Great Tapestry of Scotland 124-160

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Panel 140: Cumbernauld

Well, this is my final post on the Great Tapestry of Scotland! I have really enjoyed revisiting my photographs, and thinking more about the tapestry, and your comments have also provided much food for thought. These photographs are, of course only snippets, and you’ll find much more thorough information in the two books I mentioned in my first post about the project. But honestly, no books or photographs can reproduce the experience of seeing this incredible thing for yourself and, if you ever have the opportunity, I really recommend you do so!

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Detail of Panel 140: Cumbernauld

I can’t say I have a favourite panel, though I do love Fairisle (126) the Isbister Sisters (115) and the Hutton panel (74) but as I went through my photos this morning, I found myself thinking about how much I loved the Cumbernauld panel (140) and how it seemed to sum up for me what this project is all about.

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Detail of Panel 140: Cumbernauld

Like many panels, this one celebrates the texture of ordinary people’s lives, and the ordinary spaces in which they live them. Andrew Crummy’s design – with the new town’s familiar roads and architecture – is incredibly witty and creative, and just like his Pictish or his Georgian panels, the style of the design has shifted in an inventive fashion here to suit the moment it represents. Cumbernauld’s local reputation is not unambiguous, but in this panel the urban environment appears beautiful and utopian simply because it is an everyday space of homes, and folk, and families. My favourite scene from Gregory’s Girl is referenced in the top left, and perhaps one of the reasons I like this panel so much is that so much of what it represents seems familiar to me from my own childhood and youth. Finally, the stitching on the panel is absolutely exquisite, and because of this the whole piece absolutely sings. Last Sunday, I spent some time admiring this panel, and I then read the information board which told me that just two Cumbernauld women had worked on the stitching, Elizabeth Boulton and Helen Conley. Conley and Boulton had depicted themselves as children in their signature at the bottom right of the panel, in a scene that seemed to be taken from an old photograph of the pair. I was suddenly struck by the sheer power of the Great Tapestry project – that these two childhood friends were quite literally making history, and with their needles stitching themselves into the story of their home, their town, their nation. What a wonderful thing to do.

So, some final highlights.

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Panel 125: The General Strike stitched by June McEwan, Karen Philpot and Gil Tulloch in Pitlochry

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Panel 126: Fair Isle Love this panel inordinately.

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Panel 129: The Great Depression The lone figure of Chris Guthrie defines the 1930s

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Panel 130: Tenement Life I loved everything about this wonderfully vibrant celebration of Scotland’s tenement communities

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Panel 132: The Clydebank Blitz I found this panel deeply affecting

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Panel 134: D-Day, 1944 Bill Millin defiantly pipes through the Normandy landings

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Panel 143: Linwood and the Hillman Imp I was particularly pleased to see a yoked jumper, appropriately appearing here in its early 1960s heyday!

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Panel 148: The rise of the SNP It amused me that Irn Bru and Tunnocks Tea Cakes appeared in this panel as 1970s nationalist icons.

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Panel 149: Scotland at the Movies. Whisky Galore! “No son of mine will be eating human flesh.”

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Panel 152: Gaelic Resurgent stitched by Christine Haynes and Pauline Elwell

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Panel 154: Dolly the Sheep Tom’s favourite panel, for its inventive depiction of science in stitch.

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Panel 155: The Scottish Parliament reconvenes, 1999. Incredibly beautiful stitching on this panel

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Panels 156 and 157: Parliament of the Ancestors, Parliament for the Future An appropriately vast and varied tapestry of Scottish identities, from Joanna Baillie to Oor Wullie.

Thanks for bearing with me through this photographic tour! And if you’d like to see all of my posts about the Great Scottish Tapestry together, you can do so here.

Great Tapestry of Scotland 93-123

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Panel 94: Hill and Adamson The silver herrings and striped petticoats of the Newhaven fisherwoman.

