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Issue 42 - Life's rich tapestry

Scotland Magazine Issue 42
December 2008


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Life's rich tapestry

One of the more fascinating features of the Edinburgh suburb of Corstorphine used to be the Edinburgh Tapestry Company which was quartered in close proximity to a 16th century Dovecot, from which it in time derived its name. Established in 1912 by the 4th Marquess of Bute, a remarkable benefactor and conservationist, its first weavers came from the Merton Abbey workshops that were founded in Wimbledon, England, by the English craftsman, William Morris.

The Dovecot Tapestry did not therefore have a strong Scottish tradition to draw from, but it soon set about creating one for itself and, over the subsequent century, rapidly established a growing international reputation for the quality of its work.

Creative projects with renowned artists such as Stanley Spencer, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, David Hockney, Eduardo Paolozzi and, more recently, Barbara Rae, Elizabeth Blackadder, Claire Barclay and William Crozier have consolidated this position, but, eight years ago, the studios were threatened with closure after the 7th Marquess of Bute announced that his family could no longer continue to support the operation.

Although the demand for original one-off tapestries for display and decoration on walls throughout the world was still very apparent, the costs involved in running such an operation had escalated dramatically.

It was then that philanthropist and businessman Alastair Salvesen, a scion of the well-known Scottish shipping dynasty stepped in, initially re-locating the weavers to a temporary home in the annex of Donaldson’s College before financing the astonishing £8 million refurbishment of a former Victorian swimming baths in Edinburgh’s old town.

This particular building had lain empty for years until it was purchased in 2007, and the Edinburgh-based architect Malcolm Fraser commissioned to remove the pools to create a workshop and two spacious galleries, while retaining such features as the elegantly arched roof timbers which are supported on cast iron columns. To make the studio commercially self-supporting, Salvesen has cannily incorporated rentable office space and five new duplex apartments, the rent or sale of which will help to fund the project.

In every day use is a viewing balcony where the general public is admitted on the first Tuesday of each month during exhibition periods, and where those who are interested can see the weavers at work. Pre-arranged private visits are also an option. The current exhibition over the winter months is of textiles by the celebrated modern sculptor Henry Moore. In the early 1940s at the instigation of a Czech manufacturer, he filled four sketchbooks with designs and this Scottish exhibition brings these together with the original textiles, many of which have not been seen outside of the Henry Moore Foundation in Leeds.

David Weir, director of the Dovecot Tapestry, is naturally extremely upbeat about its future.

“The ambition is to evolve into a dynamic studio with collaborations at the highest level and to continue teaching the skill of tapestry weaving. It will be something Edinburgh will be proud of.” What adds to the excitement is that a programme of apprenticeships to develop tapestry weaving skills is being launched, together with a wider educational programme of tours, lectures and practical classes.

When most people think about tapestry, they imagine floor rugs or ornate hangings in stately homes and public buildings, but there is so much more to the art of weaving than that.

To mark 90 years of commissioning leading figures in the international art world, therefore, Dovecot Studios approached the well-known Scottish fashion designer Chris Clyne and invited her to create a sculptural installation piece in the form of a spectacular tapestry corset (pictured here), head piece and a pair of hand-crafted shoes.

All three of these items were specially designed, hand-painted and manufactured in association with the Dovecot’s master weaver, Naomi Anthoney, and they are currently in Japan as part of Scotland’s contribution to One Hundred Percent Design at Tokyo Design Week.

What this proves is that not only is weaving a unique and exquisite form of creativity, but it can be as adaptable, modern and cool as any international icon of trend-setting.

For more info Dovecot Studios, 10 Infirmary Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1LT Telephone: +44 (0)131 550 3660 Email: Web: