LONDON — Untethering women from the socially prescribed role of maker, and restitching them as collectors, Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles at Two Temple Place explores the relationship between women and textiles. The exhibition presents the collections of seven British women born between 1863 and 1982, and represents a range of collecting practices that spans more than a century.
Unbound opens with a sampler — a piece of needlework that demonstrates an embroiderer’s skill — made by Lyn Malcom in 1988, embellished with nude female figures, which was commissioned to accompany an exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery at the University of Manchester. This exhibition was prompted by Rozsika Parker’s 1984 book The Subversive Stitch, which aimed to separate needlework from historical perceptions of it as a submissive craft by women. The ancient art of embroidery is associated with the goddess Athena; examples of it found in China date back as far back as 5th century BCE.
In Unbound, needlework and textiles cross continents, cultures, and genders. The first gallery introduces Louisa Pesel (1870-1947) and Edith Durham (1863-1944), whose collections include embroidery from Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans. The most striking work in Pesel’s collection is a 1918 altar cloth made by the Bradford Khaki Club for Bradford Cathedral in Yorkshire County, England. Covered in cross-stitching inspired by her collection, it was made by soldiers who suffered from trauma in the First World War. Durham spent much of her life in the Balkans, making notes about embroidery techniques and collecting samples, which are on display in London, along with shoes and clothing.
In addition to textiles as objects, Unbound features Olive Matthews’s (1887-1979) collection of historical costumes, which she began acquiring at age 12. Among the items in her archive — none of which cost more than £5 — is a three-piece suit from 1770.
Some of these collections constituted more than a hobby. Much of Muriel Rose’s (1897-1986) section is devoted to non-textile objects, like the ceramics she sold and displayed in The Little Gallery, a shop specializing in craft, which she established in London’s Chelsea district in 1928. Meanwhile, Enid Marx (1902-1998) was herself a designer; just as much of her own work is on display as her collection.
Moving into the present, Unbound provides a glimpse of institutional collecting through Jennifer Harris and Nima Poovaya-Smith, who worked at the Whitworth Museum (1982-2016) and Bradford’s Cartwright Hall Art Gallery (1985-1998), respectively. Harris’s collection includes a triptych by Alice Kettle called “Three Caryatids” (1989-91) — a textile made explicitly as a work of art, rather craft or design. Along with items from South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, Poovaya-Smith’s display includes saris and embroidery from India, as well as contemporary artworks by Yinka Shonibare and Mohammed Imran Qureshi.
Encompassing both private and public collecting practices, Unbound asserts the artistic, cultural, and social importance of textiles. The exhibition covers a range of embroidery techniques, modes of fabric production, and artistic invention. The collections are fascinating, marred only by displays that are crammed closely together, with little space to breathe, and that tend to blend into one another. As a result, the women who compiled the collections fade into the background as their objects attempt to steal attention from one another. While the exhibition succeeds in bringing the collectors and collections into the spotlight, one only wishes that each collection received more room to speak.
Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles was scheduled to continue at Two Temple Place (London WC2R 3BD, UK) through April 19. The exhibition was curated by June Hill and Lotte Crawford, with support from Amanda Game and Jennifer Hallam.
Editor’s note: Please note that viewing hours for this exhibition have permanently ended in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Discussions around art and culture remain important during this time, so we have opted to publish this review to enable readers to explore the exhibition virtually as many of us continue to self-isolate.