Sunday, 28 January 2007

Reading List

I kept a running list of the books I read in 2006 and arranged them in approximate categories, beginning with Arts and Crafts
Some of these books are old friends I had occasion to visit during the year, either for reference or just because I find them so valuable and/or useful they are worth re-reading.

M.C.Richards: Centering in Pottery, Poetry and the Person (Out of print and apparently unavailable.) Published in 1962. Re-reading this is pure 1960s nostalgia and yet, and yet... how much of what she says is still true, particularly about the true meaning of education.)

Jonathan Holstein: The Pieced Quilt. An American Design Tradition

Bets Ramsey,Merikay Waldvogel: Southern Quilts. Quilts of the Civil War

Faun Valentine: West Virginia Quilts and Quiltmakers

Carla Needleman: The Work of Craft

Suzi Gablik: The Re-Enchantment of Art

Anne Truitt: Daybook. The Journey of an Artist

Henry Glassie: The Spirit of Folk Art

Garard Degeorge and Yves Porter: The Art of the Islamic Tile


Richard Holmes: Coleridge –. VolI: Early Visions. Vol.II: Darker Reflections

Hilary Spurling: Matisse. The Master (Two Volumes)

Molly Hughes: A London Childhood of the 1870s (Persephone)

Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life. Diaries and Letters (Persephone)

Geoffrey Wainwright: Lucy Duff Gordon

Iris Irigo: The Last Attachment. The Story of Byron and Teresa Guiccioli

John McGahern: Memoir

Claire Tomalin: Samuel Pepys. The Unequalled Self

Philip Callow: Lost Earth. A Life of Cezanne

A.W. Kinglake: Eothen.

Robert Byron: to OxianaThe Road

Lit. Crit.

Louis McNeice: The Poetry of W.B.Yeats. (“..for existence is still existence, whether the tense is past or future.” “..the poet is a specialist in something everyone does.”


Norah Hoult: There Were No Windows. (Persephone)

Dorothy Whipple: They Were Sisters. (Persephone)

Kashuo Ishiguro: Never Let me Go. The Remains of the Day. When We Were Orphans. An Artist of the Floating World.

Colm Toibin: The Master (Fictionalised account of later years in the life of Henry James)

Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Pat Barker: Double Vision

Michael Frayn: Spies

Noel Streatfield: Saplings (Persephone)

Sebastian Barry: A Long, Long Way

Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner

Kay Smallshaw: How to Run Your Home Without Help (Persephone)

Ian Mckewan: The Cement Garden

Alan Hollinghurst: The Line of Beauty

Alexander McCall Smith: Portuguese Irregular Verbs. The Finer Points of Sausage

Dogs. At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances
. (Trilogy)

Laura Graham: The Unfortunates

Patrick Gale: Rough Music

Robert Edric: Gathering the Water.

Carol Shields: Larry’s Party

Marina Lewycka: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Louise Erdich: The Master Butcher’s Singing Club

Nicola Kraus: The History of Love

Niccolò Ammaniti: I’m Not Scared

Some All-time Favourite Books

Andre Gide: La Porte Etroite. Les Nourritures Terrestre (Translated by Dorothy Bussy as Straight is the Gate and Fruits of the Earth

Proust: A La Recherche du Temps Perdus (In the translation by Scott Moncrieff. I’ve tried some of the contemporary translations but go back to Scott Moncrieff as being, perhaps, less literal, but more true to the spirit of the book.)

Ford Maddox Ford: The Good soldier

Tolstoy: Anna Kerenina

M.C.Richards: Centering in Pottery, Poetry and the Person (Out of print and apparently unavailable.)