In the comments on yesterday’s post, Heather linked to an interesting take on the “when is a tapestry not a tapestry” question from a tapestry weaver who strongly objects to the misappropriation of the term in reference to non-woven textiles. I am often struck by how textiles, more than other disciplines, seems prone to practices of woeful mis-naming, and the piece raises many moot points, particularly in relation to the gender associations of the terms “tapestry” and “embroidery.” I suppose this is what I was hinting towards yesterday in suggesting that the term “tapestry” has, in the popular imagination, a public, narrative dimension, that the word “embroidery” does not. It is certainly very sad that this is so, and the linguistic perceptions and politics of these terms in contemporary discourse seem to me quite difficult to unravel. But whether or not the nomenclature of the “Great Tapestry” has a masculine ring, one could certainly never criticise this project for its masculine bias. Women formed the majority of the talented stitchers, and not only are women represented everywhere in the tapestry, but individual panels are used to proudly celebrate the ordinary work of Scottish women in a way that is all too rarely seen in public contexts. A few weeks ago I climbed the Wallace Monument with my dad (who is a Wallace on his mother’s side, and is known by everyone as “Wal”). Half way up the tower we discovered the “hall of heroes” – a sterile space filled with the equally sterile busts of dead white men. While this room commemorates the achievements of Scotland’s philosophical, scientific, military, and literary blokes, there is not a single woman in sight. I scoured the information panels, and finally found Jane Carlyle, who received the briefest of mentions in relation to her husband. Jane and I were the only women in the room, and I wonder if she would have felt as irritated as I did. A wee girl, with a burgeoning interest in Scottish history, might find little in that room with which to identify, while her brother might be reinforced in his tacit belief that only men do important things. One of the many functions of the Great Tapestry of Scotland, it seems to me, is as an educational resource and thank goodness that the project exuberantly and thoughtfully celebrates the important work of Scotland’s women authors, political activists, washerwomen, fisher-lassies, and knitters, and places that work in a public context, alongside more familiar “masculine” achievements.

On with some highlights.

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Panel 96: A Caithness School I am alawys drawn to the neeps. By the 1850s, through pioneering rural education practices, Caithness (and Berwickshire) literacy rates were the highest in Great Britain.

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Panel 99: James Clerk Maxwell One of many occasions where I was struck by the wit and inventiveness of Andrew Crummy’s wonderful designs. The colourful waves of Maxwell’s beard capture his work on magnetism and electricity.

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Panel 103: Shinty and Curling I was bowled over by the beauty and precision of the stitching on this panel, created by Susie Finlayson and Linda Jobson. Look at the tartan! The knitted hose! The herringbone woven jacket! The way the wrong side of the fabric is represented!

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Panel 104: Scots in North America I love the figure of John Muir here – the very embodiment of the ideal of the national park.

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Panels 105 and 107: The Paisley pattern and Mill Working I found both of these panels incredibly beautiful and moving: the way the faces of the mill workers had been integrated into the famous Paisley pattern, the way the colours of the embroidery precisely echoed those of the Indian subcontinent in panel 92; the sense of energy and movement in the stitching and design . . . and, of course, the fact I was viewing these panels in a mill, in Paisley.

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Panel 109: Workshop of the Empire I love the way that industry, labour, and the human figure are represented in this panel.

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Panel 111: Kier Hardie who campaigned for women’s suffrage as well as worker’s rights.

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Panel 113: The Discovery sails from Dundee One of the many things I loved about this panel was that the trades involved with the expedition were depicted and celebrated: flesher, tailor, cordiner, weaver, dyer, hammerman, bonnet maker, baker, glover.

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Panel 115: The Isbister sisters Shetland knitters! Hurrah! One of my favourite panels.

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Panel 123: Women get the vote. This panel was stitched by the Edinburgh members of Soroptimist International

Great Tapestry of Scotland 24-59

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Some more details of the Great Tapestry of Scotland for you this morning. You’ll find the first post in the series here.

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Panel 25: Duns Scotus. The feet of Duns Scotus, the medieval philosopher for whom we have to thank for the concept of Haecceity

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Panel 26: Somerled, first Lord of the Isles A beautiful panel, stitched in Lochaber.

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Panel 27: Haakon at Kyleankin. Signature of the South Skye stitchers who created this panel, which depicts twelfth century Norweigan / Scottish conflicts. The Orkney and Shetland islands remained in Norweigan / Danish hands until 1469.

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Panel 29: William Wallace and Andrew Moray. English soldiers drown in the river beneath Stirling bridge.

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Panel 30: Bannockburn The stitching on this panel, created by Caroline M Buchanan and Margaret Martin, is incredible.

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Panel 32: The Black Death Many affecting details on this panel, as the land is emptied of people.

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Panel 36: Rosslyn Chapel The famous piping angel of Rosslyn Chapel

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Panel 39: Waulking Love the strong arms and blithe faces of the women singing as they waulk the cloth.

