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Henry Moore Helmet Heads 1

This photo is of the preparation stage for the series of pieces inspired by the Henry Moore heads.  I decided on three things:

  1. That I would make some small collages to get me into the flow of the appliques.
  2. I would make monoprints using my gelli plate to use in the fabric pieces.
  3. I would use the Sanderson prints that I had got from Bristol Children’s Scrapstore as the backgrounds

I had a lot of fun doing the prints:

I made a lot on paper and then on fabric, which was also from a variety of furnishing fabric samplebooks I have collected over the years.  The time has come to use them.

Because we are in lockdown it is hard to get things quickly.  I really could have done with some textile medium to keep the fabric soft as I was using acrylic paint which is nasty to hand stitch through.  As it was, I decided that I would just have to put a jeans needle in the sewing machine and do a lot of machine embroidery.  I thought I had some textile medium somewhere, but it seems to have gone to ground.  I love gelli printing and have piles of the prints.  It is good finally to be using them.

I decided to use the Sanderson prints because they epitomise the English country house, gentleman’s home is his castle look to me.  They are traditional.  They never date.  They have gorgeous botanical prints on them, and they are very high quality fabric.  These pieces have been through the washing machine at least three times to soften them up a bit, and they have not faded a bit.  They haven’t really softened much either, but I did get a lot of the paper backing off the,m as they had been mounted on mood board pages in the swanky sample book.

I wanted something that said home, tradition, stability, safety and protection and the Sanderson brand has all these associations for me.  That’s why I decided on them as the substrate.  I mounted them with spray glue onto some eco-friendly recycled wadding.  I think I should possibly have tried this out first given the size of the project – getting on for 25 pieces, but patience has never been my strong point.  The wadding is okay to work with, by the way.  The Sanderson fabric stitches like what it is: high quality furnishing fabric rather than quilting weight or dress weight cotton.  This means that the hand sewing on it is necessarily pretty basic:

There is a lot of simple stitching like this, mainly straight stitches but a bit of stem stitch which you can see on the left.  I might go mad with some colonial knots on some of them and possibly some bullion stitches.

I used some of the more textured fabric to print from by inking the gelli plate, pressing the fabric into iy and then lifting that off, and putting a lighter smoother fabric onto the gelli to pick up the paint left on the plate.  I got some nice prints, which I will point ou,t using this technique.  I know that gelli plates are expensive and that you can make your own, but I have found that the proprietary ones are surprisingly robust and highly reliable.

One interesting thing was that in lockdown I used some acrylic paint which I would not normally use.  I usually use Golden Fluid Acrylic, which is the best in my book, but I had found a lot of paint in my stash as I had been clearing stuff out.  There have been a lot of cupboards cleared out during our isolation period, I think.  I found some really cheap stuff in big tubes that an ex-Brownie leader gave me, and some that we have had in our house for at least twenty years.  This paint is all thin and as luck would have it, acted much like ink so the prints worked well.  I stuck to black, white, red, a pinky red, yellow, dark green, ultramarine, dark grey, peach and burnt umber.  Mainly I used the black and grey.  Unusually for me there were no metallics to jazz it up a bit.

The next blog will be about the process of putting the pieces together so far.

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Henry Moore Helmet Heads – introduction

Henry Moore (1898-1986) is generally considered to be one of the greatest sculptors of the twentieth century.  One of his best-known figures is located outside the United Nations Building.

I am not that big a fan of Moore, except that I love his drawings in the underground from World War II, and his sketchbook drawings of sheep.  I also like his series of king and queen sculptures, but as for the rest, I can take or leave it.  All this with the exception of his helmets which I love, and more than that, his lithographs of helmet heads.

Moore came from a mining background in Yorkshire, and his first experience of sculpture was when he went as a small boy to St Oswald’s church in Methley, South Yorkshire.  Here he saw a tomb effigies of Sir Robert Waterton (d. 1424) and Sir Lionel, Lord of Welles (d. 1461).  These were life-sized figures dressed in their battle armour.  So, Moore’s first exposure to sculpture involved medieval armour.  He served in the First World War, where he wore a helmet himself as well as seeing both British and German soldiers wearing them.  He also visited the Wallace Collection between the wars and saw and sketched the armour in the displays there.  He seems to have had a life-long fascination with armour, and he saw it as both a practical,  protective object and a work of art in itself.  He seems to have been more interested in the pure form of fighting armour rather than the highly decorated pieces of dress or ceremonial armour in the Wallace Collection.

I discover that we are slightly kindred spirits.  I went with the medieval historian to the Wallace Collection several years ago and absolutely loved the strong shapes of the armour and have long been fascinated by its connection to modern men’s suits in which tubes of cloth have replaced tubes of metal in forming work wear.  At the time I visited the Wallace Collection I was obsessed with Zentangles and filled the shapes with them.

