Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles

Over the last few weeks we’ve all had to come to terms with cancelled trips, gatherings, and celebrations. Many more plans will likely be cancelled over the coming weeks and months. For me the hardest thing hasn’t been the confinement. I’m a homebody anyway, and have grown comfortable with quiet and isolation. For me the hardest thing has been a lack of new stimulus and input. My way of coping with and processing the world involves a lot of wandering and observation, of looking at new things in new spaces, and using them to think about old things in new ways. Now that I live near London, the ever-changing parade of exhibitions and events on offer has been a welcome distraction and balm against the stresses of work and life.

Today I’m the feeling loss of this distraction acutely. As excellent as the internet and my home media library have been, entertainment you have to curate for yourself is never quite the same as entertainment curated for you by others! And it doesn’t offer the same magical feeling a ‘day out’ can grant you. Tate Britain’s Aubrey Beardsley exhibition, for instance, was something I’d been looking forward to for months. Another exhibition I’d been looking forward to was Two Temple Place’s Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles, which I had planned to visit at the end of March.

Happily, the latter has now started exploring various ways to take women’s textile collections online. The original exhibition set out to celebrate ‘seven pioneering women who saw beyond the purely functional, to reveal the extraordinary artistic, social and cultural importance of textiles’. From the exhibition website:

From the exquisite anthropological collections of traditional Balkan costume by Edith Durham, to the ground-breaking contemporary South Asian collection of Nima Poovaya-Smith, these women defied the ‘traditional’ concept of collecting – an activity still more often associated with men – and forged the way for textiles as crucial documents of social history as well as works of art in their own right.

This major collaborative project explores the innovative approaches of Edith Durham (1863 –1944), Louisa Pesel (1870 – 1947), Olive Matthews (1887 – 1979), Muriel Rose (1897 – 1986), Enid Marx (1902 – 1998), Jennifer Harris (working 1982-2016 at the Whitworth, University of Manchester) and Nima Poovaya-Smith (Senior Keeper International Arts 1985-1998,  Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford), and presents the objects from a previously unexplored perspective: that of the female collector, rather than exclusively as the maker.

Unbound includes sculptural 18th-century costume, intricately embroidered Balkan towels, headdresses and waistcoats, the 1920 and 1930s block printed fabrics of Barron and Larcher, as well as contemporary works: Alice Kettle’s huge machine embroidered panels Three Caryatids (1989-91), Yinka Shonibare’s 2007 model of the last slave ship The Wanderer reimagined with ‘African’ batik fabric sails and Sarbjit Natt’s 1996 geometric patterned silk sari. These sit alongside archival photographs, sketchbooks and letters, many of which have never been shown in public. The exhibition looks at how these collections continue to influence us today and asks why textiles still have to fight for their place amongst the more established visual arts.

Though it is no longer possible to visit the exhibition in person, the gallery’s Facebook Page has posted a series of photographs by Richard Eaton, ‘ordered in the way you would be likely to work your way through the exhibition’:

Their Instagram has some additional snapshots and information, and on Twitter the gallery is using the hashtag #StaffCraft to share ‘Textiles work our volunteers and staff have been working on from home’.

Two Temple Place have also made the exhibition catalogue available as a free PDF on their website. It is full of information about the women and collections the exhibition celebrates, as well as new essays on textiles and collecting by curators June Hill and Lotte Crawford.

While not quite the same as visiting in person, this is a fantastic resource for those who, like me, are interested in women’s histories of collection, art, and labour. And it is much more than many higher-profile museums have done to date. Thanks very much to the team at Two Temple Place for making this happen!

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