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Panel 44: Mary Queen of Scots dreaming and stitching through her captivity.

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Panel 45: The Border Reivers One of the tapestry’s many pleasing representations of Scottish sheep.

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Panel 47: King James Bible The stitching of James IV’s jacket is incredibly beautiful, so minute, so precise – a perfect representation, in all respects, of seventeenth-century crewel work.

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Panel 51: Droving One of many panels where Crummy’s drawings and the work of the stitchers inventively combine the human figure and the landscape. The figure of the drover emerges from and merges with the rolling hills and green fields.

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Panel 54: The massacre at Glencoe. The stitching here absolutely kills me. The way the weave of the plaid, and the folds of the cloth have been rendered is amazing.

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Panel 59: The Kilt Celebrating the invention of the ‘wee’ kilt in 1723. The wearing of kilts and tartans was shortly thereafter prohibited by the British government under the dress act of 1746.

More details tomorrow . . .

Great Tapestry of Scotland 1-23

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On Sunday I finally got to see the Great Tapestry of Scotland. I was completely blown away by the vision of Alistair Moffat (who produced the tapestry’s historical content and context), Andrew Crummy (the superb artist who designed these 160 panels) and perhaps especially by the skill and beauty of the work of the thousand Scottish women and men who stitched it. It was displayed in the singularly fitting surroundings of the Anchor Mill in Paisley. The atmosphere in this wonderful space was electric. There were people of all ages there, and everyone was completely transfixed by the tapestry, and were clearly enjoying it tremendously. I heard several exclamations of delight at particular details, as well as folk sharing personal recollections in front of individual panels. Some of the panels moved me to tears, others made me laugh out loud and viewing this terrific work was a truly incredible experience.

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The Great Tapestry of Scotland has a monunmental name, and it is certainly a monumental thing – but importantly, it is not in the least pompous or in any way up itself. Rather than telling the story of a nation through a top-down celebratory narrative of kings and queens and battles, it tells that story from the bottom up, in pleasingly piecemeal fashion, allowing many different identities, and many regional and linguistic differences to be included and represented. Scotland here is the sum of many different parts, and historical change is an uneven, and often deeply conflicted process. And this is a history where the folk who worked to build a bridge might be celebrated in the same terms as the engineer who designed it; where a can of Irn Bru and the King James bible might both share status as national icons. The tapestry’s 160 panels are alive with the colours of the landscape, with cultural invention, with the power of the imagination, with the emotive movement of time, with joy, wit, terror and sadness. That the panels sing so is testament both to Andrew Crummy’s wonderful designs as well as the skill and creativity of the stitchers, and I was deeply moved by the beauty and energy of the embroidery. The story of the people who stitched it is stitched up in this incredible thing, and that is certainly part of what makes it so terrific. So I think it was the tapestry’s sheer sense of shared endeavour that killed me most: that this was the best kind of collective history, created collectively. Craft and design have, I think, a unique power to bring people together in the expression and sharing of their creativity and cultural identity. In all honesty, this tapestry is the best example I’ve ever seen of how this might be so.

This blog serves several functions, one of which is as my own diary. I have thought quite hard about how to represent the tapestry to you, and to myself as well, so that, in the future, I can remember what I felt when I first saw it. I decided that the best way was, over several posts, to show you some of the details that really struck me. If you are interested in finding out more about the Great Tapestry of Scotland, two super books have been published about it. The first, a paperback by Susan Mansfield and Alistair Moffat, tells the story of the tapestry’s creation, together with the stories of the thousand Scottish women and men who were involved in its creation. The second book is a handsome (yet very reasonably priced volume) which carefully illustrates each of the tapestry’s individual panels, alongside more detailed and thorough historical information. I heartily recommend both books. And if you’d just like to look at each of the tapestry’s panels, you’ll find a wee slideshow here.

So here are some of the details I enjoyed from panels 1 through 23

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Panels 3a and 3b The formation of Scotland / The collision. “Geology formed Scotland and the land and the sea formed the character of the people”

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Panel 4 Scotland emerges from the ice. Love the figures of the fisherfolk, the detail of the currach, the graded colours of the stitching.

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Panel 5: The wildwood Hare and Red Squirrel.

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Panel 7: The First Farmers Wonderful textures on this panel.

