“Something in Common” at Blackwell

A couple of weeks ago we decided to drive up to the Lake District to visit one of our favourite places – Blackwell, the Arts and Crafts style house near Bowness. We hadn’t been there for over two years (yes, you know why) but we were keen to see the latest exhibition there – Something in Common – featuring the works of James Fox, a textile artist from Glasgow, now living in Lancaster. His recent work delves into the history of land rights and land ownership, posing the question – Who Owns England? – and the Blackwell exhibition takes up this theme, exploring the “right to roam” and is part of their ‘Year of Protest’ programme, featuring artists who use craft as a form of tool for social change and revolt.

I spend quite a lot of my leisure time out walking on the moors and mountains and kind of take it for granted that I can do that. But that wouldn’t always have been possible. In many areas landlords forbid the hoi poloi accessing their estates on the moors that they used for hunting and shooting. But as working people started to have more leisure time walking and hiking became more popular, leading to frustration where they couldn’t gain access to what they saw as open land. This led to protests and mass trespasses, the most well known being that on Kinder but there were others, two examples being the trespasses on Winter Hill in 1896 and Latrigg, near Keswick, in 1887. We’re free to walk on all of those hills now, but despite the  Countryside & Rights of Way (CRoW) Act of 2000 the Right to Roam only applies to “open access land”, which comprises about 8% of the mountains, moors, heath, and coastlines in England and Wales. (Scotland has a different legal system and the The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 allows everyone access to most land and inland water in Scotland for “certain purposes”.) People campaigning and fighting for the Right to Roam have never gone away, including veteran campaigner John Bainbridge, who sometimes comments on this blog 🙂 – his book is worth a read.

Of course, there’s a balance between access and respecting people’s property and in Scotland exempts land where there are buildings, private gardens, land where crops are growing, schools and school grounds sports grounds.  The legislation also requires the right to roam to be exercised “reasonably and responsibly” and I’m sure that the vast majority of people would respect this. I can’t see any reason why the same approach shouldn’t be applied to England and Wales. Yet many wealthy landowners think otherwise and resist any extension of the Right to Roam.

During lockdown, where travel was restricted, James Fox started going out exploring the countryside close to his home in Lancaster. In particular, the Abbeystead Estate in the Forest of Bowland. the estate is owned by the Duke of Westminster and before the CRoW Act access to many parts of the wild moorland was restricted. I experienced this 20 or so years ago I used to go walking in Bowland regularly and know that I strayed off the permitted track more than once.

The works on display were created by a combination of hand stitching, machine embroidery and digital media. A small number of works from the Lakeland Trust’s collection, including paintings by Lowry, Ben Nicholson and Sheila Fell were included in the exhibition and there were two “soundscapes” playing

the Political Soundscape

a series of speeches by protesters and politicians who thought for the Right to Roam, Political Soundscape reflects the deeply emotional relationship between people and the land throughout history. Together, the readings are a testament to the ability of everyday people to affect positive social change when their voices rise as one.

and the Bucollic Soundscape

Featuring a series of poems by writers who were inspired by the landscape, Bucolic Soundscape reflects the enduring and affectionate relationship that people have with the land.

A two sided quilt A Patchwork Quilt (2021) illustrates the two different sides to the gouse shooting on the Abbeystead estate,

the front displaying images associated with grouse shooting

while the reverse highlands the “hidden” aspects of the use of the land for this leisure pursuit – restricted access, eradication of predators and “unwanted” wildlife and vegetation, burning of the land and other environmental issues.

One of three videos running on a loop showed how this banner had been created

The Rewilding Plinth (2022) raised questions about how the grouse moors impact on the ecology of the moors. He also raises the question of what impact “rewilding” – returning the land to it’s natural environment – could have on tenant farmers

and how, depending how it’s done, could have other adverse effects on the land.

The frieze running along the wall is part of the exhibition and symbolises how the land is “fenced in” to prevent access. The frieze design reminds me of some of the wallpaper designs by Morris and Co., particularly “trellis
Sheila Fell – “Cumbrian landscape” (1967)

It’s a small exhibition, but inspiring and thought provoking, and we felt it was definitely worth the visit. Of course, we also took the opportunity to revisit the house and have a light meal in the cafe, after which we took another look around the exhibition.

