Grant Watson<Where to start? I have many questions to do with education, textiles and art, textile politics.
Pennina Barnett<Oh no, textile politics. I swore never to talk about it again—I have been in so much trouble.
GW< One last time maybe?
PB< Well, you can’t fire me.
GW< Maybe we just start in terms of your background. I think you’re originally from London.
PB< Yes, I grew up in North London. In Golders Green until the age of seven and Hendon after that, with two older sisters and a younger brother, in a liberal middle-class Jewish family. I’m not religious, but it’s an important part of my cultural background. All of our neighbors, except for the Malaysian family next door, were Jewish refugees and émigrés. It was only when I went to Leeds, in my early twenties, that I realized that. The neighbors next door, the Seidlers, had left Austria in the thirties. And then there were the Michaels—Charlotte, who became a friend of my mother’s, left Germany in 1938. And across the road was a French woman, Freda Wineman, with her two daughters. She offered to help me to prepare for my French oral exam at school, and I remember noticing the number tattooed into her inner forearm. I heard later that she had survived four concentration camps—Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Ragun, and Theresienstadt. Then on the corner were Maisie and Benny who were Jews from India, and the rabbi of the synagogue across the road was Czech. But I took it all for granted. A number of our parents’ (Jewish) friends were born in this country, but by no means all. My mother’s friend Laura came on a Kindertransport, another was from Romania, and others were from South Africa, because of her background.
So, to tell you the basics, my paternal great-grandparents, Moses and Ada Solomon, came to South Wales in the 1880s and settled in Abersychan, a Welsh mining village. They had various small businesses that Ada mostly ran, including a small furniture shop when they first arrived from Lithuania. When the First World War broke out Ada attended anti-war and Independent Labour meetings. Her parents, my great-great-grandparents, ran a hotel and stables in Lithuania where they bred pit ponies to send to South Wales, because of the coal mining boom there. And one of Ada’s brothers was sent from Lithuania to Wales at the age of fifteen to deliver a consignment of ponies, and never went back. So, my grandmother, Sara Solomon, was born in South Wales. But before the First World War she went to Riga, Latvia, and stayed with relatives, basically in order to find a husband. It’s a long story, but the gist of it is that she married, and my father and his sister Minna were born there. His birth name was Solomonka Borok. Apparently, he and his sister were known as Minka and Monka. My grandmother came back to Wales just before the First World War to visit her family and because she was unhappy in her marriage, and she never returned to Latvia. So my father and his sister were raised amongst the large extended Solomon family, but without their father. His name was later anglicized, and my grandmother also changed her married surname, so he “became” Montague Barnett. My father was very clever, and got a place at Oxford to study classics. After that he taught for a while in a school in Nottingham and later came to London and became a solicitor. I know a lot about that side of the family because my father’s sister wrote a family memoir in the last years of her life, which my sister Julie typed out. My first cousin, Malcolm—Minna’s son—then edited it and distributed it to the family. But also, I recorded a number of oral history interviews with family members in the late 1980s, including with my aunt Minna.
My mother’s family also has an interesting trajectory. My maternal grandfather was also born in Wales, in Monmouthshire, of an émigré family from Lithuania, though my maternal grandmother grew up in Salford, in the north of England. My grandfather Joseph Orman studied classics at Oxford, and became a lawyer. Then, before the First World War, he went to Cape Town. He had very bad asthma and the doctor said, “you need to go somewhere dry,” so he was considering either Palestine or South Africa. He later settled in South West Africa, now Namibia. He had fallen in love with the landscape there and bought two farms, one cattle and the other dairy. He also had a law practice in the capital, Windhoek, which was then quite small. My mother was born in South West Africa in 1925, and her two siblings were born there as well. They stayed, but my mother left and came to England in 1948 in her early twenties. Ironically that was just as Apartheid was formally established, but that wasn’t why she left. She told me she wanted to experience a wider world. So, she came to London, and then met my dad. And that’s a long way ‘round of telling you a bit of family history!
GW< No, no, it’s fascinating! What was your experience like growing up in Hendon? Can you say something about your adolescence? You ended up going to art college. So obviously there was a process of becoming interested in art and culture.
