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Issue 12 - A new lease of life

Scotland Magazine Issue 12
January 2004


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A new lease of life

The dovecot tapestries are going from strength to strength. Roddy Martine assesses a true Scottish treasure

It was more than two decades ago that I discovered the Dovecot Tapestry, in those days situated in the Edinburgh village of Corstorphine and on that occasion, I had been invited to a “cutting-off” ceremony.

It was my first visit to the workshop which had taken its name from the adjoining 17th century beehive-shaped Dovecot, now a visitor attraction, and being actively involved in the Scottish visual art scene at the time, it proved a revelation.

I had never seriously considered tapestry before, but seeing the walls of this workshop hung with literally dozens of dazzling images created in wool and other textiles, I was completely won over.

Established in 1912 by the 4th Marquess of Bute, the Dovecot Studios’ original weavers came from William Morris’ Merton Abbey Workshops in Wimbledon, London.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s they combined inherited skills with an innovative approach, and the interiors of many great houses and buildings at home and abroad benefited from their creativity.

In 1946, the studios were incorporated as The Edinburgh Tapestry Company, although they were still widely known as Dovecot.

In the years that followed, there have been creative projects with Stanley Spencer, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, David Hockney, Eduardo Paolozzi and Barbara Rae, producing a flow of astonishing and stunningly beautiful public and private commissions.

But inevitably all great creative ventures sooner or later run into financial problems, and despite its enormous popularity, by the year 2000 the studios were faced with closure.

Enter Alastair Salvesen, scion of the Scottish Leith-based shipping empire, and the Dovecot was saved.

Salvesen had already commissioned works from the studios, notable Barbara Rae’s wonderful Carnival Edinburgh with hangs in the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, and knew the quality of their work.

An entrepreneur of impeccable taste, he was prepared to back them to the hilt, but he was equally aware that the times were changing, and to survive in the arts, a strong and pro-active marketing initiative is required.

Today, having relocated to a building in the grounds of Donaldson’s College, in Edinburgh’s west end, two full-time master weavers, Douglas Grierson and David Cochrane, together with more than 50 years of experience of weaving, are carrying on the ideals of William Morris’ Arts & Crafts Movement, but always with an innovatory flair. Combining a much greater visibility with the energetic input of its dedicated managing director David Weir, the company has taken on a new lease of life.

Weir’s presence at the Smithsonian Scottish Week in Washington earlier this year is just the beginning of an ongoing exercise to create an awareness of the Dovecot Studios in territories where its name and reputation are relatively unknown.

When commissioning a tapestry, a client can select an artist or simply ask the studios to suggest one.

Once a design is chosen, samples are woven to show the colours, textures and techniques employed to interpret the design. Tapestries can be woven to any size the customer wants, and often created specifically to fit a certain space.

Every tapestry created at the Dovecot Studios brings with it a uniqueness and originality of its very own.

Not surprisingly, recent patrons have included international organisations such as PepsiCo in New York, who commissioned one for its grandiose headquarters, the Chase Manhattan Bank, and Esso Chemicals.

Among other clients are the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Glenfiddich Distillery belonging to Wm Grant & Sons, and the King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh, Suadi Arabia.

But you do not have to be a large public body to commission a Dovecot Tapestry. There are dozens of small, private investors who cherish the idea of an original wall hanging of this kind.

Tapestries have been a source of wonder and pleasure from the early civilisations of Babylon, China, Greece and Rome.

How reassuring it is therefore that after all these centuries, the skills of weaving have not been forgotten, and can still be found here in Scotland at the very heart of our Capital city.