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Art review: Pauline Caulfield Textiles (Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh)

07 June 2024

Susan Gray reviews a contemporary textile designer’s exhibition

Kangan Agora

Cannonballs Altar Frontal (2020) by Pauline Caulfield

Cannonballs Altar Frontal (2020) by Pauline Caulfield

WHEN Pauline Caulfield was growing up in Sherborne, the local Roman Catholic church made it clear that if members of the congregation had to attend a service at the (Anglican) Abbey, under no circumstances were they to kneel. The artist’s parents were converts and friends of Evelyn Waugh. But aspects of 1950s English Roman Catholicism, when the mass was said in Latin, appealed and shaped the textile designer’s work, especially the mystery at the heart of the mass, and the part played by vestments in heightening drama and emotion.

In 1968, the heyday of Biba and flower power, Ms Caulfield’s Royal College of Art diploma show included three chasubles and a stole. Her show at the Dovecot begins with seven secular designs from the RCA diploma show which the artist remade ten years ago in a new phase of her artistic career.

The Dovecot is on the site of a former swimming pool, and the vestments are at the far end of the spectators’ balcony, immediately catching the eye. The Plymouth Red Chasuble (1995), screen-printed on silk, is one of two chasubles commissioned by the RC Bishop of Plymouth. Red is used for both feasts of martyrs and the Holy Spirit. The red background symbolises both passion and the Passion, and the horizontal wavy lines of graduated blue for water symbolise the Holy Spirit.

Ms Caulfield also hoped to display a companion gold chasuble that she had made for Bishop Christopher Budd, but the diocese told her that this was not possible, as the late bishop had liked it so much that he had chosen it as his grave clothes before he died last year.

The Kintbury Cope (1992) was created for St Mary’s, Kintbury, in Berkshire, and was a gift from a parishioner. The vicar had in mind the traditional symbol of a capital “M” with a crown on top. Ms Caulfield uses the unique properties of fabric design, where there is always weight and movement, for the whole cope to become the symbol. The ermine is a symbol of royalty, and an all-over pattern suggests giant teardrops. Mary is symbolised both by the disjointed pink and blue “M” on the hood, and the pink and white ribbons around the edge.

Yeshen VenemaPlymouth Red Chasuble (1968) by Pauline Caulfield

A Black Velvet Chasuble (1997) is one of a set of funeral vestments designed for a monastery in Duisberg, Germany. The vertical light bone colour on the back is achieved with a discharge print, while the horizontal bar uses devoré to reveal the silk behind the velvet pile. The front reverses this, the horizontal bar being discharged and the vertical devoré. The cross is revealed subtly. Devoré is a fabric technique particularly used on velvets, in which a chemical process dissolves certain fibres, revealing the shiny silk below. Discharge printing technique applies a design to dyed fabric, by using a colour-destroying agent to bleach out a light pattern on the dark background. Again, the essential properties of fabric and weaving are heightened and put to devotional use.

In the St Paul’s Red Chasuble (1997/2023), St Paul’s many sea journeys are represented by the wavy blue lines that progress around the edge of vestment. Originally screen-printed on silk, the chasuble was reprinted digitally on polyester velvet in 2023. On the back, the blue wavy shape is repurposed to cross a black void, which ends in a point, and can be read as a sword, the instrument of St Paul’s martyrdom.

Cannonballs Altar Frontal (2020) is no longer in Our Lady of Hal, Camden Town, where it was originally commissioned, but the artist continues to attend the church. The altar frontal illustrates the 16th-century legend of Our Lady of Hal, who is reputed to have saved the Belgian city of Hal from bombardment by Protestant cannonballs in 1580. The frontal reimagines the cannonballs being held by the sea and lifted up towards the horizon, as a metaphor for the handing over of burdens to God.

With an almost photographic clarity, the six horizontal rows of cannonballs fade in size and density as they recede into horizon. The expressionist representation of the sea in simplified strips of blue, growing ever lighter until reaching the golden horizon, makes the cannonballs weight and detailing even more effective.

Ms Caulfield’s early designs from 1968 capture the optimism of the late 1960s. In Cascade, red-outlined squares create a static cascade around a beige central panel. Check Ribbon plays with a trompe-l’oeil effect, by giving the appearance of a red and green vertical ribbon being woven through the black and white checks of the central panel. Trompe l’oeils are wittily used in later works.

Linen Throw (2015) uses perspective to makes a blue- and red-edged linen screen print appear as an elegantly draped throw, despite its flat-printed reality. The pleats of Lace Fan (2022) look so real that it is tempting to try to trace their outline with a finger. But the undulating appearance is achieved through zigzag cutting and gluing at the edge of the panel, combined with the use of light and shade to bring the giant fan to life. An impression of bamboo on the fan’s ribs and guard are created through combing techniques on the heavy cotton.

Kangan AgoraPauline Caulfield and Green Fan (2021)

Playing Cards (2003 and 2018) show an evolution in the artist’s practice from her precise earlier design for the back of the card, to the more freehand and simplified expressionist style for the Jack. Composed from black lines and blocks of red, grey, green and yellow, the Jack was originally designed as a Christmas card.

Airmail (1968) turns the familiar blue-and-red pattern into a giant cipher. Together, the two works underscore Ms Caulfield’s long career in employing delicacy and spectacle to take the familiar and turn it into something new and exciting. Perhaps the Dovecot show will inspire some visitors to open their sacristy chests in the same spirit.

“Pauline Caulfield Textiles” is at Dovecot Studios, 10 Infirmary Street, Edinburgh, until 20 July. Dovecot is temporarily closed, but reopens on 17 June. Phone 0131 550 3660. dovecotstudios.com

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