Henry Moore Textiles

Henry Moore Textiles
Dovecot Tapestry Studios, Edinburgh, Scotland
November 14, 2008 - January 31, 2009

The skills required to design textiles are often under-appreciated. Evidence of this misunderstanding can be seen when artists and designers attempt to add textile design as a side dish to their primary interests and skills. The result is often two fold. Firstly, the textiles created tend to enjoy media attention because they are the work of a recognised name (albeit a name known for the design of buildings or sculpture). Secondly, these textiles make interesting additions to the history books, but are often uninteresting textiles.

Curated by Anita Feldman of the Henry Moore Foundation, this well researched and handsomely displayed exhibition of printed textiles designed by the British sculptor Henry Moore occupies this precarious terrain. As evidence of art and design history, Moore’s textile designs are fascinating. And to be fair, Sue Prichard the Curator of Contemporary Textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London explains in her comprehensive introduction to the exhibition’s accompanying text, Henry Moore Textiles, that Moore’s textile designs were set into repeat and printed by the Czech émigré Zika Ascher, rather than Moore. But for the most part, these designs do not reveal Moore’s skills as a textile designer, but are recognisable drawings that remind us of Moore’s famous sculptures placed onto the surface of cloth.

Twenty-eight designs are on display in the Dovecot Tapestry Studio’s newly opened exhibition space, accompanied by a number of original sketches some discovered as recently as 2006. Moore’s familiar figures and use of a waxy mark are present throughout the collection of yardage, scarves, large-scale wall hangings and designs on paper. Dating largely to the resource strapped years of the Second World War, the colour ways are often unusual, such as the lemon, grey, blood red and brown seen in Studies for Family Groups from 1944. A curious work from 1946, Barbed Wire, is the exception to these observations with a delicacy and freshness of mark less apparent in other works. Four large wall hangings not set in repeat are the most engaging to my contemporary eye, perhaps because the marks enjoy breathing room. Both the large-scale wall hangings and scarves were printed in limited editions, suggesting the logic (and investment opportunity) of the tradition of print making, rather than engagement with the mass manufacture of printed cloth.

The undeniable archival and social history these textiles reveal is well documented in the handsome book edited by Anita Feldman that accompanies the exhibition. But what contribution do Moore’s textiles make to textile design history? I am reminded of the architect Frank Gehry’s forays into jewellery design for Tiffany & Co.; certainly an idea that sells, but is it good design? Or the series of rugs designed by the architect and furniture designer Eileen Grey, which at one time I felt had been unfairly neglected in discussion of Grey’s work. Closer scrutiny taught me that Grey’s rug designs may have been overlooked because of their materials, but they also aren’t particularly good examples of textile design. I wonder if a similar logic applies to these printed fabrics by Moore. Are they ultimately souvenirs of the sculptures for which he has deservedly been celebrated?

Surface Design Journal (fall 2009: 58)