History & Futures – Week 6: Research & Curate

Thoughts on Week 6 Lecture & Resources

My hand-written lecture notes.
INFRA – surreal and beautiful images shot on Kodak Aerochrome (infra-red) film by photographer and film-maker Richard Mosse in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Chanel No. 5 Book

Through watching the above interview with Irma Boom, I learned more about the particulars of how she went about creating the book she designed for Chanel in celebration of the fashion house’s famous Chanel No. 5 fragrance, as well as its creator, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. Boom’s approach is almost Dadaist, in the sense that it completely defies the typical definition of what a book “should” be, or look like. The book, fittingly for an avant-garde fashion designer who broke the mould, takes on a radical form by being seemingly blank, or invisible – something that also hints at the ephemeral and intangible nature of the lingering scent of a perfume.

It’s also notable that leafing through the pages of this book is a deliberately tactile, a sensory experience because all of its pages are embossed. It was interesting to discover that the book was actually featured as an integral part of the Chanel exhibition it was conceived for, which feels entirely appropriate, given that it is a beautiful work of art in itself.


Workshop Challenge

This week, I have chosen two topics to research as potential ideas for my 3,000 written article. One is The Great Tapestry of Scotland, a large-scale embroidery depicting the story of Scotland. The other topic I’m looking at is a key figure from the pantheon of Celtic mythology, The Cailleach, known as the goddess of winter.


Research for Story #1: The Great Tapestry of Scotland

The Great Tapestry of Scotland is one of the country’s largest ever art projects, with over 1,000 people taking part by contributing their handiwork in the form of their stitches across 160 different embroidered panels to depict important events, stories, folk tales and key figures in Scottish history.

Alexander McCall Smith, a well-known Scots author, came up with the idea after being inspired by the Prestonpans Tapestry which was on display at the Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh, a world-renowned tapestry studio established in 1912. In a similar vein to the famous Bayeux Tapestry (which depicts the Battle of Hastings in 1066), this embroidery tells the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745.

Design sketch by artist Andrew Crummy. Image via andrewcrummy.com

McCall enlisted the help of artist Andrew Crummy (who designed the Prestonpans Tapestry), and historian Alistair Moffat to bring the story to life. The tapestry will be housed in a purpose-built new museum in Galashiels, designed by Page\Park, and is due to (hopefully) open in 2021.

Planning stages of the tapestry. Image via Birlinn.
Article on the tapestry, written by Alexander McCall Smith in New Statesman.
One of the embroidered panels of the Great Tapestry of Scotland.
Image via Galashiels Heartland of the Borders.

I discovered there are also other large-scale tapestries, for example the Scottish Diaspora tapestry, conceived by the Prestoungrange Arts Festival.


Visual Research – Tapestry

Members of the public view the Great Tapestry of Scotland
at the Scottish Parliament in September 2013 in Edinburgh.
(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Detail of stitching on one of the tapestry panels. Image via Kate Davies.
Sections of the Bayeux Tapestry, photographed by Joseph Cundall in 1873.
Images via the Victoria & Albert Museum.
One of the embroidered panels of the Great Tapestry of Scotland marking the
re-opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. Photograph by Alex Hewitt.

Visual Development – Tapestry

Trying out type ideas.

I wanted to make my visuals link in a very deliberate way to the notion of textiles, so I sought out a typeface which emulates the appearance of cross stitches, a font called Kingthings Xstitch.

I also wanted to add a visual surface texture for the background, so I photographed a book I own which has a linen fabric cover, a copy of John Rocha: Texture, Form, Purity, Detail. I then manipulated the image slightly in Photoshop to get the right feel.


Proposal #1 – Tapestry

(Click the above image to view larger)

Research for Story #2: The Cailleach

The Cailleach is an ancient and important female figure in Celtic mythology. She is linked to the darker, harsher parts of the year – late autumn into winter, and was believed to control winds and the weather. There are folk tales describing her as the queen of winter, bringer of darkness, even life & death; she has even been described as “divine hag,” a crone, and a force of nature.

In modern Gaelic, the word “cailleach” means old woman, or one who wears a veil. In terms of etymology, the name is probably derived from an older, more generic Gaelic term for women, “caillin” (Wright 2019). The Cailleach was also considered wise, and connected to owls – in Scots Gaelic, “cailleach oidche” is the term for an owl, literally translated this means “the old woman of the night.” As a goddess of death, hearing the call of an owl was once believed to be an omen that someone would die (Sinn 2012).

Dictionary definition of the modern word “cailleach” in Scots Gaelic.

