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A journey into textile collections and the visionary women who collected them

a photo of a piece of colourfully embroidered fabric

Unknown maker, Border Fragment 1992, Embroidered cloth. © Leeds University Library, University of Leeds

Two Temple Place takes us on a journey through textile collections and the women who collected them

“Textiles sit within so many disciplines that it’s difficult to get a grasp of the diversity of human experience they encompass,” says textiles expert June Hill, the curator of this new exhibition exploring Textiles and the women who collected them at London’s Two Temple Place. “That’s the challenge Unbound has set itself: to bring together material from across a wide spectrum and uncover different ways of seeing.”

Ways of seeing. It’s a loaded yet prescient phrase that calls to mind how we perceive art, what constitutes art and how, in this case, we shift our ideas about collecting and curating in the male-dominated world of nineteenth and twentieth century museums.

Unbound tells a very vivid story of seven pioneering women who went against established norms to create some of the richest, most diverse and global public collections in the UK today.

From the exquisite anthropological collections of traditional Balkan costume collected by Edith Durham (1863 – 1944), to the ground-breaking international collection of Nima Poovaya-Smith who was the Senior Keeper International Arts between 1985 – 1998 at Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford, all of these women changed the ‘traditional’ concept of collecting and forged the way for textiles as crucial documents of social history as well as works of art in their own right.

a photo of an celebratory embroidered shoe

Brocade Shoe without Clog 1735-45, Brocaded silk. © The Olive Matthews Collection, Chertsey Museum. Photograph by John Chase Photography

a photo of a brocade silk waistcoat

Jelek 1913, Gold embroidery on black cloth. © Calderdale Museums Collection, Halifax. Photography by Paul Tucker

a photo of a series of ties laid out against a white background

Enid Marx, Ties c.1920-30, Printed silk. © Compton Verney. Photography by Jamie Woodley

“I’ve worked with public collections for years,” adds Hill, “and I’m always interested in collectors and curators and how collections are built up. There are so many different reasons why people collect and how collections are used.

“Textiles and the stories behind textile collections is such a lovely way to explore a wide range of material and different types of disciplines that you find within museum collections.”

The other women who provide both the collections and the stories are Edith Durham (1863 – 1944), Louisa Pesel (1870 – 1947), Olive Matthews (1887 – 1979), Enid Marx (1902 – 1998), Muriel Rose (1897 – 1986) and Jennifer Harris (working 1982 – 2016 at the Whitworth, University of Manchester).

“There has been some work around women in archaeology recently, but there were some very strong figures linked to textile collections who opened up opportunities and show us how the role of women has shifted and changed over 100 years.”

Expertly presented across the Renaissance-styled interiors of Two Temple Place, the highlights of the collections these women assembled journeys from highly sculptural 18th-century costume, intricately embroidered Balkan towels, headdresses and waistcoats, through to the mid-century and the block printed fabrics of Barron and Larcher. Alongside are a wealth of archival photographs, sketchbooks and letters, many of which have never been shown in public.

Hill has worked in textiles for a long time, and has authored a series on textile collections for Embroidery Magazine over a period of 12 or 13 years. She has also worked closely with the collection at Bankfield Museum, where Edith Durham’s collection is cared for and which now has one of the best but little-known textile collections in the country comprising 17,000 objects collected from all over the world.

a photo of a group of handwritten labels

Edith Durham, Object labels, Pen, pencil on paper. © Calderdale Museums Collection, Halifax. Photography by Paul Tucker

a photo of a pink high waisted cardigan

Spencer 1817-1819, Silk, cotton lining. © The Olive Matthews Collection, Chertsey Museum. Photograph by John Chase Photography

a repeating textile pattern showing tiger like stripes

Enid Marx, Curtain with Jungle Repeat Pattern date unknown, Printed undyed linen. © Compton Verney. Photography by Harminder Judge

At Chertsey Museum she also worked with the extraordinary collection put together by Olive Matthews who, encouraged by her father, began to collect at the age of 12 using her pocket money to buy examples of historic fashion and textiles.

“What a great eye she had,” says Hill, “and actually a vision for collecting material that was not perceived of valuable at the time.”

The 18th century was of particular interest to Matthews, influenced by her being given a small group of items from the 1770s that belonged to her great-great-grandmother Susanna Pearce. This meant her collecting was always personal, diligently researched and within a budget (it is said she never spent more than £5 on an item) often sourcing her treasures from market stalls in London’s Caledonian Road.

Edith Durham became a national hero in Albania

“There’s not a lot of local documentation and she didn’t theorise about what she was doing, but she had a great passion and a great eye and knowledge for what she was interested in.