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Panel 8: Brochs, Crannogs and Cairns. Scotland’s early vernacular architecture.

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Panel 9: Pytheas the Greek visits Calanais. I was particularly struck by the way the Isle of Lewis stitchers had carefully rendered the colours and textures of the banded gneiss and lichen of the Calanais stones.

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Panel 10: The coming of the legions. I love how the curls of Julius Agricola tell the story.

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Panel 11: Ninian at Whithorn. Beautiful stitching, the work of a single Dumfries needlewoman, Shirley McKeand.

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Panel 15: Dunnichen. Love the bold way that Andrew Crummy and the stitchers have here rendered the details of the famous Pictish stone.

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Panel 17: Dumbarton Rock One of many examples of how the geology represented in the tapestry afforded the stitchers an opportunity to really show off their skills. Astounding.

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Panel 20: Macbeth. Each of the tapestry’s panels includes the ‘signature’ of the stitchers who created it at the bottom right. This one, a small sampler of every stitch and every colour used in the panel was particularly striking. The panel was stitched by Sandra and Glennie Leith, Ingrid McGown, Paddy McGruer and Rhea Scott.

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Panel 22: The Flowers of the Borders. Anyone familiar with the architecture of the great Border abbeys will find the subtle pinks and greys of these stitched columns immediately evocative.

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Panel 23: the medieval wool trade. One of many panels illustrating the importance of textiles and their production to Scotland’s culture and economy.

More to come . . .

a kiss from France

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I so enjoyed your translations and comments on this post, that I thought I’d continue the First World War theme with some of my favourite items in my postcard collection. Known to collectors generically as “silks”, these machine-embroidered cards first appeared around 1900, and were produced in vast quantities during the twentieth century’s first two decades. As an attractive and eminently portable form of sentimental greeting, these cards proved particular popular among British troops serving in France. Some estimates suggest that, in their wartime heyday, more than ten million were produced.

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Sources used to suggest that these cards were hand-embroidered, but this isn’t the case. Though particularly elaborate panel designs might involve finishing by hand, I have never seen one that didn’t feature machine embroidery. Using innovative Heilmann or Schiffli embroidery machines, a design could be repeated up to 400 times across large panels of organdy before being cut out, and individually assembled into framed and embossed cards. There were several factories in France and Switzerland where cards might be manufactured from start to finish, but some machine-embroiders also produced piece work from home, sending completed panels to be finished and assembled elsewhere.

The cards were usually sent in military mail pouches rather than being stamped and posted in the ‘open’ mail. Because they were protected in transit, the embroidered panels could be quite delicate in design. Many of the cards use the structure of the embroidery to create a tiny envelope:

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Into which another card, with a personal greeting might be inserted.

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This is one of my personal favourites: the card would have been placed inside an envelope; the card is, itself, an envelope; and the embroidered panel also depicts an envelope-carrying bluebird.

Cards might be designed for specific occasions . . .

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. . . or with specific addressees in mind . . .

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While many of the designs are conventional (though nonetheless appealing) others feel perhaps more modern and innovative.

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and while theres a tremendous variety of embroidered designs, the same might be said of the paper-embossing, which on some cards is more elaborate than the stitching.

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These cards carry human stories.

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And there’s a particular kind of confluence between these stories and the stitches through which they are conveyed.

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Here is one of my favourites: it is a scene unmistakably French with trees and tiny church; ploughed field and red earth . . .

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. . . flowers bloom at the field margin . . .

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. . . framing a message of poignant reassurance.

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The roses hide. . .

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. . .an envelope . .

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. . . containing a message.

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It is a simple, mass-produced, material object.

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It is also a massive conveyer of meaning.

Modern Embroidery

A few weeks ago, I discovered a craft / design book that really blew me away. This hasn’t happened for a while, and I love this book so much that I’ve been itching to mention it. Here’s how I came across it: back in April, I decided I would design a tea cosy for Woolfest. I knew that, if I was going to design a tea cosy it had to be an all-out kitschy novelty item, and I also knew that I wanted the design to have a Woolfest-appropriate sheepy theme. After a few days of thinking about sheep; of the generic shape and design of tea cosies; and just letting things mill about and brew in my head (my general way of working), I had a mild eureka moment: a Sheep Carousel! Yes! This idea seemed a good one, and I felt excited about designing and knitting it. But had anyone thought of it before? Tea cosies (which are often striped) seemed to lend themselves so well to representing a circus tent or merry go round: perhaps another designer had previously had the same idea? This does occasionally happen, and I find it is generally worthwhile checking such things out before one embarks upon a design, so I spent a morning poking around the interwebs, searching for sheep carousels, and carousel tea cosies. During my search I discovered that Jade Starmore had designed a marvelous carousel-themed baby blanket called Widdicome Fair; that Kathleen Sperling had designed an intarsia merry-go-round child’s hat; and that a JC Penney carousel sweater had recently generated some interest when it featured on Glee last year:


