It seems a little out of context that a blog about textiles should mention two of Shakespeare’s comedies but I’ve just returned from Chichester where I saw Love’s Labours Lost and Much Ado About Nothing performed by a superb cast from the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The reason for quoting the plays here is because, in this production, they are set at a time which bookends the First World War and although we are now Following a Thread, I couldn’t help but be transported back a couple of years when all my energies were focused on work about that conflict.
Loves Labours Lost was written in 1595, Much Ado just four years later, and there is no evidence that Shakespeare marked them out as a pair. The first play isn’t performed very often because the use of some very Elizabethan wordplay makes some of the text particularly hard to understand. However, four young men take an oath to foreswear the company of women, to eat frugally and to spend their time studying. Needless to say, this is impossible for them and many silly incidents take place before the end of the play when the women dispatch the men for a year and a day to prove the seriousness of their love. But, the period is Edwardian and the atmosphere light hearted until it is obvious that they are off to war – a war to end all wars.
Much Ado About Nothing opens in the same stately home, now set with hospital beds, and the return of the young soldiers. The men now appear more sober and aware of their responsibilities and the whole courtship of Beatrice and Benedict unfolds with greater emotional maturity.
What struck me most about these productions was first how the atmosphere of Loves Labours Lost evokes the hot summer of 1913 when the British were supremely content with the status quo and how the atmosphere changes as the men go off to fight. Then secondly, as Much Ado begins, the characters return in a more complex form, portraying greater sophistication in their understanding of life and love.
I highly recommend these productions, both full of fun, and music, which are due at the Haymarket Theatre for the winter season. Even if Shakespeare isn’t really your thing, the productions highlighted once more the changing landscape of the early twentieth century which we all highlighted in Between the Lines.
One of the events I attended at the Cheltenham Literature Festival was a lecture on the American artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967) given by the art historian and critic Rosalind Ormiston. The talk was called Edward Hopper: The darker side of the American dream.
I chose this event because both Alfred Hitchcock and Cornelia Parker had used Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad as the inspiration for their work, Hitchcock, for the house in the film Psycho, and Parker for The Roof Garden Commission, on show this Autumn at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
Ormiston pointed out how Hopper’s work portrays the loneliness of city living. In many of his paintings, a figure (often using his wife as a model, an accomplished artist in her own right) is placed to one side of the canvas, gazing out of a window or door, suggesting all sorts of questions for the viewer’s mind, while in others, the scene simply depicts sunlight casting shadows on an empty room. Hopper, who was fascinated by light, eschewed the artistic trends of the day and “ploughed his own furrow” until his death.
Several facts drew Hopper to my attention. He was born the same year as Virginia Woolf, I had seen Cornelia Parker talking about her installation and my drawing teacher is always emphasising the importance of showing how the light falls on any subject I am trying (not very successfully) to recreate on paper.
If you are able, spend a day in London before Sunday 5th February 2017 and visit the Opus Anglicanum exhibition at the V&A. It celebrates a time when English work (Opus Anglicanum) was sought after by popes, churches, wealthy families across Europe and as diplomatic gifts. Techniques which are still in use today, split stitch and couching, were employed by professional artists (skilled women and men) in workshops behind St. Paul’s Cathedral and in Cheapside from the late 12th to the mid 14th centuries. One misconception was that nuns were responsible for the work but recent knowledge has shown that towards the end of the period, workshops led by men were the norm.
Much of the needlework on display was on linen or silk cloth lined with linen. The silk was imported from China or Italy along with threads which had been especially dyed. Copes, chasubles or orphreys were stitched with scenes from the life of Christ, interspersed with flora and fauna, for use in ecclesiastical ceremonies.
Over half the exhibits in the exhibition are from the V&A collection whilst the remainder have been borrowed from various establishments across Europe and North America. Some of the items are for secular use – for example, the surcoat worn by Edward, the Black Prince, along with his shield, two seal bags, a pair of Episcopal shoes from the tomb of Archbishop Herbert Walter (1170-1200) in Westminster Abbey, and horse coverings. You can also see a large wooden chest which was used to store copes.
One of the most fascinating exhibits was a piece which showed both sides of the work. This had been executed on velvet so it was easy to see the relief. Also, a couple of copes still had seed pearls as part of the decoration, intact.
The images below show a detail from the Jesse Cope, 1310-25, from the V&A collection and a musical angel on horseback from the Steeple Aston Cope,1330-40, loaned by the church wardens at Steeple Aston in Oxfordshire.
I urge you all to go along and be stunned (and humbled) by textiles which are over seven hundred years old. I had a lovely day.