PB< My mother loved classical music and went to a lot of concerts. She was involved with a music charity. She didn’t work when we were growing up, but she volunteered at Citizens Advice Bureau (now called Citizens Advice), as did a lot of her friends. We didn’t go to art galleries, but I remember my father taking my brother and I to the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. My dad used to help me with my homework. At meal times he would talk about his day and the (legal) cases he was working on. He loved old maps, and there were framed maps on the wall going up the stairs. We also had some landscape paintings of South West Africa that had been my grandfather’s. And I loved going to Heal’s with my mother to look at furnishings. This was during the late sixties or early seventies, and it was a treat to go “up to town,” as she called it, to Tottenham Court Road. Not really to buy anything, but just to look. My sisters shared a bedroom, but I had my own. It was quite small, but I remember looking at wallpaper in Heal’s with my mother, and choosing a seventies version of William Morris, in warm browns, oranges, and reds. And I liked clothes. When we were teenagers, my school friends and I went to Biba when it first opened.
GW< Where was that? Was it in Chelsea?
PB< No, it was in Kensington, on Kensington High Street, I think. It was a fairly small boutique. That was before the big Biba department store opened. We’d get the number twenty-eight bus from Golders Green, and buy stripey t-shirts there. We were little “hippies”; we’d also go to Kensington Market and buy loons and long patterned Indian kaftans. I had a purple kaftan, and my friend Frankie also gave me one of hers which I loved, in rich browns and golds. I went to a girls’ grammar school, which focused on getting us to university, or that’s how it felt. I was academic, and I also liked art, which seemed incompatible at the school. I used to draw a lot at home and went to Saturday morning classes at Camden Art Centre, which involved taking a bus to Golders Green and then changing to go up Finchley Road. I remember a student art teacher coming to our school on placement and showing us how to screen print on textiles. I’d never done that before, and loved it. So rather than go to university, I decided to do an art foundation course in Brighton. It was lovely to be by the sea. I shared a flat with two other girls who were also at the Poly—the art building was opposite Brighton Pavilion. It was 1974 and I was a hippie of sorts—with my Palestinian dress, not yet aware of its significance—and Laura Ashley clothes. I chose the textile option, which was based in a Victorian school somewhere up a hill behind the Polytechnic.
GW< That’s where I went in the late 80s.
PB< Oh really? I’ve never met anyone who knew that old school. During my foundation studies I went around the country by myself to look at textile courses. I didn’t want to stay in London because I’d grown up there, and I was accepted to the textile design program at Leeds University. But the department there was very much geared toward industry, which didn’t feel right for me. The wife of a friend of my father’s was an art teacher, and she suggested I do fine art, because I “could always do something in textiles afterwards.” She said “there’s a course at Leeds University, which you’ve already got a place at, and it’s half art history at half studio practice.” So my dad rang the university and said, “My daughter has a place in the textile course, but she’s not that sure about it. Can she come and have an interview for fine art?” I went back up to Leeds on the train lugging my portfolio, and was offered a place in the Fine Art department. (My father was also keen for me to go to university, rather than an art college.) Leeds was this dark Victorian city, so different from where I’d grown up. The university was in the city itself, but had its own campus, and the fine art studios were in a cobbled street on the edge of it, inside large Victorian houses. When you were in your first year you shared a studio, but by the time you’d reached your fourth year, you had your own studio and key, so you could come and go whenever you liked.
GW< As well as training as an artist, I would imagine that this period was formative in terms of political ideas.
PB< Yes. Opposite the university library, opposite the Parkinson steps, there was a radical bookshop with a good range of feminist books. I think I might have bought Our Bodies, Ourselves there. I joined a women’s consciousness raising group—there were seven of us. And I also remember going to a women’s health workshop in the student union, where we were shown how to use a speculum with a mirror in front of it, so we could see our vaginas. It was all new to me. Our Bodies, Ourselves had come out a few years before (in 1970) and my London friends whom I had grown up with and were at universities around the country, Sussex, Sheffield, and Oxford, were also engaging with feminism. It was very much in the air. But I found the art history side of the course a bit dull in the beginning. I remember a lecture on English landscape painting and thinking, “what has this got to do with me?” It just seemed about privilege, and a certain kind of Englishness. . . like stately homes. A bit reductive, I know. It was only when the Marxists came along in my third year that I realized how engaging it could be.
