The Thames in Textiles
Ever changing views...
Changing slowly over time, the river played its part in the development of the people in the Thames Valley, and steeped in their traditions, is at the heart of their heritage and the history of England. Monarchs including Henry VIII used it to travel between the palaces that line the Thames: Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, Westminster Palace and the Tower of London too, and it has hosted Royal Pageants for centuries.
Swan Upping is another ceremonial activity that takes place only on the Thames, during which swans, traditionally owned by the monarch, are rounded up annually to be counted, a tradition dating from the twelfth century and formalised with a Royal Charter by Edward IV in 1482.
It is no wonder, therefore that in 2012, Abingdon chose to revert to its former name, Abingdon-on-Thames, formalising, like Dorchester-on-Thames and Henley-on- Thames, the importance of the river to the town through the ages: a thousand years ago, for example, a cutting was made by Benedictine monks to provide a waterway to the old abbey from the position where Abingdon lock stands today.
Captivated by the idea that the Thames is ‘liquid history’, that the tales of time are carried on its tide and that the river presents an ever changing, sometimes unexpected but always intriguing picture; Haptic Art, a group of nine ‘stitched textile’ artists are gathering the waters of the Thames from beneath Abingdon’s iconic bridge, in a variety of fabric formats including sketching with stitches and collage, to flood Abingdon county hall and museum with the threads of their ideas and creative talent.
The word ‘Haptic’ comes from the Greek ‘haptikos’ relating to the sense of touch. For all these textile and mixed media artists the physical feel of a creation is an important element of their art. However, each is inspired by the Thames in a different way and the variety on show reflects, like ever changing views on the surface of the water, their individual journeys as they each approach the Thames from different perspectives, whether rooted in the natural or the social worlds through which it glides.
Jane O’Brien is an Oxford artist who, with a background in interior design, finds much of her inspiration in textiles themselves and the messages that they convey through their construction, colours and the patterns within them. She uses fabrics and thread to create a visual response about social culture and the world around us.
For this exhibition, because of the importance of the Thames as a source of livelihood down the centuries which made London a world famous port and trade centre, Jane has chosen the theme of tea to illustrate just one of these trades.
The British population are one of the world’s thirstiest tea-drinking nations so the arrival of tea on the Thames was very important...
Tea first arrived at the docks with the English East India Company in the Seventeenth Century. In the 1860’s new fast clipper ships were built to race the tea to London. These included the famous Cutty Sark, now in its resting place alongside the Thames at Greenwich World Heritage Site. It wasn’t until 1953, however, that Tetley’s put tea into teabags, and now Jane’s Thames tea creations in Abingdon Museum represent that journey from a London of yesteryear to afternoon tea in Oxford today while her ‘curiosity boxes’ tell tales of the tidal strength of the river, its history, ships and bridges.
Sue Crook has considered the landscape and the way it changes, from rural idylls, through industrial areas, cityscape to seaside, and from the earliest of civilisation until the present day, and shows this with her representations of London Bridge and Abingdon Bridge once an important river crossing. On this major thoroughfare and trade route, now a modest waterway largely given over to leisure activities.
Yumiko Reynolds has created townscapes of Abingdon, and St Helen’s Wharf, while Julia Straiton’s view of today’s tranquil river and the weathered structures along it includes a World War II pillbox, a glimpse of another chapter in the Thames’ past.
‘And the backdrop of the Thames changes constantly’, continues artist Gill Banks. ‘Clutches of ever larger cranes give rise to ever more buildings, in the lower reaches in particular, and how the new arrivals, some amazing, some frightful, have to jostle for attention with the old familiar landmarks.
‘I’m intrigued by the juxtaposition of industry and wild life on the waterway,’ remarks fellow artist Shireen Bricknell, ‘how they sit side by side comfortably going about their business without seeking to encroach on each other. It’s mostly in harmony!’ and she shows the dunlin, a small wading bird, and the water vole using paint and stitch into linen and silk, working directly from sketches drawn at the riverside.
‘The variety of wildlife now visible along the Thames is the result of concerted efforts to make the river cleaner’ adds Mary Brodrick who is also inspired by the riverside.
Walking the Thames towpath locally through the four seasons of the year has inspired the textile art of Caroline Benge who captures glimpses of nature beside the river like ‘little jewels’.
‘A favourite walk of mine is along the River Thames at Lower Radley,’ adds Abingdon artist Ticia Lever. ‘I am always fascinated by the majestic sweep and power of the river here and also the peace and beauty of the surrounding landscape. The colour of the water reflects the changing light and the skies above and it is the altering colours and moods of the Thames that has inspired this body of work’.
Ticia captures the different aspects and mystery of the River Thames, so her piece ‘Swirling Waters’ in blues and purples was created from thick curly wool that conveys the power and dynamic force of the torrents of the River Thames, and contrasts with both ‘Green Depths’ that illustrates the sweep of the water’s current on a sunny day and the possibility of teeming life beneath, and the delicate ‘Golden fish’, who swim on background waters of thread and beads.
Ticia has also created bowls from fabric, where the threads, beads and hand-stitching suggest the motion of water with glints of light, and the blues swirls of the water and as the river reflects the sky on a clear winter’s day, harnessing the cool peace and rhythm of the River Thames
The Thames: Shifting Perspectives
Abingdon County Hall Museum Market Place, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, OX14 3HG
Exhibition runs until 20 December
For more information on the exhibition and accompanying workshops click here.
Oxfordshire Artweeks is a county wide celebration of the visual arts.
Enjoy a weekend of artists’ Christmas exhibitions and open studios across the county on 14 and 15 November.
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