempt a design.