A rare and previously unseen tapestry found by chance has been made into a new large scale textile work for a major exhibition opening this season at Towner Eastbourne, England.
To coincide with the first ever UK solo exhibition of multi-skilled painter, printmaker, illustrator, and tapestry designer, Eileen Mayo DBE (1906-1994) a tapestry cartoon by the artist which was found by chance by her great niece will be the centrepiece of the exhibition. The exhibition takes place from 12 February to 3 July 2022. The new work, which includes 14 colours in total, will be unveiled at a media call on Friday 11 February at 10am-11am.
The drawing was found via an internet search by Mayo’s great niece, Dr Lucie Stanford, who is based in Australia and then purchased at auction. The work has been realised in collaboration with The Tapestry Studio at West Dean College of Arts and Conservation, one of the only professional studios in the UK and is the only tapestry by Mayo to be created posthumously. Lucie was keen to commission the tapestry from the cartoon she had purchased, when she was in touch with John Gainsborough, Mayo’s step-son, about the exhibition at Towner. She was inspired to work with West Dean through their reputation and collaborations with artists such as Tracey Emin.
The drawing found was for a work named Duck Pond (c 1949), and when realised the work will span almost the size of a double bed quilt. Viewing the work at Towner will be the only chance to see the piece in the UK before the work travels to be part of a private collection in Australia after the exhibition closes. The work, of blue and green hues and depicts an aerial view of a pond on which three ducks are swimming, surrounded by the aquatic flora, fauna and wildlife.
Lucie explains, “I bought the cartoon via a phone bid at an auction in 2011. I was in Australia, the auction house was based in New Zealand, yet the cartoon was located in the USA. There was a second Eileen Mayo cartoon in the same auction which was of a rock pool scene and Duck Pond was “the one”. The cartoons were a surprise find, as they weren’t listed in the PhD Thesis on Eileen by Jillian Cassidy which catalogued all of her known works. The thesis does however catalogue a black and white ink version of Duck Pond which is held by Te Manawa Gallery in Palmerston North in New Zealand. This was very helpful as it has annotations by Eileen specifying the intended size of the woven tapestry which is significantly larger than the cartoon. West Dean has made it to the size specified by Eileen.”
It is not known how the cartoon got to the USA but it was bought by Lucie accompanied by a letter from Eileen to Ronald Cruickshank who was a master weaver at the Dovecot Studio in Edinburgh the 1950s and it is believed he went to USA after this, weaving his own designs and commissions, so the design is thought to have travelled with him.
Talking about the commission, Philip Sanderson, of West Dean (Studio Leader) said: “This is the first time we have worked with the Towner Eastbourne and the first time we have worked on an Eileen Mayo design. All tapestries come with their own language, but unlike other works that we have translated, this project differs in that we are unable to have a dialogue with the artist on how the final work should look. However, the design by Mayo, who trained as a tapestry designer and cartoon maker under Jean Lurçat does show in great detail how the tapestry should be made. In addition to this we have liaised with Dr Lucie Stanford who has the original cartoon to establish the best size for the tapestry (172cm x 132cm) and the relatively small palette of 14 colours.”
Sara Cooper, Head of Collections and Exhibitions, Towner Eastbourne, added, “We are delighted to have this very special work in our exhibition. At Towner we bring the contemporary and the historic together, and are excited to be showing this brand new work - created by some of the world’s most talented contemporary crafts people using an intricate design by Mayo - alongside a spectrum of Eileen’s drawings, paintings and illustrations made during her lifetime. It is the first time we have worked with West Dean to realise a commission and we are thrilled that our collaboration has taken place to realise a work that could have never been seen, should it not have been for the research undertaken by Dr Lucie Stanford”
Lucie added on the process of working between the UK and Australia, “Finalising the colours for the wool was an interesting process. West Dean has a very high resolution image of the cartoon, but colours can be “lost in translation” on a screen, so the initial batch of hand dyed yarns they sent were not an exact match. Philip then sent me dozens of Pantone colour chips which I matched to the original cartoon and they dyed the wool from this reference point. This was a really helpful process and the next batch of yarns were a good match. Looking back, it was really the exhibition at Towner Eastbourne that led to the commission, so thank you!”
