Hans Holbein was a painter in Basel in the 16th century. He made two trips to London, where he stayed for several years each time.
Famed for his portraits, he used his connections in high places to gain lucrative commissions. On his first trip, he made good use of his friendship with Sir Thomas More to obtain commissions to paint many influential people at court. By the time of his second visit, Sir Thomas More had lost the friendship of King Henry VIII because of his opposition to the King’s plan to divorce his first wife Katharine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Holbein was quick to distance himself from his former friend and now allied himself to the powerful Boleyn family. He painted King Henry VIII many times at different stages of his life. It is likely that he also painted Anne Boleyn, but after her disgrace and execution, everything connected with her was destroyed.
Holbein’s portraits are extraordinary for the exquisite detail he shows of clothing, where every stitch of the embroidery can be seen clearly. One of the most popular and fashionable embroidery techniques of the time was blackwork. As the name suggests, this is embroidery in black thread on a background of plain white, although some gold and silver threads were also used. It was a counted thread technique and needed to be used on an evenweave fabric. The history of this technique is shrouded in the mists of history, but it is possible that its designs are based on pattern used in Arabian art.
The Moslem religion forbade its adherents from depicting people or animals in their art and so their rich art used patterns based on plant forms. When the Arabs conquered Spain, this art spread there. The similarity between the plant-based patterns of Arab decoration and blackwork would seem to suggest that this type of decoration developed from Arab art.
There is a theory that the technique of blackwork was brought to England from Spain by Katharine of Aragon. Whether or not this is true, trade around Europe and the habit of cementing relations with other countries by marriage would ensure that an easy cross pollination of ideas, art and culture was possible.
In Holbein’s portraits, blackwork was a pattern usually based on plant forms. The stitch used, known as Holbein Stitch because of his detailed portrayal of it, is a type of double running stitch to outline the motif, drawing with stitch in the way an artist draws with a pen or pencil. The lines of the design are stitched with a regular running stitch, keeping the stitches and spaces even in length. A second line of running stitch is then worked filling in the spaces. This ensures that the stitch looks the same on both sides. In this technique, two threads share the same hole and care must be taken to ensure that the line looks even. This can be achieved in the second line of stitching by ensuring that the needle enters the hole each time above the previous thread and leaves the hole below the previous thread (or vice versa, as long as it is consistent). This gives a regular very slight angle to each stitch, which is smoother to the eye than the irregular jumps which would otherwise result.
As blackwork developed through the years, it began to be used to show shading and variety of tone. These variations in tone can be achieved in various ways: by adding or subtracting elements to each pattern, by varying the thickness of the thread, by varying the scale of the pattern and by using different patterns. Su Mwamba’s delightful pattern for a blackwork portrait of Colin the cat (blog entry for 12th August 2008) (http://www.tanglecrafts.wordpress.com/) shows how blackwork can be used in this way.
Fig 1. Bridget Riley with some of her work
Bridget Riley was born in London in 1931. She trained in drawing and painting at Goldsmiths College and the Royal College of Art. She is best known for her “Op art” work which she began in the early 1960s, geometric studies in black and white in which she explored how changes in the scale and angle and position of blocks of black and white could produce an almost dizzying sense of movement for the viewer. Viewers claimed that her work produced sensations of seasickness or vertigo and even compared their effect to sky-diving or the sensation of taking an hallucinogenic drug.
Bridget Riley Movement in Squares 1961
In Movement in Squares (Fig 2.) the gradual narrowing of the black blocks gives the impression of the surface curving away from the viewer and gradually curving back out again, giving the effect of a fold in the surface. Even though we know that the canvas is a flat 2-dimensional depiction, our eyes are fooled into thinking that we are seeing a 3-dimensional shape. Riley uses the fact that when a surface of regular squares is curved away from us, it appears as if the squares change into increasingly narrow rectangles.
Fig 3. A flat piece of paper patterned with black and white squares
Fig 4. The same piece of paper as in Fig 3 above, but held so that it curves away from the viewer. The apparent narrowing of the black squares can be seen.
Fig 5. Bridget Riley Hesitate
In Hesitate (Fig 5), Bridget Riley again uses change of shape and tone to fool the eye into seeing the flat surface of the painting appear to undulate. The black circles, arranged in an orderly pattern, change shape to horizontal ovals and the vertical spacing between the rows narrows, giving the impression that the canvas is laid on a step, moving from vertical to horizontal and back to vertical again. Another interesting feature in this work is that the tone of the black circles alters, looking as though two diagonal streaks, where the circles appear to fade to grey, cross the canvas. The fact that the streak which starts in the bottom left hand corner changes to a shallower angle as it crosses to the right, seems to emphasise the apparent horizontal part.