And I never tire of the view from the gardens over Windermere towards the Coniston fells.

It was still early afternoon as we left the house, but we felt that we weren’t ready to return home. So what to do next?

Ancient Textiles from the Andes – at the Whitworth


Last Tuesday I had a meeting at the University in Manchester. Afterwards, I’d planned to meet my wife, grab a bite to eat and watch a film at Home (the venue on Tony Wilson Place, not our house!). Before that we had an hour to spare so decided to visit the Whitworth Gallery, just a few hundred yards from the building where I had my meeting, to have a look at an exhibition of ancient textiles from South America. The exhibition mainly features textiles from a collector, Paul Hughes, together with some examples from the Whitworth’s own collection.

The textiles are very old, created between 300 BC and 1400AD. Most of them were layers of cloth used to wrap dead bodies when they were buried, called “mummy bundles”. After excavation, due to the very dry conditions and lack of exposure to sunlight, the colours were amazingly bright. The patterns have a very modern look – some of them looked like they’d just come from IKEA! – reflecting the influence of ancient cultures on modern and contemporary art and taste.

We’re all familiar with the Incas and Aztecs and possibly the Tolmecs, but from the exhibition I learned that there were a number of other “cultures” in South America before the Europeans arrived and which also preceded the Incas.


The oldest exhibits were these two pieces created by the Paracas culture


The piece on the left, a painted fragment of textile, is from around 100 BC. The one on the right, a shirt, is even older from about 300 BC.

Most of the exhibits were produced by the Wari culture which I’d never heard of before, but they were a major civilisation in the south-central Andes and coastal area of modern-day Peru, from about AD 500 to 1000. They were, apparently particularly, adapt at creating colourful textiles as well as metalwork and ceramics.

Unfortunately, due to the lighting in the gallery (it can’t be too bright otherwise the colours and textiles themselves could be degraded) and as I was only using my phone camera, my photos really can’t bring across just how beautiful the textiles looked. However, here’s a few of shots


These three pieces, again from the Wari culture, are aprons created from feathers. Again the colours are amazingly bright.


It was a very interesting exhibition with incredible pieces on display. But it raises some difficult questions. In particular, is it ethical to remove the textiles from graves? Of course, archaeologists have been doing this for hundreds of years, but in recent years they’ve often come into conflict with indigenous peoples over the custody and handling of excavated human remains, associated grave goods and other sacred objects. No easy answers, I guess.

Green Surround

Continuing with the recent theme of art created from textiles, I spotted this attractive work hanging in Wigan library during a recent visit. It was designed by the textile artist Elizabeth Smith and created in conjunction by the local Daisy Chain Stitchers group.

The work celebrates both the natural and built environments of the borough. The design incorporates plant like elements and features from buildings in the town centre.

It's tucked away on the wall at the back of the library and probaly goes unoticed by most visitors. I think it deserves to be given much greater prominence.

William Scott Textiles at the Whitworth


Having just explored the Whitworth’s excellent exhibition of textile works, it was interesting to see William Scott’s textiles Skara Brae and Skaill included in the  Abstract Landscape exhibition showing in one of the galleries on the first floor.

‘Skaill’, a tapestry made by Edinburgh Weavers from a design by Scott that was painted to scale with gouache and wax resist. The resulting work is a subtle mass of broken textured forms that hint at rock and edgelands. The work corresponds with its neighbour, ‘Skara Brae’, a length of screenprinted cotton also designed by Scott. This piece, printed in the colours of rock and lichen, speaks clearly of the sunken, stone-lined features of the ancient dwellings of Skara Brae in Orkney. It is an abstraction only until the viewer recognises the source of inspiration. (Spectator)

Art_Textiles at the Whitworth


On the Christmas Bank Holiday Monday we took the train into Manchester to visit the Whitworth. It was good to get out of the house and take in a little mental stimulation.

Manchester at one time was Cottonopolis, the capital of the once dominant British cotton industry. Reflecting this, the Whitworth has an important collection of textiles. Appropriately, then the main exhibition currently showing in the Gallery, Art_Textiles “does what it says on the tin” and features works created from textiles.