Despite her exceptional skills, Mayo remains largely unknown in the United Kingdom. She was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire just before she died in 1994, but her work is far more widely celebrated, exhibited and collected in New Zealand, where she had relocated in 1962 (following ten years in Australia), and where she spent the remainder of her life.
Mayo’s long career was characterised by her crossover between fine and applied arts and associations and also time as an artist’s model. Having attended the Slade and then the Central School of Art, Mayo’s early career saw her working as a model to some of the best-known artists of the time, including Laura Knight and Dod Procter. Learning from these artists she pushed her own work, showing her first prints at the Royal Academy in 1930. Mayo had shown an early love of nature and understanding of natural history and this was demonstrated through her work for the rest of her career. Her rare ability to combine this knowledge and understanding of nature with a skill at representing it across a wide range of media - including illustration, books, prints, paintings, tapestries, murals, posters, stamps and coins, as well as through her own writing, will be showcased to the public through this exhibition.
The Tapestry Studio at West Dean College of Arts and Conservation is based near Chichester in West Sussex and is the one of the only professional studios in the UK. It has been working with contemporary artists and designers to translate their images into woven tapestry since 1976. Since weaving 23 tapestries for The Henry Moore Foundation, 1976 - 1987, the Studio has worked with artists including John Piper, Howard Hodgkin, Eileen Agar, Matty Grunberg, Philip Sutton, Bill Jacklin and Adrian Berg. More recent projects include The Fallowfield (now in the Tate Collection) and Rings of Saturn with Eva Rothschild for Blue Mountain School, and work with Martin Creed on Work No.1683 for What's the point of it? at the Hayward Gallery. As well as artists, the Tapestry Studio has produced work for clients including the Houses of Parliament, The Mercers Company, White Cube and Great Ormond Street Hospital. It has extensive experience of heritage tapestry projects, including The Hunt of the Unicorn, a series of seven tapestries based on 15th century originals commissioned by Historic Scotland. This was the biggest weaving project undertaken in the UK for 100 years, involved 18 international weavers and took 13 years to complete in 2015.
The tapestry has been woven at West Dean by Emma Straw and Margaret Jones (both former MA Fine Art Students at the College) under the direction of Tapestry Studio Leader Philip Sanderson who joined the Tapestry Studio in 1993. Tapestry Courses at West Dean range from a part-time two-year Foundation Diploma, a one-year Graduate Diploma in Fine Art specialising in Tapestry Weaving, leading to an MFA, as well as, short courses for all abilities including a recently released online tapestry course.
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Two major new books will accompany the exhibition and will be published in winter 2021-2022.
A new book about the life and work of Eileen Mayo will also be published by Eiderdown Books to coincide with the exhibition.Eileen Mayo, written by Towner Eastbourne’s Head of Collections and Exhibitions, Sara Cooper, will be the eighth book in the Modern Women Artists series which celebrates women artists whose work has been overlooked, overshadowed or forgotten.
A second book, also published on the occasion of the exhibition, Eileen Mayo DBE, Artist, Illustrator, Designer and Model has been written by her step son, John Gainsborough. The book illustrates the remarkable range of her work in painting, printmaking, books and tapestry design from 1925-1951, during which period she also took an inspiring voyage round Africa on the German East Africa Line passenger ship, the Usaramo in 1934. The book includes essays by Sara Cooper, Head of Collections and Exhibitions, Towner Eastbourne, and John Quin, art critic and author. It also includes images of many important works never seen before on display in the UK until this forthcoming exhibition at Towner.
Both books are a perfect companion to the exhibition and an introduction to an extraordinarily versatile artist and are available from Towner’s shop.
About Towner Eastbourne
Collecting and exhibiting contemporary art for almost 100 years, Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, sits where the coast and the South Downs meet. Towner presents exhibitions of national and international importance for audiences in Eastbourne, the UK and beyond, showcasing the most exciting and creative developments in modern and contemporary art. Towner develops and supports artistic practice and collaborates with individuals, communities and organisations to deliver an inclusive, connected and accessible public programme of live events, film and learning. Towner’s collection of almost 5000 works is best known for its modern British art – including the largest and most significant body of work by Eric Ravilious (1903- 1942) – and a growing collection of international contemporary art.
www.townereastbourne.org.uk / @townergallery