I went back to the Wallace Collection (which is without doubt my favourite London Museum) to see the exhibition of Moore’s Helmet Heads last year.  I did a blog about it, which I shall not repeat.  I loved it and was fascinated by the themes of whether something to do with death and violence can be seen as a work of art in its own right, which intrigued Moore before me.  I was fascinated by all the dualities of helmets as being about protection and the inflicting of violence, or interior and exterior, of hard metal and soft bodies, of containment and liberation.  It was amazing to see the whole series of them together in one place, but the part of the exhibition which I found the absolutely most moving was a short series of lithographs that he made in the mid-1970s as he was getting older in which he returned to his helmet theme.

Even as I looked at them I could see that they would make great textile pieces. 

I was also intrigued by the comments in the catalogue that Moore had been very disappointed by the prints and he tore them up.  It was only when he saw the sections of the heads that he became excited and inspired and went back to working on them.

I found these fearful faces staring out from battlements waiting for the attack to start moving and unsettling.  I think that they are terrifying in the way that suggesting the monster off-stage rather than showing it in detail is in films and novels.

I have been meaning to do something with all this for ages – well, since last year, at least.  They came back to my mind when the corona virus forced us into lockdown, and I decided to find the sketchbook with my ideas from the time and see what I could make with them.  I will blog separately about them, but I think they really are art for our time.  Like the soldiers on the battlements, we are confined to our protective spaces, with no real idea of what the outcome might be of the ‘war’ against the virus.  We are not sure whether or not we will face death.  We are not sure what to do.  We are not sure how long the siege will last.  We do not know whether our safe space will keep us safe, and we have no idea how effective our protective clothing, in our case, our masks will be.

In my series of textile pieces, I am offsetting the Mrs Miniver-like domestic textiles made by Sanderson with cabbage roses and cottage garden flowers against the starkness of the dark mono prints I have made.  This will be the subject of the next blog.

Further reading: T. Capwell and H. Higham (eds.) (2019) Henry Moore: The Helmet Heads. London: Bloomsbury/The Wallace Collection.

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Revisiting an old friend – The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals

I was in the Wallace Collection a couple of weeks ago having a look at the delightful Manolo Blahnik exhibition.  The shoes are dotted throughout the exhibition which means there is a kind of treasure hunt to find them.  One of them was placed in front of this famous portrait.  Now, The Laughing Cavalier was ubiquitous when I was growing up.  It turned up on biscuit tins and calendars all the time.  Because it was so familiar, I was a bit sniffy when I saw it up on the wall, but I thought I might as well have a look as it was there in front of me.  I am glad I did, because it really does reward close attention.  Frans Hals could really paint fabric.

A bit of information about the painting first.  Of course, the sitter isn’t laughing and he isn’t a cavalier.  Apparently, the motifs on his sleeve suggest that this might have been a betrothal portrait, and he was probably a merchant of some description.  The Wallace Collection website states:

In this exuberant half-length portrait, a young man poses, arm rakishly akimbo, against a plain grey background. The painting is inscribed with the date (1624) and the sitter’s age (26). The work is unique in Hals’s male portraiture for the rich colour that is largely imparted by the sitter’s flamboyant costume: a doublet embroidered with fanciful motifs in white, gold and red thread, with a gilded rapier pommel visible at the crook of his elbow…

By the early nineteenth century, Hals’s reputation had fallen into relative obscurity. Despite this, the portrait became the object of a furious bidding battle between the 4th Marquess of Hertford and Baron James de Rothschild at a Paris auction in 1865. It was acquired by Lord Hertford for the princely sum of 51.000 francs (about £2,040), an event which proved to be a turning point in the artist’s critical reputation. At the Royal Academy exhibition of 1888, the painting was exhibited with the title ‘The Laughing Cavalier.’

What caught my eye was the fantastic painting of the sleeve, particularly the embroidery, and also the lace.

 

I love those buttons and the lace on his cuffs.  Also, look at the way the ruff is painted:

Look at the gorgeous way he has painted the black silk:

And finally, the lovely frill of lace in the lower left-hand corner of the frame:

I think this is just too gorgeous to walk past.  Here’s the Manolo Blahnik that went with it:

Now, I can see why they paired the picture with Blahnik’s interpretation of the riding boot, but I think it misses the point.  Although materials and craft employed here are exquisite, this portrait is not about restraint.  It is flamboyant and rejoicing in excess.  I think it’s been matched with the title.

Just glorious.  Next time I go to the Wallace, I will go and have another look.

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Henry Moore Helmet Head Exhibition at the Wallace Collection

Yesterday I treated myself to a trip to the Wallace Collection to see the Henry Moore Helmet Head exhibition.  Moore apparently went to the Wallace Collection to study and draw the helmets in the Collection’s armour exhibitions.  He worked on these ideas throughout his life.