Jonathan Holstein: The Pieced Quilt. An American Design Tradition

Carla Needleman: The Work of Craft

Anne Truitt: Daybook. The Journey of an Artist

T.C.McCluhan: Touch the Earth

Henry James: What Maizie Knew. Portrait of a Lady

Flora Annie Steel: The Garden of Fidelity

Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth

Jonathan Holstein: The Pieced Quilt. An American Design Tradition

The Frozen Deep

Another book from Hesperus Press, an unashamed wallow in Victorian melodrama. The Frozen Deep was originally written in 1856 as a play. It was inspired by the true story of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated expedition of 1845 to chart the final, unknown parts of the Northwest Passage. Traces of the expedition, and some records, were subsequently found, indicating that the two ships had become ice-locked and the entire crew eventually perished, some from starvation, others being frozen to death when they abandoned the ship and attempted to escape overland on sledges.

Wilkie Collins' tale begins as a love story set in a seaport on the night before an Arctic expedition is due to sail. By a terrible mis-chance, rivals for the hand of a 'young girl, pale and delicate', sail on the same expedition and their rivalry is eventually, tragically, played out in the icy wastes of the Arctic and on the shores of Newfoundland. What adds a distinctly gothic atmosphere to the narrative is the fact that the heroine is reputed to have 'second sight', so is constantly racked by guilt and terror as she foresees the tragedy looming. There is, in appropriate Vistorian style, an uplifting moral element to the tale, when the deadly rivals are united in a desperate fight for survival, one of them making the final sacrifice for the sake of the heroine.

The play was first performed in 1857, with Dickens and Collins playing the leading roles. Collins re-worked it into a novella in 1874, for his reading tour of America.

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Proust and L'Ile Inconnue

Here is the 23-year old Proust describing the bleak and lonely last days of the young Baldassare Silvande,Viscount of Sylvania:

“ He turned his head away from the happy image of the pleasures that he had passionately loved and would never enjoy again. He looked at the harbour: a three-master was setting sail.

"It's the ship leaving for India" said Jean Galeas.

Baldassare could not make out the people standing on the deck waving their handkerchiefs, but he could guess at the thirst for the unknown that filled their eyes with longing; they still had so much to experience, to know, and to feel. The anchor was weighed, a cry went up, and the boat moved out over the sombre sea to the West, where, in a golden haze, the light mingled the small boats together with clouds and murmured irresistible and vague promises to the travellers."

As I read those words, I was haunted by echoes of Theophile Gautiere’s poem, L’Isle Inconnu, set so evocatively to music by Berlioz:

Dites, la jeune belle
Où voulez-vous aller?
La voile enfle son aile
La brise va souffler.
L’aviron est d’ivoire
Le pavillon de moire
Le gouvernail d’or fin.
J’ai pour lest une orange,
Pour voile une aile d’ange
Pour mousse un séraphin.
Dites, la jeune belle,
Où voulez-vous aller?
La voile enfle son aile,
La brise va souffler.
Est-ce dans la Baltique?
Dans la mer Pacifique?
Dans l’île de Java?
Ou bien est-ce en Norvège,
Cueillir la fleur de neige,
Ou la fleur d’Angsoka?
Dites, la jeune belle
Où voulez-vous aller?
Menez-moi, dit la belle,
A la rive fidèle, Où l’on aime toujours!
Cette rive, ma chère,
On ne la connaît guère
Au pays des amours.
Où voulez-vous aller?La brise va souffler.

Who's Afraid of Marcel Proust?

If, for entirely understandable reasons: it apparently goes on for ever; style is labyrinthine; plot, in so far as there is one, is slow to virtually stationary.... you are reluctant to read even a page by Marcel Proust, but at the same time have a slightly guilty feeling that as a serious reader you ought to do so, I'd like to suggest a possible way in. Hesperus Press (,
whose motto is ‘Et remotissima prope (to bring near what is far), publish "works by illustrious authors, often unjustly neglected or simply little known in the English-speaking world.” The books are beautifully-designed little paper-backs and Proust’s Pleasures and Days, originally published in 1896 as Les Plaisirs et Les Jours and here translated by Andrew Brown, is one of them. It's a series of sketches and short stories depicting the lives, loves, manners and motivations of a host of characters; their amorous entanglements, idle vanities, feigned morality and, above all, their snobbery – Proust is very strong on snobbery.

