In her studio, nestled in the peaceful and beautiful Kilmartin Glen, Louise Oppenheimer weaves tapestries on a handmade loom, surrounded by spools of yarn in every imaginable colour.
“The simple idea of pulling weft through warp demands patience, but in a world where speed counts for so much I encourage the notion that weaving provides a simple gauge of time in the hours, days and weeks spent transforming strands of wool into a consolidated design.”
A tapestry is a woven structure with threads running in both directions, vertically and horizontally. The ‘warp’ is a vertical, stationary piece of yarn, stretched taught and attached onto a frame, or loom. The ‘weft’ is a horizontal piece of yarn which is ‘woven’ or moved through the warp. The weft can be multiple pieces and colours of yarn and it is these that build and form a picture or a pattern. Tapestry weaving is an incredibly labour intensive process that has changed little over the centuries. The earliest known tapestry was made by the Egyptians, and it was an art form used by the Greeks and Romans. However, it was between the 14thand 18th centuries that tapestry weaving really developed and flourished in Europe. These huge scale textile pieces were symbols of wealth and power, demonstrating highly skilled craftsmanship. Commissioned by royalty,the church, or the nobility, an artist would be employed to design a tapestry depicting a scene with a narrative, telling a story, just like a painting. This would then be translated into a full scale ‘cartoon’ – a basic outline design or pattern which would be used and copied by a team of weavers working on a large-scale loom. Weaving was the preserve of men, whilst the spinning of the wool and thread was undertaken by women. Materials such as wool, cotton and silk would be used and in some cases metal threads such as silver and gold.
My first encounter with tapestries really came whilst at York University where I undertook a module in the English Country House as part of my History of Art degree. I visited many of the finest properties in the north of England and vividly remember, in particular, a trip to Hardwick Hall. It was in the vast internal spaces of this impressive sixteenth century hall,built, unusually at this time, under the instruction of a female, Bess of Hardwick, that I could fully imagine and envisage the functions and impact of tapestries. In these great halls at a time of no central-heating huge tapestries suspended on walls would have offered warmth, blocking drafts and providing insulation against the cold and noise. They would have provided entertainment as people were able to ‘read’ the narrative running across the surface. They would have acted as means of showing off, demonstrating the huge wealth of the families or individuals to which they belonged. They would have brightened and decorated the spaces in which they hung with their colourful yarns and elaborate patterns and designs.
Many years later, working at the Burrell Collection, I was lucky enough to work closely with the large collection of medieval, Renaissance and European tapestries. It was here I learnt more about production methods and came to truly appreciate the narrative elements incorporated into their design.
I first discovered Louise’s work in 2017 when she exhibited at Loch Fyne as part of ‘Taste Art’. I was new to the Gallery and was on the lookout for artists to work with. Since then I have spent many enjoyable hours in her studio talking, listening, looking, learning and being inspired.
Growing up in south east England, Louise studied painting at Maidstone College of Art. It was here she discovered, almost by accident, the art of textiles and tapestry weaving. When I talk to Louise she will allude to the misconceived perception of weaving being an old fashioned craftform, one for women, perhaps not cutting edge enough for her old tutors at Maidstone. It was maybe because of this that Louise, upon discovering the rather empty textile department, was left alone, in peace, able to explore and teach herself how to work magic with warp,weft and yarn.
In 1975 Louise moved to Scotland, eventually settling in the stunningly beautiful and atmospheric Kilmartin Glen, a place she can watch the weather move across the landscape, experience nature, enjoy the solitude and translate her connection with her surroundings into tapestry. Since graduating in Fine Art, Louise has always woven. For her, working in tapestry is a completely absorbing task, her mind switched off from day to daylife, one hundred per cent focused on composing and creating the image in front of her. Watching Louise work, her fingers are nimble and fast, dancing across the wefts, her eyes and mindworking visually and intuitively, bringing to life a perfectly balanced and harmonious composition.
There is a graceful fluidity to Louise’s work. Informed by the many pen drawings she makes in her sketch-books, Louise allows intuition to guide her tapestry weaving, mixing her yarns in such a way that her colours blend and merge together,creating a sense of movement and softness. Where tapestries made using cartoons can sometimes be somewhat static, the rigid process in which they are made eliminating any possibility of free hand organic creativity, Louise never works to a cartoon and, as such, her tapestries have more of a more painterly quality. Indeed, I would describe Louiseas a painter with yarn.
Louise says of her work:
“My inspiration is all around in the landscape of Argyll on the west coast of Scotland. Here I live and work in Kilmartin Glen with Dunadd, the seat of Scotland's earliest kings, many standing stones, rock carvings and imposing burial tombs, a short distance away.
Weather through the seasons, water, rocky shorelines and ever changing light lead me to weave designs which show their roots in nature but can be read by the viewer as abstract patterns or a translation of place and its essence.”