Compton Verney House Trust

Compton Verney is a grand place. As the minibus winds up to it through lush sculpted gardens I’m impressed as well as afflicted by childhood memories of being resentfully taken to this kind of manor house what felt like every bloody weekend. We descend on to crunchy gravel before the limestone façade and are whisked politely to the galleries. Thinking back, I’m sure those visits to Georgian piles like this were made in aspiration, to see how to see how the other half live. Now, here, Art is the other half[1], with the deference remaining. I’m saying this because it seems to me that the current exhibition – The Fabric of Myth – operates, albeit latently, on some related suppositions about the viewer and viewed.


The first room of the exhibition surrounds the visitor with dark red walls and an air-conditioned hush. A large wall-hanging shows Ariadne and Thesues at the entrance to the labyrinth, there’s a small 5th century tapestry of Ariadne and a drinking vessel with Odysseus and Circe at her loom on it. The scene is set: textiles and their making feature heavily in classical mythology as metaphor, narrative and image. This is the “thread” the exhibition will follow. What dominates the space, however, is Louise Bourgeois’s Fuseau (1992). A needle blown up to the proportions of a spear, it hovers full of potential energy, creation and destruction, grace and violence. You probably could get a camel through this needle’s eye.


Since the conception of England, wool was the “great staple of the kingdom” upon which the “whole land” depended[2]. Many gentry, the Verneys among them, invested in land which came onto the market after the dissolution of the monasteries, and in the sixteenth century judiciously converted it from arable to sheep pasture. The seventeenth century vivification of the woollen and linen industries – particularly in the Midlands of Compton Verney’s setting – saw the textile worker become intrinsic to the development of the economic system we know and love today.

Although essential, the spinner or weaver at the turn of the nineteenth century was a person with only his labour to offer in exchange for wages and whose daily needs meant daily labour to satisfy them. He was always at the mercy of the clothiers who gave out the work. He sang songs like

Poverty, poverty knock

Me loom is a-saying all day.

Poverty, poverty knock.

The Gaffer’s too skinny to pay.

Poverty, poverty knock,

Keeping one eye on the clock.

Ah know ah can guttle

When ah hear me shuttle

Go: poverty, poverty knock.[3]

By this time large scale production in textiles, with a capitalist industry and a propertyless proleteriat, was in full swing. Mechanisation – the introduction of the power loom – threatened loss of livelyhood. Riots and strikes ensued. Fast forward to today, and the textile worker, foreign and anonymous, is as disposable as the cheap exports they produce.


Judith Scott, the catalogue proudly tells us, “was born with Down’s syndrome” and spent “thirty six years of her life in a series of bleak institutional settings”. One day in the mid-eighties Scott, who could not hear or speak, started wrapping objects with wool. She did this again and again, with any thing she could find. As soon as they were completely wrapped she would discard them. The obsession only ended with her death in 2006.

Scott’s “work”, if that word for what artists produce can be used, is served up for our delectation beside actual Art. Her irregular, cack-handed shapes are sold to us on the glamorous story of the maker’s derangement. There is, to be honest, the whiff of exploitation. Their avoidance of meaning is disturbing – in part due to the fact that they have been made into “art” by someone else.

During his twenty year imprisonment Jim Materson stitched miniature scenes with thread from other inmates’ socks. When he swapped inside for outside, he continued to sew, and in art world terms, swapped outside for inside. His work became more knowing (compare 1994’s The House on York Road with 2007’s Metamorphosis III); pieces were loaned to this exhibition by a number of swanky private collectors.

Then consider the urban and urbane tapestries of Annie Whiles – a trained contemporary artist, teacher at Goldsmiths, represented by a prime London gallery.

So we can see a kind of scale here, with Scott’s unconscious and critically disengaged production at one end and Whiles’s self-awareness and professionalism at the other. Parallel with this is a proportional degree of accountability to the producers from those presenting and consuming. If we are not careful, the Scott end of the scale starts to look like a sweat shop, without song, cacophonous with industry.


The thing about tapestries is that their materiality is always foregrounded. The minimum diameter of thread is never negotiable, in the way a brush mark or pixel is. So while the detail in Roy Materson’s miniatures pulls the viewer in, they can only with difficulty pass through that window to the world on the other side. You work up from their material, to think about repetition and predestination, chance and destiny. All that is solid, and all that.


That weaving is elementary to society and our history as tool-using animals is embedded in the language. We use notions of sewing, weaving and yarn to describe continuity and connectedness; ‘text’ and ‘textile’ share an origin. It is these connotations that The Fabric of Myth successfully discourses on, [4] even if the political ramifications are a little neglected.

[1] Peter Moores, of the Littlewoods Pools family, a friendly and enthusiastic man who chatted with me on the minibus, bought Compton Verney in 1995. He wanted somewhere to display the evidence of his modern day Grand Tour.

R H Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, 1937

[3] A.E. Green, Folk Song in England, 1967

[4] It’s a shame it didn’t riff on the language for the parts of the 18th century power loom: the “willy” or “teazer” that blended the wool, the “scribbling engine” and the “slubbing billy”. All ethical reservations would in this case be withdrawn.