The cover blurb reads: "A stunning volume of philosophical reflections, short narratives and poems", offering us “ an early glimpse into Proust’s literary genius, and revealing him as both a remarkable chronicler of metropolitan life and a compassionate recorder of the most poignant sensations and recollections."

There is an excellent Forward by A.N. Wilson, where we learn that Proust completed these stories, poems and fragments before he was 24 years old, and many of them were written when he was even younger. (One can only be awed by the knowingness, the psychological perspicacity displayed by one so young.) "What will immediately strike any reader of this volume of short stories is how surely, from the first, Proust knew his theme." And Wilson helps us to understand the literary import of Proust’s style: "The complex syntax, those long sentences with their coiling clauses that he was already practising in Pleasures, is deployed in The Search (i.e. In Search of Lost Time ) to make us slow down and take the time to notice the world and the richness of its interconnections."

Of course, if you have never even dipped your toe into A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, that last remark won’t mean much to you, but Pleasures and And Days will give you an authentic introduction to the Proustian style and themes so that, who knows?-you may be tempted to launch forth on the great work itself!

Monday, 22 January 2007

Yosegire – Symbolism in 16th Century Japanese Patchwork

Patchwork in Japan has historically had religious significance. In Shinto, the predominant religion, all things animate and inanimate are believed to be imbued with a spirit, and this of course includes textiles. In ancient times fabric was so highly valued as to sometimes be used as a form of currency and fabrics were given as tribute to emperors and warlords. Even today old textiles have symbolic meaning: the giving of a patchwork garment, for example, conveys a wish for long life for the recipient, while the care and preservation of textiles is seen as a spiritual exercise. My padded and quilted patchwork dressing gowns are inspired by the 16th Century Japanese patchwork style known as ‘yosegire’. The word means ‘the sewing together of different fragments’ and is a form of what we in the West would describe as ‘crazy patchwork.’

Sunday, 21 January 2007

In Search of Lost Time

Many volumes have been written on Proust’s life and works so it’s easy for interested parties to follow up on. Try Wikipedia, for openers.
My own response to A La Recherche, which is not so much a story as an interior monologue, is entirely based on an appreciation of the powerful and convincing way in which he expresses ‘ the link between external and internal reality found in time and memory’ His understanding of psychological, philosophical and sociological manifestations of human life and society seem to me uniquely true and revealing. (O.K. Henry James comes close). Proust is, undeniably, discursive and I know that many would-be reader are daunted by this, but if you stay with it you find the text is so ‘alive with brilliant metaphor and sense imagery’, and the characters are brought so compellingly before your eyes, that it becomes mesmeric and, eventually, un-put-downable.
‘ A vital theme is the extent to which Proust sees humanity's strivings subjugated—time mocks the individual's intelligence and endeavors; memory synthesizes yet distorts past experience. Most experience causes inner pain, and the objects of human desires are the chief causes of their suffering.
‘In Proust's scheme the individual is isolated, society is false and ruled by snobbery, and artistic endeavor is raised to a religion and is superior to nature. Only through the vision gained in works of art can the individual see beyond his or her subjective experience. Proust's ability to interpret innermost experience in terms of such eternal forces as time and death created a profound and protean world view and his work has influenced generations of novelists and thinkers. His vision and technique have come to be seen as vital to the development of modernism.’

How Proust Really Did Save My Life

Things were bad. Very, very bad. My father was supportive but, never one to 'emote', instead gave me a book by way of comfort: Volume I of A La Recherche du Temps Perdus. (Yes, in French. My father would have asumed I'd want to go straight to the original. I was just lucky he didn't decide to give me Vergil's Aeneid.) At Easter, finding myself unexpectedly and unaccountably dumped on a caravan site in Wales, for company a four-year-old and two Golden Retrievers, one with a fractured leg, I opened the book. I read the first sentence: Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.' That line haunts me still, after 40 years.

I was so completely engrossed, from that opening sentence, that the pain and turmoil of real life receded; I inhabited another world, where memory and experience were constantly interwoven in a way that echoed my recollections of my own childhood. I acknowledge that this was escapism - but of a high order. And sometimes, one has to escape to survive.