Fig 6. Bridget Riley Fission
In Fission (Fig 6.), narrow curving lines in a repeated pattern snake down the page, giving an unsettling feeling of uncontrollable movement in the eye of the viewer, something akin to a feeling of vertigo. The lines seem to refuse to stay still, but seem in a constant state of motion.
It has been suggested that one of the concerns of the period was a perceived need for audience participation in a work of art. This would mean that the reaction of the viewer could become an integral part of the work of art itself. In her account of Bridget Riley, Misha Bittleston says: “Riley is fascinated with the act of looking and in her work aims to engage the viewer not only with the object of their gaze but also with the actual process of observation.” (http://www.bittleston.com/artists/bridget_riley/)
Fig 7. Bridget Riley Descending 1965-6
Descending (Fig 7.), is simply black zigzag lines on a white ground, but they seem to twist and move constantly and appear as 3-dimensional ridges on the canvas. When viewed from a distance through half-closed eyes, there seems to be a variety of tones of grey across the canvas, even though only black and white have been used. This effect is achieved by changing the length and spacing of the lines. If you look at a small part of the work through a paper window, it loses the effect of movement and becomes simply some zigzag lines. The effect depends on repetition. In describing her work in an interview Bridget Riley said:
“Rhythm and repetition are at the root of movement. They create a situation within which the most simple basic forms start to become visually active. By massing them and repeating them they become more fully present. Repetition acts as a sort of amplifier for visual events that seen singly would hardly be visible.”
Dijanne Cevaal is a textile artist and teacher living in Geelong, Australia. I first became aware of her work through an article about her in the December/January 2013 edition of Quilting Arts. The cover illustration was a close-up picture of one of her pieces of work, one of her “travelling blanket” series.
When I read the article I had almost completed my functional 3-D object for Module 2 of the City and Guilds level 3 Certificate in Embroidery. For this I was making a kimono. As I carried on with the work (which involved a lot of hand stitching) I became aware that many memories and stories and much intensely personal symbolism was being stitched into the garment as I went on. I enjoyed the meditative quality of the long periods of patient hand stitching.
On reading Dijanne Cevaal’s article, in which she talked about one particular strand of her work, I became more and more amazed that someone I had never met, on the opposite side of the world, had a working method and thought processes so close to my own. I felt an immediate bond with Dijanne and, as I read on, a great feeling of recognition and familiarity. As I read the article I was keen to find out more and so immediately went online to check out Dijanne’s blog (http://origidij.blogspot.co.uk/).
Dijanne travels a lot and always likes to have some stitching work to do while she is on her travels. These are usually small patches which she hand stitches, usually to record her stories and memories of things she has seen or experienced on her journeys. The patches are applied to a background often hand dyed and then quilted with a warm felt batting. The quilting is simple, rows of running stitch or seeding.
When she came across a picture of an African griot, or story-teller, she was impressed by his ragged tattered clothing all covered in patches and she imagined that these patches encapsulated all his stories. Dijanne wrote in her blog: “Griots are the keepers of stories and traditions in societies which retain their cultural memory through oral traditions. His coat is a fascinating array of patches and rough stitches and stitched and twisted ropes. No doubt he carried many charms and amulets as part of the attire”.
She was both inspired by this picture and beset by doubts as to how she could best use the inspiration in her own work:
“I tried looking hard at the griot postcard and seeing what I could see. Obviously the rough stitching attracted me- they are so expressive, and so much the voice of the maker of this coat. It lead me to thinking how do you use stitch and how can you make perfectly ordinary stitches like running stitch be expressive and a mark making tool as hand writing and drawing is? My stitches are always reasonably neat, though big- is the neatness how I mark make? and if it is what does it look like? Does it convey anything other than neatness? Is the expressiveness of stitch determined by rhythm- I certainly can see a rough rhythm in the stitching of the griot’s coat- but it is a syncopated and improvised to suit the need. How do you carry that lesson into your own work and what rhythms lead my hand?”
She found the answer in her traveller’s blankets which beautifully convey her own personal stories. In the rhythm of the stitches, one can hear the rhythm of the story teller’s voice, in the changing colours, we hear its changing tones from quiet passages to exciting ones. In the spacing of the patches and stitching we hear the varying pace of the story.
On studying Dijanne’s work, I became more and more excited as I realised that the kimono that I had made had my own stories, hopes and wishes encapsulated in it and that I too had used stitch in a similar way to Dijanne, to use the rhythms of the stitches to tell my own “ballads, songs and snatches” in the voice of Gilbert and Sullivan’s wand’ring minstrel. Dijanne’s work gave me both an insight into aspects of my own work which until then had been unconscious, and also an hint of the direction in which I might be heading.