GW< Who were the Marxists?
PB< You know—Griselda Pollock, T. J. Clark, Fred Orton, Terry Atkinson. Tim Clark was still very young, a professor at thirty-four I think, and he’d stand at the front of the Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre in his denim jacket. His lectures were so compelling—I still remember his lecture on the “Haussmanization of Paris” and Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. There was also a lecture, perhaps by someone else, about Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, where you can see “the working class” at leisure, with factories in the distance—leisure being a new concept for working people at the time. They were fantastic lectures. Less fantastic was Art and Language, which seemed very dry to me at the time. When Griselda came to Leeds, she wasn’t much older than us. We’d heard that this feminist was coming, so we were expecting someone in dungarees and short hair. And then this beautiful woman with blonde hair and interesting clothes turned up. At the time she was writing Old Mistresses with Rozsika Parker, whom she’d met at the Courtauld Institute—or maybe they had already written it, but it wasn’t published yet. Griselda used material from the book in some of her lectures. There was one in which she was explaining the concept of the male gaze and deconstructing the genre of the female nude. She showed a slide of a painting of a woman holding a tray of apples, and then a contemporary painting, or maybe it was a photo, of a naked man holding a tray of bananas, to make the point. The university has an art gallery beside the Brotherton Library foyer, and Griselda brought Mary Kelly up to Leeds.
GW< In person or the work?
GW< Because she was in London at that time, I guess.
PB< I don’t know, it must have been around the time she showed Post-Partum Document (1973–79) at the ICA in London, which was in 1976. The art establishment was horrified by the stained nappy liners that were part of the work. Mary Kelly gave a talk in the university gallery, surrounded by her work, and Griselda hosted it.
GW< You could say Post-Partum Document is a textile work, right?
PB< I didn’t think of it like that at the time. We loved it, and the idea of the personal as political, that women’s daily experiences were a valid subject for making art. There were very few women artists included in the dictionary of art I had when I was a student. Twenty years later the Dictionary of Women Artists included 600 women artists born before 1945. The other exhibition at the university gallery that really excited me at the time was one of Welsh quilts, made from old tweed clothing. Maybe there were some American quilts too, I’m not sure. I think that exhibition also came about because of Griselda’s interests. I’ve still got photos somewhere. I was very moved by that exhibition. My friend Dina made some paintings inspired by them, and I still have a tiny one she did at the time. When it came to my final year dissertation, I wanted to do something on textiles and Griselda was very encouraging; she was my dissertation tutor. So I went to look for books in the university library, and there was very little to interest to me there. Then I went to the city library, but it was mainly “how to” books. I had been going to evening classes in Leeds at an adult education center, Swarthmore, to learn how to weave. The tutor there, Beryl Hamill, also taught at Leeds Polytechnic and suggested I use the library there, which is where I found Beyond Craft: The Art Fabric about the North American Fiber Art movement of the 1970s.
GW< Yes, Mildred Constantine.
PB< So, that was very inspiring, but I decided to research British textile art and did recorded interviews with six artists around the country, including Peter Collingwood. Griselda had given a lecture the year before based on the “Crafty women and the hierarchy of the arts” chapter in Old Mistresses and I think that was a kind of emotional and intellectual turning point for me, so my thesis was an analysis of art, craft, and gender.
GW< And what did you end up doing after graduation?
PB< I stayed in Leeds for another decade, and after graduating worked (from 1980 to 1983) for Yorkshire Arts Association in Bradford, a regional art funding organization, setting up “craftspeople-in-schools” residencies—placing contemporary potters and weavers in schools across the region—and running grant schemes for craftspeople, as well as museums and galleries, to encourage them to show more contemporary craft. And then I worked as a researcher at Yorkshire Television in the mid-eighties, in local programs. Nothing to do with textiles. I researched a series on young people, music, and dance in Yorkshire, and another on pigeon racing! But I also did more serious things; I set up a program about the miner’s strike with opposing sides of the debate. I had periods of working and then not working during the 1980s. In 1985 after various freelance contracts, when I was wondering what to do next, I was invited, slightly out of the blue, to co-curate an exhibition that the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton was planning called Craft Matters—this is the catalogue here, Craft Matters: 3 attitudes to contemporary craft, which also went on tour. I think they asked me because, as I mentioned, I’d written my dissertation on contemporary textiles with a feminist analysis and I had published part of it in Crafts magazine in 1982. The other two invited curators were Tanya Harrod, a historian of art, craft, and design, and Christopher Reid, a poet.
