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St Catherine's College, Oxford

Six tapestries for the Great Hall

woven by Dovecot Studios,
Edinburgh Tapestry Company 
each large panel 442 x 221 cm 
Photograph: Petr Krejci

Notes on this work

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Tapestries on the back wall of the Great Hall St Catherine's College, Oxford 
photograph Petr Krejci 

study for Dominus
30.5 x 24cm

study for Nova et Vetera 
21 x 18.5 cm
collection Ashmolean Museum

The Great Hall
photograph Petr Krejci

When I was an undergraduate at the end of the fifties I had the daunting task of showing Aarne Jacobsen around the town He was to design our new college (St Catherine’s Society, as it was then known, occupied a building that looked like a bicycle shed attached to Christchurch). I walked with him through Oxford extolling with youthful enthusiasm this or that pinnacle, ogee or volute. Almost everything I liked he dismissed as ‘mere decoration’. Rashly I asked him what sort of artefacts he envisaged for the building. I received an answer that mostly dealt with knives and forks and door handles all of which he would design himself. He was especially adamant about the integrity of walls: they should not be ‘disturbed’.

When, however, some years later, the college became a physical reality worthy of Alan Bullock’s vision it soon mellowed with the help of its splendid gardens into the timeless inevitability that characterises Oxford architecture. The interior of the Hall however, unsoftened by vegetation or the weather’s altering hand, remained stark, even by Jacobsen’s spartan standards.

In the mid-seventies I received, as they say, intimations that Alan Bullock, with some of the fellows, and even some undergraduates (notably Cordelia Monsey), had begun to think about tapestries for the Hall. 

We agreed that if I would produce designs speculatively (there was no money as yet) efforts would be made to raise the funds over the same period. Both these schemes worked successfully and after six months I presented my ideas in the form of cartoons, having worked out the weaving aspects already with the Edinburgh Tapestry Company.

My main aim was to reinforce the impression the Hall gave of an ancient gathering place (e.g. an Anglo-Saxon mead-hall) while subduing, by a variation in texture, its overwhelming concrete grimness. This seemed to call for some allusion to heraldic banners (verticality was already implicit in the divided shapes of the principal wall) which would be appropriate to a university where identifying emblazonments play an important role.

The ordeal of St Catherine is traditionally indicated by the wheel which broke apart spontaneously during the attempt to put her to death: the legend relates the use of a machine involving four knived wheels. The explosion of this instrument forms the subject of the two side panels which share the same design, one being a mirror image of the other (though they differ in nuances of colour and weaving). A senior scientist at the rather testing discussion I had with the Fellows complained that ‘explosions don’t look like that’: my only defence was to point out that the figures and symbols that for him might represent an explosion would not look like one either. It was in fact from another scientist that I got the clue which led to this particular image when some years earlier, visiting the Professor of Microbiology at Chicago (Ira G. Wool) I had been told, as we passed the site of Fermi’s underground laboratory, how the great nuclear physicist had made, using the dispersal of torn pieces of paper, surprisingly accurate ad hoc measurements of the moment of the first nuclear explosion. By analogy, having placed the central unbroken wheels where they were to go I cut up paper replicas of them which I scattered over the surface, marking where each one landed. I made several attempts until the scatter had the right energy: this, somewhat formalised, became the upper layer of the design.

The strewn fragments if reassembled would make up four wheels identical with those they obtrude upon and surround. The number of spokes in each wheel was determined by reference to an ancient pictogram for heaven, and each was constructed according to the proportions of the golden section. Thus I was able to reassure the Fellows that the Two Cultures, then so much discussed, could present a unified front.

The central panel carries on a theme used in paintings in which the same words are played against each other in a counterpoint of letters. The texts used were the mottoes of the College and that of the University. The Nova et Vetera of the College forms the sans-serif centre. This form of letter though actually the older historically, has more modern associations. Serif letters were used for the Dominus Illuminatio Mea of the University The colours used on the exterior border are those of the University’s insignia. Worked into the central panel are colour echoes of the flanking tapestries plus the colours of the College itself (these later not being the happiest blend as could be seen from the college scarf). 

The same two devices inform the three smaller tapestries that decorate the back wall of the Hall where they hang high, as pennants, clear of the serving area. In this way High Table is dignified by its background of the large tapestries yet not itself denied the view of their companion works at the other end of the Hall.

The weavers, with some licence for improvisation, worked from life size black and white cartoons which carried instructions rather like Painting by Numbers. Once the result was installed it was easy to see what a magnificent and imaginative job the Edinburgh Tapestry Co. had done in interpreting my design, making it predictably richer in wool than ever paint can be.

That was a long time ago since when I have seen the tapestries many times and managed to fit a fragment of one of them behind the figure in a portrait I made for the college of Alan Bullock. Physically they have lasted wonderfully well and I can detect no signs on them of thrown wine or spilt soup. Art fashion doesn’t seem to have dated them and every year when I come to the College Feast I look at them with furtive pride as the first grand commission of my career, not even fearing now the reproachful ghost of Aarne Jacobson.

Works & Texts 1992 page 206-207