The exhibition website tells us that

The status of textiles as an art medium is highly ambivalent. Traditionally, they have been situated on the margins, in a borderland between art and craft.

As a medium textile is often used by female artists, which probably part of the reason why textile art is “situated on the margins” – an interesting topic for a thesis, I’m sure someone must have explored this. Notably,the majority, but not all, of the artists featured in the exhibition are women.

The central gallery (the exhibition covers four) is dominated by Abakan Rouge III, by the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, came at the end of the artist’s career, between 1970 and 1971, when what she called a “craft ghetto” kept the pieces from being considered fine art. But it is this marginal aspect of textile works that has allowed the medium to be used to express social, political or artistic dissent. And many of the works in the exhibition had a political, often feminist, message.

One work that certainly fits into that category is this example of a Suffragette banner. This was one work of art not intended to sit in a gallery, but to play an active part in the struggle for votes for women.


Suffragette banner for Women’s Freedom League: Dare to be Free (1911) by Miss Burton and Miss Gosling

Facing it were two works by the Egyptian born artist Ghada Amer both with a clear political message.



Nearby was a work by Michele Walker, No Home, No Hope (1994) made from hessian, paper and bin liners, highlighting the plight of the homeless.


This eye catching work by Mary Sibande, Sophie Velucia and Madame CJ Walker (2009). The artist’s work

employs the human form as a vehicle through painting and sculpture, to explore the construction of identity in a postcolonial South African context, but also attempt to critique stereotypical depictions of women, particularly black women in our society.


The figure of the work, Sophie –Velucia, represents the artist’s mother

weaving a Madam CJ Walker image using synthetic hair. Madam CJ Walker was an African–American who invented hair cream relaxer for straightening hair. My mother used to work as a domestic worker as a teenager and after school worked as a hair stylist in a salon. Sophie-Velucia is looking up to Madam CJ Walker as her icon. For her, she symbolizes a breakthrough from the generations of servitude. The figure is standing about two metres from the woven picture, arms out-stretched, thousands of strands of hair flying to her hands, plaiting and weaving through the canvas.

There were two works by Risham Syed, an artist from Pakistan,which address questions of colonial exploitation and struggle.


All her quilts depict 19th and 20th Century maps of various port cities that were strategically located on colonial European trade routes, such as Izmir in Turkey, Colombo in Sri Lanka, Mumbai in India, and Ras al-Khaimah in the UAE. Apart from being trade gateways, these cities were also sites of resistance and rebellion against the imperial powers. (source)


Not all of the artists featured in the exhibition are women and not all of the political messages are feminist. One of ’Grayson Perry’s series of six tapestries made during the filming of his Channel 4 documentary All in the Best Possible Taste, which we saw at Manchester City Art Gallery a couple of years ago, was hung on the wall across from Mary Sibane’s work.


Paraguayan-born multidisciplinary artist Faith Wilding has recreated her work Crotcheted Environment, better known as Womb Room, originally made in 1972 for the Los Angeles display Womanhouse, for the exhibition.


This large work Homage aux Caseurs du Mandé is by the African artist Abdoulaye Konaté 


Jessica Rankin’s Quis Est Iste Qui Venit (2012), an embroidered work on a semi-transparent organdy cloth, hung a few centimetres from the wall casts shadows on the surface behind.


There are two works by Korea artist, Do Ho Suh

Spectators (2014)


and Myselves


To create these works

Suh Sews over lines in thin washi paper and soaks it until the paper dissolves, leaving the cotton thread, which is then set into the pulp of handmade paper. The thread and the way the thread reacts to the water and the wet paper, creates an unusual quality of line and appearance

Penelope’s Rags (2013) by Monika Zaltauskaite-Grasiene from Lithuania was produced using a state of the art Jaquard loom.


A large work, Flexion 2 (1971) by Jagoda Buić


This large scale exhibition, (there were many more interesting works on display) really showed how textiles can be used as an effective medium for creating beautiful as well as thought provoking works. It was certainly worth travelling over to Manchester on a rather grey and miserable day to see it.