Fine Art Alumna joins the West Dean Tapestry Studio

2019 Fine Art alumna, Emma Straw is currently working with the West Dean Tapestry Studio to realise a new tapestry translated from one of Edward James’s artworks.

The Empress of the Insects at her Midsummer Night’s Ball was created by James in 1983, the year before his death at 77. The ‘rorschach test’ inspired watercolour and ink drawing depicts a three-faced creature, dressed in a ball gown with eyes decorating the skirt and elaborate fringes falling from the arms. The image calls to mind a number of references James would have been familiar with, from ‘Marian Leatherby’ the three-faced woman in Leonora Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet (which has another character, Mr Marlborough, based on Edward James) and Carrington's 'branch-headed woman' in The House Opposite, a painting owned by James and still in the West Dean Collection. References can also be found in Isaac Oliver’s famous 17th century portrait of Elizabeth I, depicting her in a dress decorated with disconcerting eyes.

The tapestry weaving began in January 2020, with weaving-in-process featured at the Threading Forms gallery at the London Art Fair, curated by Chichester gallerist, Candida Stevens. Emma Straw, who graduated from the Fine Art programme in 2019, was weaving in-situ throughout the Fair and is now working in the West Dean Tapestry Studio where the work is due to be complete later this year.

During her studies, Emma combined her interest in tapestry weaving with her fascination for water-based media such as dye, ink, and paint. The expertise of Tapestry Studio leader and Fine Art Tutor, Philip Sanderson, enabled her to develop her practice and refine the complexities of ‘weaving watercolour’. This has made Emma the perfect artist-weaver for this challenging project which requires the translation of watercolour marks into tapestry, as well as shaped-work and fringes which Emma also developed during her studies.

The Edward James artwork is held in the College’s archives and is one of a number of pieces that express James’s love of whimsy. The back of the work includes a brightly coloured annotation that explains the origin of the Empress. Intended for an unknown recipient, the note reads: “Tell your daughter that I made this drawing for the Insect Hospital run by the Jains in India…When I reach the age of ninety I shall go and work there. But first I shall send Yehudi Menuhin there…I can visualise him helping a daddy longlegs bug get on to a pair of crutches”. Yehudi Menuhin was a friend of James' and had been a Trustee of West Dean College of Arts and Conservation from 1972-1975.

This tapestry is being woven ahead of the College’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2021. As well as marking a significant point in the College’s history, the anniversary also provides an opportunity to revaluate the Collection and Archives at West Dean; how we interpret them, and how we can reveal more about the life and work of our founder, Edward James. That we are able to do this whilst employing the expertise of recent graduates is testament to the outstanding achievements of our staff and students.

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Edward James, The Empress of the Insects at her Midsummer Night's Ball, 1983. West Dean College of Arts and Conservation.
Edward James, The Empress of the Insects at her Midsummer Night's Ball, 1983. West Dean College of Arts and Conservation.
Emma Straw weaving 'The Empress of the Insects' at West Dean Tapestry Studio
Emma Straw weaving 'The Empress of the Insects' at West Dean Tapestry Studio
Leonora Carrington, The House Opposite, 1945. West Dean College of Arts and Conservation.
Leonora Carrington, The House Opposite, 1945. West Dean College of Arts and Conservation.
Isaac Oliver, Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I, c.1600
Isaac Oliver, Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I, c.1600
Emma Straw, Graduate Fine Art Exhibition 2019
Emma Straw, Graduate Fine Art Exhibition 2019
Trainee Weaver Emma Straw worked with Master Weaver Philip Sanderson on the tapestry interpretation of Edward James' watercolour
Trainee Weaver Emma Straw worked with Master Weaver Philip Sanderson on the tapestry interpretation of Edward James' watercolour 'The Empress of the Insects dressed for her Midsummer Night's Ball' at London Art Fair in January 2020

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The Master of Fine Art (MFA) is an advanced two-year full-time programme designed to further advance students' capacities in practical, theoretical and professional domains, with an emphasis on specialist studio practice. Find out more about the MFA on our website.