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Archie Brennan: Forgotten Pop artist – celebrated weaver

a woven artwork of

Muhammad Ali, Archie Brennan, 1973, tapestry. Private collection.

A passionate advocate of tapestry and a forgotten master of Pop Art gets a welcome retrospective next March (2021) at Edinburgh’s Dovecot Studios

When thinking of the artists who fuelled pop art in the United Kingdom and the United States from the late 1940s into the 1960s, the name Archie Brennan (1931 – 2019) is probably not one that springs immediately to mind.

Edinburgh born Brennan’s CV is not the typical artist’s one either, with bodybuilder, a former Mr Scotland (like his friend Sean Connery) and his chosen medium of weaving – all adding to the reasons why his name is not better known.

But Archie Brennan: Tapestry Goes Pop! at the studio where he did his apprenticeship, is about to spread the word about this great unrecognised pop artist by bringing together archives and over 80 of his tapestries and works – many of them only recently tracked down – in a thematic exhibition exploring 60 years of prolific and boundary pushing tapestry making.

Taking a deep delve into the world of a master of modern tapestry making, the exhibition has been developed with the help of an Art Fund-backed campaign which raised over £20,000 to help locate several pieces now in private collections, and a number of the works are going on public display for the first time.

tapestry of a woman looking out of a window

At a Window I, Spotted Dress, Second Version, Archie Brennan, 1980, tapestry Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

group photo of young men with shosrt hair, shirts and tank tops

Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh Tapestry Company Archie Brennan, front row middle, 1949. Photographer Lida Mose. Image National Galleries of Scotland

tapestry artwork of two women talking

Gossips, reconstruction, the Triumph of Caesar, At a Window XVIII, Archie Brennan, 2006, tapestry, image © Archie Brennan Estate

And as visitors will see, the medium may be unusual, but the themes and subject matter are often pure pop. Brennan had a healthy pop artist’s interest in ephemera, popular imagery and culture.

A fascinating component of his engagement with pop art was his interest in celebrity culture and media representations of individuals. Throughout his career he was drawn to public figures such as Princess Diana, and boxer and activist Muhammad Ali, who features in several portraits. Often Brennan used small images cut from newspapers and magazines or sketched from the TV to translate pop culture imagery to tapestry.

One of the keystones of his practice was the tension between high and low art, throwaway culture and the time intensive process of tapestry weaving, and he increasingly became a leading force in twentieth century tapestry and a tireless advocate for the practice of woven tapestry; what he described as “tapestry’s long-established graphic pictorial role.”

Sharp, witty, and immensely talented, Brennan’s 60-year weaving career actually began with an apprenticeship between 1948 and 1952 at Dovecot, which was established in 1912 and was known as Edinburgh Tapestry Co. He followed this with a spell at Edinburgh College of Art where he completed his degree and then in the 1960s he led the highly regarded Department of Tapestry and Fibre Arts and also returned to Dovecot as Artistic Director between 1962 and 1977.

During this tenure Brennan encouraged weavers to take a greater freedom in interpretation of tapestry design and weaving and worked on collaborations with artists including his friend and fellow Scottish Pop Artist Eduardo Paolozzi, John Houston and David Hockney.

black and white

Muhammad Ali, Archie Brennan, 1975, tapestry, Image © National Museums Scotland.

tapestry of a mid-rif shirt, tie and jacket

Once Upon a Summer Partial Self Portrait Archie Brennan 2010 tapestry image © Archie Brennan Estate

woven image of chains

Chains, Archie Brennan,1977, tapestry, Image © National Museums Scotland.

Much of Brennan’s life was henceforth dedicated to teaching and advocating for tapestry – he lectured and taught widely, establishing tapestry courses at the Australian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne, The National Arts School in Papua New Guinea and a long spell of teaching and exhibiting in the United States where he spent the last 30 years of his life, with his partner, the tapestry artist and teacher, Susan Martin Maffei.

Archie Brennan died on October 31, 2019.

Dovecot Studios is currently researching and experimenting with the tapestry innovations developed by Brennan via a National Lottery funded project which is leading to the creation of a major new ‘Tapestry For Scotland’ to promote Scottish tapestry skills worldwide.

The Studio also undertakes public and private textile commissions, with major tapestry projects including collaborations with Chris Ofili, Victoria Crowe, Alison Watt, and Garry Fabian Miller.

black and woven artwork of Muhamad Ali

Muhammad Ali, Archie Brennan,1999, tapestry, image © Archie Brennan Estate

tapestry artwork depicting an elderly chap reading a book in an armchair

Portrait of Mr Noble, Archie Brennan 1981. Tapestry image © Antonia Reeve Photography

tapestry artwork of a wine cask on a table with a black and white tablecloth

The Wine Cask-Archie Brennan 1974 Ardkinglas Collection. Tapestry image © Shannon Toft

Archie Brennan: Tapestry Goes Pop! is at Dovecot Studios, 10 Infirmary Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1LT Friday March 26 2021 – Saturday June 26 2021. 

venue

Dovecot Studios

Edinburgh

Dovecot Studios is a one hundred year old tapestry studio, now homed in a beautifully renovated Victorian swimming pool in the heart of Edinburgh. As well as housing the tapestry studio, we also have exhibitions, venue hire, cafe and our shop. Founded in 1912 by the Marquess of Bute, the…

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