“She had a particular interest in fashion that was, as she would say, ‘beyond living memory’, just out of your grasp and in pieces that were very technically accomplished and had a lot of surface decoration.”

Her collection may have been highly individual but Olive Matthews became the driving force behind the creation of Chertsey Museum and the trust set up to care for what developed into a nationally significant collection of costume still lies at the heart of the Surrey museum.

For artist and anthropologist Edith Durham the journey into textile collecting was fuelled by a desire to try and understand a particular culture.

Durham became a national hero in Albania and travelled to the Balkans, first in 1900, where she became enthralled by the people, their cultures and costume, which she recorded in writings, photographs, sketches and by collecting traditional textiles.

The material Durham acquired during her travels between 1900 and 1914 has assumed even greater significance since the ethnic cleansing of Balkan museums during the conflict in the 1980s and 1990s. She donated her collection of textiles to Bankfield Museum in 1935.

a photo of a pair of embroidered pointed slippers

Knitted oversocks with needlework decoration date unknown, Embroidered fabric. © Calderdale Museums Collection, Halifax. Photography by Paul Tucker

a photo of a hanging textile with people and animal figures on it

Unknown maker, Phulkari early 20th-century, Cotton with floss silk embroidery. © Bradford Museums and Galleries. Photograph by Paul Tucker

a sample sheet with two mounted swatches of fabric on them

Robert Tanner, Duplicate sample book showing ‘Jasmine’, ‘Goat’, ‘Mairet’ and ‘Sheep’ 1970s, Block print on cotton in book. © Crafts Study Centre/Crafts Study Centre 2004

“Apart from the two later curators (Jennifer Harris and Nima Poovaya-Smith) who were collecting within the context of a museum collection and building on a heritage, most of these women started out collecting as a result of a personal passion,” adds Hill.

“Nima and Jennifer, at the Cartwright and the Whitworth, are very much a response as museums to the textile industry. I think what Jennifer brings is an understanding of how that heritage is beginning to shift and change, and from the sixties and seventies you’re getting this movement of artists who are rooted in a textile tradition but who are using it as an art medium.

“Jennifer understood that and was able to give that work a contextual understanding and a sense of value, that is quite rare within Britain I would say. She was identifying significance at the time that the work was being created, which I always think is a wonderful gift of a curator.

One collector who knew well the crossover of art and textiles was the artist Enid Marx. Part of the outstanding 1920s cohort of students at the Royal College of Art that Paul Nash described as ‘an outbreak of talent’, her modernist approach to print and patternmaking in textiles was ground- breaking and produced several iconic designs – including the patterns of furnishing fabrics for the London Underground.

In 1932 Marx and her life-long friend and colleague Margaret Lambert started to collect English popular art and an interest in pattern, identity and the integration of past and present design informed her collecting of material that was undervalued, if not on the brink of being lost.

“The interesting thing is the artist’s eye that she brought to her collecting,” says Hill, “it wasn’t necessarily a textile that she was collecting – that’s just one aspect of the broader collection. She was looking much more around English popular art and materials that then fed her own practice – as well as reflecting a form of national identity and cultural identity.”

The exhibition also references how these collections continue to influence us today and there are reminders of the resurgence of textiles in fine art via contemporary works including Alice Kettle’s huge machine embroidered panels, Three Caryatids (1989 – 91), Yinka Shonibare’s 2007 copy of the last slave ship The Wanderer, reimagined with ‘African’ batik fabric sails and Sarbjit Natt’s 1996 geometric patterned silk sari.

a block print mimicking a basket of fruit and flowers

Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher, Large Basket 1920s -1930s, Block print on cotton. © Crafts Study Centre/Crafts Study Centre 2004

a photo of a long tunic in a red pattern

Sehyr Saigol (designed by), Zardosi Robe 1994, Brocaded silk with zardosi, sequin and beadwork embroidery. © Bradford Museums and Galleries. Photograph by Paul Tucker

But it’s the seven pioneering women, their collections and their stories that lie at the heart of this journey into textiles, which offers a glimpse of the sheer diversity of textile collections across the UK.

“There are so many wonderful museum collections, sometimes in unexpected places with unexpected material that tell wonderful stories,” says Hill. “Not just about the material itself but about the people that have collected.

“I hope we uncover just some of those stories and that people might want to find out more for themselves and go and see these collections. I’d say just go and support your collections wherever you are, there is some amazing material in museums up and down the country.”

Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles is at Two Temple Place from January 25 – April 19 2020. 

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Two Temple Place is one of London's architectural gems, an extraordinary late Victorian mansion built by William Waldorf Astor on Embankment. The house is owned by registered charity, The Bulldog Trust and supports the charitable activities of the Trust through exhibitions and events hosted in the building. It also provides…

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