My father had over-estimated my schoolgirl grasp of French, so I had to work hard at translating as I went along. Needless to say, there was no French dictionary to be found on a wet Easter week-end in rural Wales. As soon as I got back to London I explained to my father that I just HAD to read this book - but please would he get me an English version. Scott Moncrieff duly arrived the following week.

Yes, I know that Montcrieff has been accused of deviating from the literal interpretation of the work, and that the quotations used as titles for the different volumes are fanciful and sometimes bear little resemblance to the original (and yet, and yet - as a translation of A L'Ombre des Jeune Filles en Fleure doesn't 'Within a Budding Grove' capture the romantic spirit of the original far better than the literal 'In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower'?) ; and I know that there have since been other more literal translations, but I have a sentimental attachment to my 1960s editions of Montcrieff and I don't believe he has taken me too far astray from the meaning and intention of the original. I have, also, dipped into the French version from time to time, but am ashamed to report that my French isn't much better today than it was then so I still do my re-reading in English.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

The Patchworks of Lucy Boston

Lucy Boston's Patchwork of the Crosses is one of the masterpieces of English patchwork. Fifty-six blocks were made using only one template, a long hexagon ( known as a 'church window'), the edges being in-filled with squares and triangles. Her skilful and imaginative use of patterned fabrics create the illusion of infinitely varied blocks. A detail only is shown here - the full coverlet is about 88" square.

Monday, 15 January 2007

Thursday, 11 January 2007

Patchwork and the Spirit of Geometry. Part Two

Jonathan Holstein considered pieced quilts superior to appliqué quilts in variety, invention and ingenuity. "For the quilt maker, the pieced block dictated the use of basic geometric forms, the possibilities of which were later sensed and exploited by abstract painters. The beauty of appliqué quilts is more of a decorative nature than that seen in the best of the pieced quilt, which when successful are the results of legitimate questions having been posed and most convincingly resolved. The license to draw freely, if it is encumbered with considerations of what is "elegant" or in "good taste", maybe more confining than finding creative solutions within a given format."

Despite the fact that the period when many of these quilts were made, i.e. the mid-19th to the early 20th century, saw the emergence of geometric form as a consciously employed primary source in design, painting and sculpture, Jonathan Holstein reminds us that when such quilts were made they were accepted as common, utilitarian objects, not "art"; indeed, if presented as such they would certainly have been reviled. Nonetheless,,comparison between the visual effects of some of the best 19th and early 20th century quilts and paintings of that period are irresistible. Holstein points out the similarities between the "total visual effects " of some pieced quilts and examples of modern painting, for instance the retinal stimulation achieved through colour and formal relationships, and optical illusion, in the works of artists such as Vasaraly, while the use of repeated images drawn from the environment reminds us of the sequential use of images exemplified in the work of Andy Warhol. Colour variation on a single format, as seen in some Amish quilts, is compared with, for example, Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square series.

There are other points of comparison between quilts and paintings: quilts have the same format as most paintings, that is to say they are rectangular or square. (Painters fitted their frescoes largely to squared interiors and exteriors, worked on squared panels, used rectangular structures, whereas the square or rectangular format of the quilt was the fitted by the size and shape of beds.) Finally, quilts like paintings are two dimensional.

Holstein goes on to say: "intriguing and startling as the resemblances me be, any direct linking of the two media [i.e. quilting and painting] would be demeaning to the history and presence of both quilts and paintings. Implicit in the art of creating painting is the intellectual process which ties the work of an artist to his disaffected ancestors and his peers, and places sit in the history of objects specifically made to be art. This is precisely the quality which was absent in the making of pieced quilts. The women who made pieced quilts were not "artists", that is, they did not intend to make art, had no sense of the place of their work in a continuous stream of art history, did not, in short, intellectualise the production of handcraft any more than did the makers of objects in the vernacular tradition the world over."
Jonathan Holstein: The Pieced Quilt. An American Design Tradition.