She was also viewed as the mother of ancient Celtic lands, and said to have created parts of Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man, as well as having associations with the harvest: “In both Ireland and Gaelic Scotland, cailleach also denotes the last sheaf of a harvest and is the subject of many beliefs and practices.” (MacKillop 2004)

I found Mythopedia to be a wonderful resource on the Cailleach.
Image via mythopedia.com

I have the book pictured above, which is a treasure trove of information on Celtic Art, including the typography, techniques and organic shapes. It shows many examples of calligraphic type, illuminated letters and decorative motifs from iconic Celtic texts such as the Book of Kells. This would definitely be a source visual of inspiration if I chose to develop the essay on the Cailleach.

Examples of Celtic type from Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction.
Some of the books I used to research the Cailleach.

Visual Research – Cailleach

Inspiration: texture, monochrome and themes of life & death. Image via Instagram.
Image via Grace Owen (@grace.owen.art)
The Roots of Lore podcast gave an insight into the myths of the Cailleach.
Weathered, carved stone cross.
Photograph of a page from John Rocha: Texture, Form, Purity, Detail
Typography inspiration via Killstar.

Visual Development – Cailleach

I wanted to create a richly textured effect, so I used dry paintbrushes on textured cartridge paper with pure black acrylic paint. This was intended to give the feeling of the inky darkness in the depths of winter, which the Cailleach was closely linked to. It also hints at the concept of death.

I chose typography for the design that is meant to evoke a sense of history and is visually linked to Gaelic and Celtic culture.

Initial tests with a few alternative typefaces.

Proposal #2: The Cailleach


Reflection on the week

A really interesting point was raised by someone on the Ideas Wall about the Chanel No.5 book – the fact that this particular publication would not work in a digital format. You don’t have the tactility and three-dimensional qualities of embossed paper this way. It would most likely look “blank” if you tried to scan it, since it has no ink and all the pages are white.

I think this is also true of a large proportion of Irma Boom’s work, because the books she designs and creates are like interactive, tangible objets d’art, and very experiential. They could not easily be reproduced digitally, but perhaps that is actually part of the appeal – holding it in your hands, feeling the weight of the book, and leafing through its pages, touching the texture of the paper… a true delight for the senses.

I found Richard Mosse’s INFRA photographs and film fascinating. The idea of creating a sense of otherworldliness through the deliberate choice of medium (in this case infra-red film) gives a stark contrast from reality. The imagery is incredibly thought-provoking and it was also interesting as an ethnographic case study.

For this week’s workshop challenge, I enjoyed researching both topics, and was quite torn about which route to go down. For the Cailleach, I immediately had a lot of ideas for visual concepts, whilst researching Celtic mythology proved quite challenging, because so much of the history was never written down, and tended to be passed down the generations orally. As for the tapestry, I initially didn’t have a design concept in mind, but found there was more “meat” in terms of research material on this topic and felt this could be a good avenue to explore, with a bit of time to further develop the visual side of it.


References

BAIN, George. 1987. Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction. London: Constable.

Birlinn. November 2020. ‘Ten Years to a Tapestry.’ Available at https://birlinn.co.uk/2020/11/26/ten-years-to-a-tapestry/ [accessed 04/03/2021]

BREHM, Caitlin. February 2020. Roots of Lore: Brigid and the Cailleach [Podcast]. Available at http://caitlinbrehm.com/brigid-cailleach/ [accessed 13/03/2021]

MACKILLOP, James. 2004. A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

MACLENNAN, Malcolm. 1982. A Pronouncing and Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language. Aberdeen: University Press.

MCALL SMITH, Alexander. April 2013. A stitch in time. New Statesman [online]. Available at https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/docview/1351879532/fulltextPDF/901B2E1FBE5C44D4PQ/1?accountid=15894 [accessed 04/03/2021]

Mythopedia. ‘Celtic Mythology.’ Available at https://mythopedia.com/celtic-mythology/ [accessed 10/03/2021]

Page\Park. ‘Great Tapestry of Scotland Gallery.’ Available at https://pagepark.co.uk/project/architecture/tapestry/ [accessed 04/03/2021]

ROCHA, John. 2002. John Rocha: Texture, Form, Purity, Detail. London: Conran Octopus Group.

SINN, Shannon. 2012. ‘Owl of the Celts: Ancient Bride of the Dead.’ Living Library [online]. Available at https://livinglibraryblog.com/owl-of-the-celts-ancient-bride-of-the-dead/ [accessed 16/03/2021]

Victoria & Albert Museum. 2021. ‘Bayeux Tapestry.’ Available at http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O118171/bayeux-tapestry-photograph-cundall-co/bayeux-tapestry-photograph-cundall–co/ [accessed 10/03/2021]    

WRIGHT, Gregory. 2019. ‘The Cailleach.’ Mythopedia [online].
Available at https://mythopedia.com/celtic-mythology/gods/cailleach/ [accessed 26/02/2021]