Archie Brennan was a creative genius and pioneer who transformed tapestry from a method of slavish, rigid reproduction, replication and restriction into one of innovation, imagination, immediacy and wit. One basic – weaving from the front rather than the back – enabled tapestry’s leap from moribund classic traditional ancient French style to 20th-century delight. A professional artist tapestry maker since 1948, now 73 years of his weaving is celebrated in his hometown of Edinburgh at the Dovecot. It is shockingly overdue.
Wit and humour underpin much of Brennan’s work
Originally planned for his 80th birthday by the Royal Scottish Museum, it has eventually turned into a much smaller show at Dovecot, and of course, tragically, comes two years after his death. Archie was born in 1931, so would’ve been 90 this year. His entire life was given over to weaving and teaching, which took him all over the world, his unique, witty, cheerful personality making loyal friends and disciples who carry on his innovative legacy today. Brennan always encouraged students and colleagues to view themselves as artists in their own right, as opposed to skilled copyists.
Archie Brennan began young, at 16, with a seven-year full-time 1948-54 apprenticeship at the Dovecot Studios (Edinburgh Tapestry Co), then becoming Artistic Director. “I loved it there. It was a lucky chance that the Dovecot, the one and only tapestry workshop in Britain, was actually near where I lived. I always wanted to be a pilot and an artist!” Brennan’s insistence that weavers should exercise creative freedom gave rise to some of the most exciting tapestry projects of the twentieth century.
After setting up the famous Tapestry Department at Edinburgh College of Art 1962 – 77, Archie’s pursuit of new creative challenges took him to New York, via Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Hawaii. He established the Australian Tapestry Workshop, established courses at the National Art School of Papua New Guinea, and taught tapestry across North America & France. Much of Brennan’s artistic output reflects his global perspective, from his devotion to tapestry maps plus his avant-garde tapestry postcards displaying casual messages.
He himself explained, “Quite simply the practice of woven tapestry has been an obsessive passion my entire adult life. It is my creative language, and I love-hate-delight- and struggle with it each day, all day. In a unique manner it is a vehicle to convey concept, comments, harmony, discord, rhythm, growth and form. Simply put, it is what I do.
That tapestry today is widely regarded as a minor art form leaves me unconcerned. This is someone else’s problem. In medieval Europe, pre-Columbian Peru and Coptic Egypt, tapestry was supreme. Five hundred years ago, it was already extremely sophisticated- aesthetically, technically. Today its rarity gives me opportunity to extend its historic language. In 1967, I made a formal decision to refocus on woven tapestry’s long-established graphic pictorial role. My belief was that tapestry had foundered into an imitative, reproductive process. The technical virtuosity of the eighteenth – twentieth century became a serious disadvantage. Tapestry was merely a servant to painters and paintings.” Brennan set out to change things
I first saw Brennan’s work in 1971 at his solo show at the old Scottish Arts Council’s Edinburgh gallery and was thunderstruck. I had never seen anything like it. Then in 1980, there was a big tapestry show at the RSA for the Edinburgh Festival. As Prue Leith says, “The work was so modern, original and alive. Till then, I’d thought tapestry was all unicorns and flowers. This was like Lichtenstein or Andy Warhol but with more meaning.”
When I moved to New York in 1999, I again soon met Archie, who had been resident for several years – but stranger paths were to follow. When my husband and I bought a country house Upstate, I needed sewing stuff for curtains etc and found a crafting store that sold everything imaginable. One day the assistant said, “We have another Scottish customer.” As I was literally walking away, I asked over my shoulder, “What’s his name?” It was of course Archie who bought wool there! Turned out they lived across the River Hudson from us. So began another decade of friendship, where we visited to watch the new works progress. I often returned home with a borrowed box of the now famous small tapestry postcards with their casually scrawled address or notes.
Archie came across the river each week to attend a local life class. He was a terrific draughtsman. His partner of 30 years, tapestry artist Susan Martin Maffei, believes his tapestry Drawing Series of 80-100 nudes is very important – 20% of his output of 502 tapestries. “We drew one day every week,” she says. This show has a mere three from the series.
Wit and humour underpin much of Brennan’s work, and his love of everyday objects, pun and wordplay are evident. Brennan began creating text-based works in 1966. There is a deceptive simplicity in many of these works, which often employ trompe l’oeil to complement the words.
Since 1960 Brennan OBE has had nearly 100 international exhibitions, including 15 solo exhibitions, in Scotland, England, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S.A. He has been president, chairman, speaker, author, organiser, juror, consultant and collaborator of more events, seminars and talks than you can count. He has won many awards and is represented in umpteen museums. His exhibitions range from Poland, Switzerland, Hungary, Alaska, Hawaii, Baffin Island to Washington DC and the V&A London.
The glib PR slogan accompanying this show “Possibly the greatest Scottish Pop artist you have never heard of”, does him no service at all. And it’s untrue. Archie Brennan is internationally famous – just not in Edinburgh. Let’s hope that changes now.
Archie Brennan: Tapestry Goes Pop! Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh 26 April – 30 August 2021 –