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Patchwork and the Spirit of Geometry - Part One

An article I found 10 years ago on The Virtual Quilt, by Catherine Jones, seems to me as interesting and relevant today as it was then. The question she asked was this: what is the status of straightforward geometric patchwork in a time of ever more adventurous experimentation with the medium of the quilt? 10 years on, this trend shows no sign of losing its impetus, to the point where many people describe themselves as "textile artists" rather than quilters and use a huge variety of techniques to achieve their aims. Interestingly, many textile artists who started out in the quilt world tend to at least keep a toe in those waters, to exhibit at quilt shows and to teach and give talks on patchwork and quilting.

Several reasons for this could be advanced; a significant feature of the quilting world at large is the sense of community and bonding it engenders. Even people who have deviated from the mainstream retain affectionate friendships and liaison within the quilting world, while the less adventurous enjoy talks and classes with well-known makers who may challenge their assumptions and inspire them to experiment and explore. (The result is the eclecticism in styles and techniques of quilts seen at exhibitions today - everyone seems to be dyeing, painting, manipulating …….the list goes on.) There is also the fact that growth in the number of people becoming involved in patchwork and quilting, especially through the proliferation of groups and dedicated quilting shops, provides a useful and easily accessed client base for many textile artists.

But back to Catherine Jones's question. Where does this leave today’s patchwork quilt maker, someone who doesn’t wish to paint or dye fabric or turn their quilt into a collage, someone who enjoys straightforward piecing of geometric shapes? Can this be art? Jones broadens her discussion by placing patchwork in the context of geometric art forms found throughout the ages in many cultures and traditions. First, she argues that geometric art, with its straight lines and orderly arrangement which make it look so deceptively simple, challenges common expectations of what qualifies as "art". Furthermore, it conceals the mark of the maker's hand and

Furthermore, it conceals the mark of the maker's hand and discourages last-minute creative revision. "In an era that prizes individuality and the frenzy of artistic inspiration, geometric work can come across as too impersonal, too well-crafted and too deliberate."

Jones also points out that except in certain instances, most notably the world of Islamic geometrical art forms, crafts based on these forms have been traditionally associated with relatively underprivileged social groups, that is to say with people who don't usually function as mainstream arbiters of artistic taste. Both patchwork and basketry, for example, have at times been associated with poverty and a make-two-and-mend ethos. The art historian, Oleg Grabar, in a lecture he gave at the National Gallery of Art, after making a survey of non-Islamic ornament, concluded as follows "….. the areas and claims that most consistently exhibit geometric ornamentation are at the periphery of major cultural centres or at the edges of dominating social classes". He went on to speculate that "….. geometry was the privilege of the illiterate, the remote, the popularly pious, the women using (and/or making) textiles and ceramics". Grabar described the graphic artist M.C.Escher, famous for his geometric works, despite falling in to none of these underprivileged categories, as "an orphan within the pantheon of contemporary painters and draughtsman". All these attitudes conspire, in subtle ways, to relegate patchwork to an inferior status.

Jones is dismissive of attempts to upgrade the work of some contemporary quilt-makers by comparing it to that of celebrated artists, such as Mondrian, or by linking it with jazz. She says "linking quilt-making with jazz - with free-form, urban music performed mostly by men - is a tempting way to upgrade the status of a geometrical and traditionally rural, feminine, textile-based art form. But I question whether the analogy holds and whether the constrained, geometric nature of patchwork may not, in fact, be a positive feature, a source of artistic power.”
I hereby declare an interest: I love mosaic patchwork more than any other style, and will argue in further postings that its possibilities as a channel of artistic expression are inexhaustible.

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

The Work of Craft

The Work of Craft An inquiry into the nature of crafts and craftsmanship, by Carla Needleman, is an extended meditation on the relationship between Craft and craftsmen. She herself is a potter, and although she doesn't directly focus on textiles as such she shows that the basic material every craftsmen works with is him or her self. Whatever is between one's hands, the clay, the wood, the wool, the fabric, responds to the quality of one's inner state. The product of one's work is not just an object but a way of being.

In reviewing this book, Frederick Franck, author of The Zen of Seeing, said that it is a book "...for anyone whose hands itch to make something - pot, piece of weaving, wooden clog, painting or book - with seriousness, so that it is undivorced from the maker's inner life."