I only like three elements of Moore’s work; his drawings of sheep, his king and queen sculptures and his helmet work.  So, I really did want to get to see this show.  It’s been on for a good three months and I finally got to see it yesterday, the day before it closes.  That is typical of me.

The exhibition was wonderful, and the catalogue is great.  The Wallace is a lovely place to visit, and have lunch.  And there is a tiny branch of my current favourite shoe shop just around the corner.  That’s all I need, really.

I don’t have photos of the heads themselves, and they are easy enough to find on-line, like this one:

 

I went to draw the heads.  I think you understand what you are looking at a lot more if you draw it as well as just look at it,  So what follows is some pages from my sketchbook.

But, you can’t really go to a good show without learning something.  So, what I learned was that for Moore:

  • the helmet was a protector and  an object of war and brutality.  It has elements of the victim and the perpetrator.
  • the helmet is akin to the skull – it protects the brain – although within that it seems that the brain, for Moore, was the protector of the mind.  The mind is the thing that most needs protection.  It is the most important thing – the human consciousness.
  • the helmet is vital to the aggressive warrior but also protects the terrified soldier.  There is the warlike and the anxious.
  • there is tremendous human tenderness, somehow, in his portrayal of the human ear.  I wondered how much you heard in those helmets, and whether they amplified the sounds of war.  It turns out, that they had an arming helmet underneath which deadened the sound, which was good, but also meant that you couldn’t hear orders.  Infantrymen had much more open helmets which meant that they could hear order.  The heavy cavalry wore these enclosed helmets and couldn’t so once they charged, that was it – they were out of control.
  • I didn’t know about his lithographs which were stunning and a real extra special gift at the end of the exhibition.  He talked about them as soldiers looking out over the battlements getting ready for battle.  Anxiety leeches out of them as you look at them.  They reminded me as well as Goya’s unbearable painting of the little dog in his horrors of war series.

 

I also learned that Moore can make a much more graceful line in bronze than I can make on paper.

I think this anxiety about a world in peril, and people needing protection is very relevant again.  Moore had been in the First World War and seen the horrors.  I have lived a life of it on television.  I felt this exhibition gave a real feel of what it is like to suffer from this inescapable anxiety and to live with the ghost of war throughout our lives.

On a lighter note.  I loved doing these drawings.  I was going to give them some watercolour washes on the train home, but it was packed so there wasn’t room.  I finished them off this morning instead with coloured pencils and some kids’ crayons.  I absolutely loved doing it.  I loved layering the colours.  The sketchbook is a small six inch square one which gives you some idea of the scale of the drawings.  The collage elements were good for finding the proportions of the heads, which were a lot squarer than I thought.  Anyway, here are the pages.

 

This was one of the first exhibits of a helmet which had inspired him.  This one is from antiquity, whereas most of them are medieval or renaissance.

 

One of the things I learned from drawing was that the insides were cast separately from the helmet form, which is probably obvious, but took me a while.

 

I don’t normally like the stringed elements in Moore and his contemporaries’ work,  but I felt it worked here with some sort of reference to arrows as well as helmets.  Also seen in this collage of mine:

 

I loved the ambiguity of the above which looked masculine until you saw it sideways on when it had a goddess’ hairdo.  Also, whoever invented the Cybermen onmust have seen these heads.

These terrified me more than the Daleks, which must tell me something.

 

I love the shadow helmet which has emerged as I worked on the previous page and transferred some of the pigment from the purple head.

The piece on the left was affecting because it had the war-like lobster plate armour on the right as we look at it but an embracing, enveloping arm on the other.  Again playing with the duality of war: aggression and protection.  The drawing on the right is my version of Moore’s drawing.  Really perfect for layered stitching.

Good example of how cutting a square or a rectangle of paper helps to get the proportions right in these collages.

My attempts to work out how he did it!

 

 

I may well do some more work on these lithographs as they are almost preparatory sketches for stitched panels.

 

In short, this was a great show, beautifully mounted, and thought-provoking.  It had a brooding quality, which I think is instructive and highly current.

 

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Art crossover

A couple of weeks ago the medieval historian and I went to the Djangoly Gallery at the Lakeside Gallery at the University of Nottingham and saw an exhibition of work called ‘Space Light Colour’ by Rana Begum.  She makes large work playing with the three elements in the title: Space, light and colour.  The work changes totally as you move through space.  In the large pieces there were strips of square material – I think, wood, painted different colours on different sides so they look different as you see them from the left, right or straight on.

We were there on the most beautiful bright sunny morning and this made the colours glow in the white gallery.  But my eye was really caught by two smaller pieces which really reminded me of boro, the Japanese mending technique.  They start out looking like op art but change as you move in closer:

 

 

 

 

The superimposition of the grids leads to little cross marks just like the random boro stitches making cross stitches:

 

 

Really good show by an artist/architect who was new to me.