(“Glee” carousel sweater, JC Penney)

So there were a few knitted carousel designs, but none featured sheep, and none were tea cosies. But then, on one of my searches I came across a discussion of a “Merry go Round” tea cosy in a book by Ike Rosen called Modern Embroidery. Like most carousels, this one apparently featured horses rather than sheep, and it was a stitched rather than a knitted design, but I was nonetheless intrigued and wanted to check it out. So I tracked the book down on ABE. Here is the tea cosy in question:

It was indeed a carousel, but happily quite different in inception to the stripey marquee and bouncing sheep that had popped into my brain. . .

. . . and, as it turned out, Rosen’s merry-go-round was, for me perhaps one of the least interesting designs in a book which was packed full of TOTALLY AMAZING THINGS.

Rosen’s book was first published in Germany in 1970, and translated into English in 1972. Rosen addresses herself to women with “two left hands” who assumed that embroidery had to be fiddly, complicated, and difficult to execute. She clearly wanted Modern Embroidery to be an enabling beginner’s book, and so the stitches featured in her designs are very simple – most use a combination of stem stitch and chain stitch. But the variety of results Rosen achieves with this limited range of stitches is pretty incredible, as well as really beautiful.


(“Summer Souvenir”)

This is a book very much of its moment – pitching its use of colour and simple ornament as definitively “modern”: “Sensitive people of taste,” writes Rosen:

” . . . at the beginning of this century, were no longer able to put up with the overpowering ornamentation of the last century, and consequently the reaction against it was a rigorous cut-back of all artificial adornments. A new objectivity asserted itself, and strove under the leadership of prominent architects and artists for a pure clean-cut form. We have been profiting from it up to the present time and we are still gaining from it, for it is a style which was carefully thought out from many angles and deliberately fought for.”

But, among the clean modernist lines that then dominated design, Rosen detects “a longing for pattern,” and a yearning for bright colours that might “harmoniously unify various articles in a room.”

The styling of Rosen’s embroidery in “modern” 1970s interiors speaks to this idea of harmony — decor, objects, and designs speak to each other in a most extraordinary matchy-matchy way . . .

. . . these purple and orange plates with their nifty built-in egg-cups and even the eggs themselves are carefully styled to tone in with Rosen’s table runner . . .

. . . and the forms of cakes and biscuits echo Rosen’s abstract designs.

Despite the overwhelming 1970s vibe of this book (and it is overwhelming – shades of brown, orange and purple dominate; cigarettes nestle daintily among the pretzels) as one flicks through it, it is difficult not to find something contemporary and familiar about Rosen’s designs; hard not to think that Orla Kiely has somehow been inspired by these chained-stitched stems and pears. . .

And there are many knitting design-echoes too: these oven mitts immediately reminded me of Heidi Mork’s lovely Vinterblomster mittens.

But perhaps it is less a question of direct influence: rather, Rosen, (much like Orla Kiely and the inimitable Spillyjane) has a feel for a combining the folksy and the abstract in bold, simple and colourful design.

Rosen’s design referents are vast and eclectic, ranging from the Bauhaus through to Tiny Tim. The text of the book is extraordinarily eclectic too: there are occasions where Rosen seems to be setting out an entire design manifesto, while at other times she becomes philosophic and reflective with observations about the gendered division of labour or the tastes and habits of modern teenagers. In fact, I would say that the book is worth getting hold of not just for the designs (which I absolutely love) but for Rosen’s text, which is often weirdly engaging, even in translation. For example, this is how Rosen introduces my favourite design in the book:

“The more people there are, the scarcer mushrooms and edible fungi become. The case is similar to that in the adage: where we set foot, no more mushrooms grow. Moroever, at the present time, with more free time and a lot of cars to take us out into the open, we would have a lot of fun looking for mushrooms. Let us hope that some professor or other will find an opportunity of making these mushrooms grow in increased numbers everywhere. Since we are accustomed to the fact that scientists make everything possible, and in double-quick time as well, we will console you with this prospect, and in the meantime we have embroidered a dish of mushrooms which at least you can feast your eyes upon.”

