Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles.
Two Temple Place, London (until April 19)
Created in partnership with: Bankfield Museum, Halifax; Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford; Chertsey Museum; Compton Verney Art Gallery & Park, Crafts Study Centre, Farnham; the Special Collections at the University of Leeds and the Whitworth, University of Manchester.
The risk for any exhibition at Two Temple Place – a glorious late Victorian mansion at Temple, central London – is that the wood carving and stained-glass beauty of the building will steal the show.
It’s a danger not altogether avoided in the ambitiously entitled Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles, which brings together costume, lace and embroidery originally assembled by adventurous women from the 19th-century to the present day and now by curator June Hill, who has persuaded galleries from the north and south to let the treasures be aired as one in London.
Arguably, the blend or contrast with the setting is part of the point: designed by one of the foremost neo-Gothic architects of the late 19th-century John Loughborough Pearson for William Waldorf Astor, Two Temple Place represents masculine power and status.
We are told some of the women collectors represented were viewed in their time as having eccentric or selective visions, but what they salvaged from market stalls in London and intrepid travelling provides insights into history and cultures.
The more elaborate 18th and early 19th pieces from high-class Britain and ornate, dramatic textiles steeped in other countries’ folk heritage are those that stand up best to the grandeur of their current setting and for me the most intriguing of the collectors is Edith Durham (1863-1944).
After being prescribed rest by her doctor, she boarded a ship to Italy and then sailed down the Dalmatian coast to discover the Balkans, where her sympathy for the region helped to make her a heroine in Albania.
The clothing she brought home tells the enduring story of religious tension and life on the brink as Moslems were forced to sell exquisitely embroidered garments to buy bread during the Balkan War of 1912-13, while Durham’s rest cure entailed tramping so many miles she wore out the soles of her rustic, woven “opanke” or sandals.
They are displayed together with leather children’s opanke and they speak more poignantly of their former wearers than the 18th-century brocade shoes – gaudy by comparison – from a collection Olive Matthews began assembling during her childhood in London and now normally housed in Chertsey, Surrey.
Another striking example of Matthews’ power to hunt down the exceptional is a silk regency spencer, almost contemporary with Jane Austen’s heroines and almost as deft as Austen’s prose.
Durham was trained as an artist, but like Matthews, she is essentially an amateur collector of works that were designed to be used and just happened to attain the status of art.
At the other extreme, the exhibition demonstrates how women collectors have come of age and even entered the mainstream by buying and commissioning textile works with the explicit aim of filling galleries.
For instance, Three Caryatids (1989-91) was purchased by Jennifer Harris for the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. It is the work of Alice Kettle, who by her own admission does not hand-stitch. That is not in itself a crime, but against the backdrop of so much artisanal craftsmanship, its supposed sophistication seems curiously out of place.
Barbara Lewis © 2020.