And then I was asked to do a maternity leave cover in Manchester as Craft Officer at North West Arts, another regional arts association. One of their clients was Cornerhouse, which at that time—the mid-eighties—was a new arts center showing contemporary art and film. It was rather like the ICA in London, except it had larger galleries, and it also had a couple of cinemas, a bookshop, and a cafe. It was an exciting place. I went to see the exhibitions team there as part of my work at North West Arts, and met the exhibitions organiser Bev Bytheway. She said, “we would really love to do a show based around Rozsika Parker’s book The Subversive Stitch.” And I said, “I want to be involved, that’s my thing!” So that’s how it came about. After North West Arts, I started working as a freelance curator with Cornerhouse specifically on that exhibition. I think Bev had already had a meeting with Jennifer Harris, who was in charge of textiles at the Whitworth Art Gallery, a large red brick building which was part of the University of Manchester. As well as an important art collection, it has a wonderful textile collection, probably the best in the country after the V&A. Jennifer knew The Subversive Stitch book, of course. It had influenced the way she approached curating. So, we started thinking about this as a joint project with the Whitworth.
GW< Did Rozsika Parker come to speak when you were at Leeds?
PB< No. But as I mentioned, when I was at university in Leeds, there was a Xeroxed, typed copy of the text of Old Mistresses in the fine art department library. And in the same filing cabinet there was a photocopy of the Spare Rib article (Spare Rib 37), that Rozsika had written in 1975, called “The Word for Embroidery Was Work.” It was published before Old Mistresses , and nearly a decade before The Subversive Stitch book, which didn’t come out till ’84. I met her once, when we were researching “The Subversive Stitch” exhibitions in ’88. Jennifer, Bev, and I came down to London to ask if we could “borrow” the title of her book, and went to her house in Tufnell Park. We told her about our plans for the exhibitions, and showed her some slides of prospective work. We didn’t stay long. She was very quiet and modest, and generously agreed to our request. Of course, we acknowledged her in the catalogue and press releases.
GW< And how did you translate The Subversive Stitch from a book to an exhibition?
PB< We conceived it as two separate, complementary exhibitions, independently researched but under the same umbrella title, “The Subversive Stitch.” There was to be a historical survey at the Whitworth, and an exhibition of contemporary artists at Cornerhouse. And we decided to share the (same) poster, catalogue, and private view invitation cards for both. The historical exhibition, subtitled “Embroidery in Women’s Lives 1300–1900,” was broadly based on Rozsika’s book, although Jennifer also drew on the work of other writers and critics and her own research. Up until that time, and possibly still now, you’d go to a stately home or to a museum and a label would simply say: “Sampler 1813, wool and linen, anonymous.”
What Rozsika did that was really ground-breaking was that she looked at the history of embroidery in Europe from 1300–1900 and examined it alongside the shifting ideas of femininity during that period and a wider social history that took account of class and well as gender. It’s a complex project, but her writing is so lucid and readable, and has been hugely influential. So it begins with Opus Anglicanum, which means literally “English Work” but came to refer to English medieval embroidery, highly prized luxurious ecclesiastical embroideries of silk and gold and silver thread with very elaborate imagery. Much of its production was centered around the City of London, and was produced in embroiderers’ guilds that employed both women and men. And it had the same status as painting or sculpture. But over time that changes, particularly in the Renaissance, when art starts to become more secular and the concept of the individual (male, of course) genius develops. And she tracks how that happens, and how the status of embroidery declines, so that by the Victorian period it’s seen to be an exclusively female, and “feminine,” activity. And just as she and Griselda had outlined in the “Crafty Women” chapter of Old Mistresses, the hierarchy of the visual arts becomes entrenched in European culture, with fine art at the top and craft at the bottom. Fine art is associated with the male artist, working for a public audience and as an activity of the brain and intellect. And there’s craft, textiles in particular, associated with women—something domestic they do with their hands, not their brains! It takes place in the private sphere and for the home and family. The hierarchy is based on a series “oppositions”; one seen as positive and the other as negative. And you can guess which is which! Of course there are exceptions, but that was the trajectory she documented.