Personally, I think there is only one appropriate reaction to “The Dish of Mushrooms” which is to hail it as a work of pure stitched genius.

I’ve not been able to find out about much about Ike Rosen herself – – perhaps because my German is so poor. I wonder whether any German readers might know more about Rosen and her influence? In the meantime, if any English speakers would like to track down a second-hand copy of the 1972 edition of Modern Embroidery, here are the details:

Ike Rosen, Modern Embroidery (London: B.T. Batsford, 1972) ISBN 0 7134 2655 1

In case you were in any doubt at all: I love this book!

stitched up

Though I love the Gainsborough films, Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones and Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story, I am not generally a fan of contemporary cinematic takes on eighteenth- and nineteenth century literature. This is probably because of what I do: a generation of students who have grown up with the unshakeable idea that potato-faced Colin Firth is actually Mr D’arcy have destroyed much of my enjoyment of Austen and rendered Pride and Prejudice an unteachable text. That said, I was really looking forward to Jane Campion’s Bright Star: she’s a talented, intelligent director who’s interested in gender; the costumes looked just terrific; and I was intrigued by what I’d heard about Fanny Brawne’s relationship to stitch in the film. Much was being made of the fact that Campion had linked Brawne’s “feisty,” and “independent” character to her fondness for textiles and that her heroine designs and makes her own clothes.* I then saw a trailer at the cinema which further piqued my interest. A clip was shown of a “spirited” exchange with Keats, in which Brawne appeared to compare the art of stitch to that of poetry. Unlike poetry, she says, stitch is useful and potentially remunerative. While the path that Keats has chosen means that he will struggle for literary recognition and a living, stitch is something she can actually “make money from.” I was (mildly) blown away. You’ll know by now that much of my research focuses on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century textiles and that I’m particularly interested in the way that textiles mark and mediate women’s relationship to the division of labour. To have a woman of Brawne’s rank saying, in 1818, that her love of fashion had a practical purpose and that she saw dressmaking and design as a potential source of independent income was really quite extraordinary. Was Brawne going to sew her way out of dependence and potential penury? Support herself and Keats by the labours of the needle? What was Campion going to do with stitch?

The unfortunate answer is that stitch and textiles are, for Campion, mere directorial devices — props on which to hang her film’s undoubtedly sumptuous aesthetic. Despite the promise of that early exchange, the idea that stitch might be a practical and a profitable activity for a woman like Brawne was never alluded to or mentioned again. A short way into the film, it became apparent that Brawne’s “independent spirit” only extended as far as some curiously elliptical conversational sparring and the ability to wallow in her own desires. Brawne was only ever going to be someone who, like most women of her rank, was dependent on a good marriage for future financial security and whose narrative, because of this, would be played out in the familiar context of her “impossible” affection for the poet who could not provide it.

Many contemporary female directors seem to use tactility as a shorthand for the rich interior lives of women: a heroine’s physical relationship to the material world can allow a visually astute director to hint at a sensuous and idiosyncratic something that cannot be articulated. This is certainly the case with Campion. Her Fanny Brawne follows in the footsteps of Lucretia Martel’s Niña Santa or Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar– characters who are always touching stuff in order to tell the viewer what’s going on inside. And this is the singular function of textiles in Bright Star. We see Brawne bent over her hoop and needle; working up a collar; carefully tying a ribbon; enjoying the sensation of a breeze-blown curtain, or refusing to examine the quality of her sister’s sampler, and we are meant to read all this in terms of the character’s hidden depths. This is all very well, but the problem here is that there doesn’t really seem to be that much depth to hide. The viewer is meant to trust that all this sewing is the sign of something profound, but there is no other evidence of Brawne’s purported complexity. The most we can learn about her from Campion is that she likes clothes; that she prefers wit over intellect (lying about reading Milton and only ever being able to muster up an interest in Keats’ poetry when she understands that it might refer to herself); and that she has an incredible capacity for self-absorption (luxuriating in the drama of thwarted affection in the most tedious and irritating way.) In this sense, Campion’s characterisation is not really very different from the way that Brawne is represented in the many chauvenistic biographies of Keats that were produced before the 1960s: she is much the same fashion-obsessed, over-emotional ignoramus: an annoying distraction in a nice frock. Far from bolstering her own credentials as a feminist director, then, Campion’s use of stitch and textiles in this film reinforces ideas of nineteenth-century femininity that are disturbingly conservative. Brawne’s discovery of romance simply heightens her own fashionable narcissism and female desire is set in the context of what seems to be a mere preoccupation with material trifles and baubles. In its failure to address the questions it explicitly raises about stitch as a creative outlet, a form of labour, and a potential source of income, the film does little to disturb the notion that a fondness for textiles could be anything more than pointless or enervating, a familiar sign of women’s domestic thrall.

