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Design Museum London

Although the new Design Museum has been open for a little while, I have only just managed to visit.

Housed in the spectacularly remodeled Commonwealth Institute building on Kensington High Street, the museum is a testament to the commitment of Terence Conran to document and educate us about the design history of the everyday.

The current ‘pop up’ exhibition features makers and designers using the idea of the physical journey their product has taken in the course of its production.

Andrea de Chirico hairdryer.

Alix Bizet. Hair by hood project uses human hair to create garments.

I was also impressed by the sublime examples of 3D printing on display in the permanent gallery, some of which seemed too fragile to survive the  gaze of the visiting public!

‘English Work’ at the V&A.

The current ‘Opus Anglicanum’ exhibition of Medieval ecclesiastical embroidery at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum took me way back to my student days when I was lucky enough to be of the generation when it was still possible to study Embroidery A’level. My lovely embroidery teacher allowed us to take off on flights of fancy with creative embroidery whilst instilling a respect for the timeless techniques of the past. It is hard nowadays to imagine a state school sixth form running an A’level course with only three students, but at the time we never even questioned it! Alongside our study of artistic and contemporary stitch techniques the history of embroidery was an integral part of the course and I was thoroughly absorbed for a while in the world of ecclesiastical embroidery and it’s techniques. The no photography protocol of the V&A meant me taking out my note book and sketching some of my favourite  fragments, and even this was time consuming, leaving me to speculate on the unnumerable hours that were spent actually stitching these pieces!



The language of this exhibition was not unfamiliar to me as a past student of ecclesiastical embroidery, although I did hear several people wondering “What is a ‘chasuble for?” or “Which is the ‘split stitch’ and which is ‘couching’? ” ( A chasuble is the highly decorated tabard that a priest wears over his normal robes whilst celebrating Mass) Split stitch and Couching are shown  here:embroidery-stitches

In the 13th Century, English embroiderers were at the pinnacle of embroidery workmanship. Church and high society aspired to commission their garments from the English embroiderers in London.   bologna-cope

Large embroideries like the  Butler Bowden and Syon Copes were made by highly trained professionals, both men and women. They were employed in workshops which were funded by merchants and noble patrons. The merchants took the profits, not the embroiderers who received only modest payments for their work. Most workshops were in London where the necessary capital was available and which was the principal port through which the imported materials arrived. The phrase ‘opus anglicanum’ was first coined to  describe the highly-prized and luxurious embroideries made in England of silk and gold and silver thread, full of elaborate biblical imagery.’English Work’ or Opus Anglicanum remained the most sought after work until well into the 15th century.

I was looking forward to the rare opportunity to see ‘up close and personal’ the incredible detail in the embroidered vestements worn in the Medieval Church. I found it sad to think that the hours of work that were put into the embroideries were lost on the congregation, as they would not have had time or opportunity to ‘read’ the pictorial stories depicted on the garments, nor would they have been able to see the minutiae of the stitches that created these incredible works of art. There are exquisite examples of intricate stitching and beautiful fragments of embroidery in this exhibition, but I did feel that it was a missed opportunity on the part of the V&A. In comparison with the recent exhibitions of the past year , this one fits the norm of a dry, old fashioned, ‘museum’ exhibition. I had the impression of wandering amongst embroidery and theological aficionados, who, albeit enthusiastic, certainly did nothing to enliven the atmosphere.

The staging of this exhibition is in a dry, traditional style, some of the beautiful work is presented so far back in the glass cabinets, that it is impossible to make out the details. There are fantastic stories depicted in many of the Church garments, none of which were adequately told in the labelling. The minute stitches really needed to be magnified, but there was no way of doing so. A short film demonstrated the technique of one style of stitching, but was small and nestled between two glass cases, so difficult to see if there were more than two or three people looking. All in all I left, even after my second visit, feeling frustrated at the lack of interactive or engaging display.

However, if you have any interest at all in the world of textiles or history, then this may be the only opportunity  for a long while to see such a comprehensive collection of some of the worlds greatest embroidered treasures, so essential viewing !

 The source of art is in the life of a people.

Walter Crane Marquetry floor. South London Gallery.

I do love to pop in to my local galleries on a completely random basis, (often to grab a coffee in addition to cultural input, it must be admitted!) The South London Gallery is a haven of the Camberwell/Peckham culture scene, and in addition to having a great cafe next door, shows pioneering contemporary British and international artists as part of its mission to “bring art to the people of south London”.

The current exhibition of  Slovakian artist Roman Ondak in the main gallery has uncovered the original Walter Crane marquetry panel inset into the gallery floor, and he uses the quote in the panel as his exhibition title; “The source of art is in the life of a people”. The exhibition lasts for one hundred days and a significant element of the work is an oak tree trunk sawn into one hundred disks, the disks have each been marked around one of its rings to represent a key historical event that happened in that year of the tree’s life. each day a new slice is mounted on the gallery wall and tracks the passage of time, demarcated by Ondak’s selection of significant events. it is fascinating to ‘read’ this timeline as it evolves through the show period, and realise that each of us has a different perspective of what we consider to be ‘significant’ historical events.