Here are some random quotes taken from Needleman's book:

"The realisation that when I work at my craft in a way that allows each moment to fall of its own weight, without hurrying it or retaining it, such a way of working will produce in me a state of greater sensitivity, can lead me to use this method as an inner technique having as its goal the state itself, solely for the pleasure of it. (P.9)"

"What does it mean that I undertake to study myself? Perhaps it can mean that I extend myself into the Craft, willing to sacrifice any of my own opinions that experience proves false. I undertake to begin a conversation with the craft, to listen to it, to be taught by the effort of trying to understand it. (Pages 12/13)"

Carla Needleman. The Work of Craft. An inquiry into the nature of crafts and craftsmanship. Alfred Knopf. NY. 1979. isbn 0 394 49718 X

Sunday, 7 January 2007

English patchwork

An eclectic mix of cotton, velvet,silk and satin (an old nightie). Framed under glass as mock Victoriana. Piecing this block in thse fabrics would have been difficult by any other method.

New Year - new leaf?

In the customary New Year work-room clear-out I always find large numbers of UFOs, the motivation for some of which entirely escapes me. I’d like to report that I ruthlessly ditch anything I can’t see a use for, but it’s hard …you never know when something may come in for some yet-to-be devised project!

This year, I found a large cache of English patchwork pieces, by which I mean mostly patches tacked over papers ready to be sewn together. It reminded me of how passionate I ‘d been about English patchwork when I first started, nearly 30 years ago. I did use a sewing- machine as well, but it was the fitting together of all those little mosaic pieces by hand that really fascinated me. My first inspiration was, of course, Avril Colby, shortly to be followed by Lucy Boston.

The blue cushion shown was made using the long hexagon template (also known as church window) which Lucy used for her Patchwork of the Crosses. (There is an article about her on my web site which includes a detail from that patchwork.) Using just this one template she created a huge number of different block designs simply by selecting out various pattern elements from the fabrics -what the Americans nowadays call "fussy cutting".I used a border fabric to try to emulate her. Quite a lot of my early patchwork was done in this way, - I was particularly keen on making fabric pictures.

It so happens that my class of ten enthusiastic patchworkers, all keen hand-stitchers, asked particularly to learn English patchwork this month. I'm looking forward to seeing what they make of it, have been working up to now by the American method of piecing. To illustrate the advantages of English patchwork, I've chosen a fairly complex block which has some awkward inset seams, a block which it would be quite possible to make either by machine or by the American hand-sewn method but which, in my opinion, is so much easier to make accurately by English piecing.

New Year - looking back

2006 began as usual - with deadlines! However things looked up considerably when the proofs of The Quilter's and Patchworker's Colour Mixing Bible were checked and dispatched. But then that felt a bit odd as I'd been on deadlines more or less continuously for four years.Freedom is elating - then you have to consider what to do with it.

A cold, hard look at the workroom provided some clues: there were boxes containing over 300 patchwork blocks, returned from the publishers when various books were finished. Too good to waste and I was too mean to give them away, even if anyone had wanted them. Trying not to dwell on the investment of time and money they represented, I decided on a practical solution: Sampler Quilts.This turned out to be a much more interesting exercise than I could possibly have imagined.

First, I saw that the only possible 'theme' I could use for each one was Colour. Choosing the necessary number of blocks for, say, a double-bed quilt bearing some colour relation to each other took a little time.Then a setting and some borders and/or sashings had to be chosen to enhance and re-inforce the colour theme, where possible using fabrics from the stash or buying them cheaply in sales. This worked surprisingly well - it was gratifying to find that as I was able to 'practise what I'd preached' in the theory section of the Colour Mixing Bible and confirmed my notion that you can achieve wonders with judicious colour combination.I've now made four colour-themed Sampler Quilts, which I shall part with reluctantly when I find buyers for them. The picture shows a detail from The Deep-dyed Sampler Quilt. One, titled The Spring Sampler, has been sold already and I really miss it!