And then there’s the matter of Campion’s particular aesthetic decisions concerning textiles. Though Janet Patterson’s costume design was, at its best, both beautiful and inspiring, some of the garment choices were very weird indeed: Mr Brown’s tartan trews were as ridiculous and misplaced as his “Scottish” accent; Abbie Cornish wore crocheted shawls and boleros of a kind not seen till at least the 1850s, and her younger sister “Toots” sported a curiously cropped Fairisle cardigan over a hundred years before its time. I would forgive all of these historical anachronisms on the grounds of Campion and Patterson’s familiarly stylised creativity, but I’m afraid I became quite fixated on the washing that seemed to be perpetually hung out on Hampstead Heath. In one quite ludicrous scene, Fanny wanders woefully among lines of damp linen inexplicably left out in the rain. Anyone who who has read Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s great poem or who knows anything at all about nineteenth-century domestic life would be aware that, for women in households such as Brawne’s, washing day was a major and momentous event. No self-respecting washerwoman or maidservant, mother or daughter, would have left those things just hanging there in the middle of a shower. Indeed, to do so shows a disregard for household textiles quite bizarre in a woman purportedly obsessed by them. Instead of wallowing in doomed romance, Brawne should have been bringing in the bloody washing .


(The Montgolfier Balloon. If you’ve read the Barbauld poem, you’ll know why it is here)

Now I realise that I am a bit (ahem) hung up on the washing, but I think that Campion’s use of the linen-laden lines on Hampstead Heath is symptomatic of something larger and a little more troubling. Through its focus on aesthetic surfaces and pointlessly lovely tableaux, the film actually does an injustice to the basic texture of the lives of nineteenth-century women like Brawne. Why have her heroine interested in stitch and design at all if this is merely to be used as a cinematic conceit that adds little to her character? There are some other basic textures that are singularly lacking here as well. If I knew absolutely nothing about the poetry of John Keats, I would really be none the wiser after watching Bright Star. The most you can really glean about Keats’ creative impulses from this film is that Fanny’s boobs seem to represent to him the promise of an ecstatic (pneumatic) present.

Campion has apparently spoken of Bright Star as being inspired by Bresson’s Man Escaped. (which is, incidentally, my favourite film). To me, this is laughably pretentious : like comparing Hollyoaks to Mizoguchi.* Actually, Hollyoaks seems quite an appropriate point of reference for the film’s sorry lack of depth and its championing of adolescent self-regard. Take away the senselessly gorgeous textiles, the flower-filled meadows, the strangely stilted dialogue and the too-tasteful interiors and what’s left is the thin drama of teenage obsession. However, Bright Star is a very sneaky film too: because of its style, its “historic” setting, its purported literary context, and Campion’s undoubted talent for the symbolic and emblematic, the film gets away with it: Campion’s signature directorial style makes us feel as if we are being shown something important and momentous, when in actuality what we are being purveyed is mere cinematic candy floss. So this is a film that is both intellectually hollow and horribly otiose, but which stitches up the viewer simply by being visually persuasive. In the end, what Bright Star reminded me of most was an issue of Selvedge: it has that visual wow factor and the thing is just so well produced that we feel that we must be somehow improved simply by consuming it. But (and I say this as someone who has occasionally written for that magazine) in the end there’s very little there of substance beyond the pretty pictures.

* These two reviews are typical in their descriptions of Brawne as a ‘seamstress’ or their association of her ‘spirit’ and ‘self possession’ to her supposed relationship to stitch.
**Another British soap comparison: at her most histrionic, Abbie Cornish bears a disturbing resemblance to Mary from Coronation Street.

I dedicate this post to Kris Steyaert, a fine Keats scholar and a very good friend.

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