Roman Ondak has invited local young people to get involved in the creation of his work ‘Awesome Rules of Language’ where he has taken illustrations from a 1960’s textbook and recreated them on the walls of the gallery. The illustrations have been drawn over by the adolescent collaborators and these doodles and comments have given  a quirky contemporary twist as a commentary on social and educational norms.

Still in the theme of education, Ondak has salvaged four large school blackboards from his native Slovenia, entitled ‘Four Moon Phases’ a bowl of a ladle is inserted into each of the boards,  symbolising the four phases of the moon, referring again to the passage of time and the transition between past and present that informs our existence.

I will certainly be popping back periodically to check what has happenned next in Ondak’s ‘tree of history’.

They shoe horses don’t they?

Blacksmiths have long fought to be defined seperately from Farriers (who do shoe horses!) and are a proud community of artists and craftspeople. I am proud to be the daughter and sister of two renowned blacksmiths.Hector Cole MBE. .jpg

My father, Hector Cole MBE  is a Silver medal holder of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths and a Livery man of the Company. To achieve this prestigious award, a broad knowledge of smithing skills is required, ranging from traditional smithing skills, design skills, knowledge of the blacksmith’s craft and its history and the use of modern techniques and equipment. The honour  of Livery man has recently also been awarded to my sister Melissa Cole. It was for this occassion that I was delighted to be invited to attend the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths’ Awards Luncheon in London last month. The Worshipful company of Blacksmiths is one of the Livery Companies of the City of London, and  dates back  to the 1300’s.The Company is one of the few Livery Companies in London where the craft that bears its name is still a vibrant trade. The Company maintains strong links with the profession in a number of ways. Approximately 50% of the Company’s charitable spending is used in the direct support of young blacksmiths in education. The Company also sponsors an awards programme which recognises the work of blacksmiths. The Company participates in and supports a large number of County Shows each year at which the work of blacksmiths from all over the country is exhibited and judged.

Unfortunately the Blacksmiths Hall was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, but the Worshipful Company of Painters now allow the Blacksmith’s Company to use their beautiful Livery Hall near St Paul’s Cathedral for their official functions.

Worshipful company of Painters hall, London

The Painters Hall. City of London

The general public has very little concept of the role of the blacksmith in today’s world, and the Worshipful Company has as part of it’s role the promotion of the blacksmith’s craft, it’s motto is : “By Hammer and Hand All Arts Do Stand”.

The magical qualities of the blacksmith’s forge have fascinated people throughout time, sparkling metal, the alchemic craft of taking the solid metal and molding it to shape with seemingly effortless touches of a hammer and the perception of the strong tough blacksmith labouring away over a flaming forge.

Photograph of Hector Cole MBE

Hector Cole MBE working at his forge

However, the macho image of blacksmithing has undertaken an upheaval over recent years. Women Blacksmiths are now recognised as some of the most talented exponents in the art and craft of blacksmithing. Melissa Cole FWCB was one of the first women blacksmiths to be awarded a prestigious Bronze medal from The Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths in 2007 for her forged iron work and dedication to blacksmithing in education projects.

Melissa Cole Sculpture.jpg

Melissa Cole FWCB

At the recent awards ceremony two women blacksmiths were recognised for their work and received Diplomas of Merit from the Worshipful Company; Rebecca Knott creates predominantly domestic scale pieces, and says ” The quality is in the detail. It’s important that every piece is thought about. Even the underside of a piece of work. Just because you can see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve the same respect. ”

Bex Simon AWCB describes herself as an “Artist/Blacksmith Designer/Maker inspired by nature, texture, contrast and the environment around us”. Having developed a range of cast iron homewares, Bex Simon also creates traditionally forged large scale domestic and public pieces.

Photograpg of Balustrade detail by Bex Simon

Bex Simon AWCB. Railing

Of course there were some outstanding male blacksmiths being recognised at the awards ceremony, they all show exemplary use of forging techniques and design skills. For example a Bronze medal was awarded to Neil Lossock FWCB who is renowned for his beautifully executed plant forms.


Neil Lossock FWCB. Forged plant forms

Also Simon Grant-Jones was awarded a Bronze medal for his work which follows a more traditional route. he makes beautifully crafted tools and implements for use by traditional craftspeople such as thatchers and woodcraftsmen.


Simon Grant-Jones FWCB.

It was a truly proud moment for me to see both of the blacksmiths in my family so  genuinely welcomed by the members of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths. I am especially pleased to realise just how much they are doing between them and the other forward thinking blacksmiths to educate about and promote this most magical profession.

I would encourage anyone embarking on a construction or renovation project to seriously consider putting a portion of their budget into commissioning a true artist blacksmith to contribute to their creation, a bespoke garden sculpture, railing, fence, gate or even door handle can bring a timeless personal element to your home and will always be a conversation piece amongst friends!


Hector Cole MBE and Melissa Cole FWCB

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