GW< It’s a bit like the Lucy Lippard text, right? “Making Something From Nothing.” It’s about feminist practices taking up so-called amateurish materials and methods. Although it’s not historicized in the way that this one is.
PB< Well, that was later in the 1970s, but yes, what Rozsika was mostly writing about was the earlier history of embroidery and how it came to be so devalued, seen as a women’s amateur craft. She does have a final chapter which is quite a broad brush, taking in Sonia Delaunay, an embroidery by Hannah Höch, the Suffrage banners, Russian Constructivist textiles, and towards the end, Judy Chicago and the 1970s feminist work, which is really interesting. But for me really, it’s the earlier analysis that was so innovative because it challenged the orthodoxies of contemporary art. The Whitworth exhibition ended with suffrage banners, and following Rozsika’s analysis, presented a narrative, through storyboards, about how women campaigning for the vote were demonized as unfeminine and as bad mothers because they were out on the streets demonstrating, rather than at home with their children. In her analysis, Rozsika argues that they were consciously using textiles as a signifier of “the feminine,” precisely to counter that propaganda. The exhibition at the Whitworth was very large and included work from their own collection and as well as from all over the country, starting with Opus Anglicanum and ending with suffrage banners. There was a banner that showed a (road) signpost that read “Equality” and another that was a tribute to Mary Moser, who was one the first members of the Royal Academy. Just as in the book, the exhibition provided a narrative informed by social history. It was also contextualized with storyboards, some with images as well. So, for example, Rozsika talks about how embroidering samplers wasn’t simply an innocuous activity, but a means of inculcating feminine behavior into young women. So, while boys were outside in the rough and tumble, girls were quietly stitching. And in the Whitworth exhibition, there would be a sampler contextualized in the same way. We found some wonderful images from nineteenth-century books and magazines of little girls sitting in rows, learning how to thread a needle, and we used some of the same images in both exhibitions.
And for the exhibition at Cornerhouse, we put out a call—this was pre-internet, of course—asking for slides, statements, and proposals. It was aimed at women artists only, which at the time seemed appropriate. And we broadened Rozsika’s brief, which was focused on embroidery, to textiles more generally to include weaving, stitching, printmaking, and three-dimensional work. Then we broadened it even further to include work that was not technically made of textiles, but that explored the relationship between women, textiles, and ideas about femininity. So that was the matrix. And we had about 200 responses, which Bev and I went through, and then I traveled around the country visiting artists on the shortlist in their studios, and selecting work. And I was constantly looking at slides of work on my light box, and thinking, “how will these artworks look together? What clusters with what?” But Bev was an experienced curator and we were also constantly meeting with Jennifer to talk through ideas. And then I wrote the catalogue essay. Rozsika’s book, as mentioned, was primarily about embroidery from 1300 to 1900. The contemporary exhibition was more about using her ideas as a starting point. The artwork we selected seemed to fall into various themes: the status of craft and the decorative arts; the relationship between women and the domestic; ideas about education into femininity; women, class, and homeworking; and peace and protest. And the contemporary exhibition also ended with various protest banners, including one in support of the miners’ strike, and some from Greenham Common.
Later I donated a substantial amount of “Subversive Stitch” exhibition material—slides, the catalogue, private view invitations from the various venues, and some of my research notes—to The Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths, but I still have a lot of it. When Jennifer Harris, Althea Greenan, and I curated “The Subversive Stitch Revisited: The Politics of Cloth” symposium at the V&A in 2013, we had a grant to set up a website, so Althea had a lot of the Cornerhouse slides scanned for that.
Read part 2 of the interview with Pennina Barnett here.