The Blank Canvas: Bovey Tracey – 5 June 2015

I like to think of a tea towel, in its original state, as a blank ‘canvas’ that an artist has created a design on – whether that was the housemaid embroidering the white linen cloths in the 18th Century to create an heirloom or the sketchers who draw the images of Lincoln Cathedral or the Isle of Canna for tourists like me. Then there are those artists who use the blank ‘canvas’ to get their message across like ‘Using Water Wisely’ or those making political statements like the suffragette message of Votes for Women. I’m not a promoter or publicist, just an observer. One of those annoying people who say ‘I know what I like’. The trouble is that I do know what I like and I do find the whole ‘tea towel thing’ absolutely fascinating. I love them.

On 5 June 2015, I went to Bovey Tracey Craft Fair; this is a three day affair, an important event in the calendar for artists and craftspeople. Bovey Tracey, in Devon, is the home to the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, a fantastic permanent display of crafts of all sorts – from wooden bowls , ceramics, paintings, jewellery, textiles, beautifully displayed alongside temporary exhibitions throughout the year.

The Craft Fair had around 200 exhibitors; whether or not someone’s work appealed to your taste, there were some amazing talents around, producing functional, useable work as well as the more avante garde.

For a tea towel collector, it was like seventh heaven, a dream come true, so many artists also producing tea towels to match their collections of other things like lampshades.  I was spoilt for choice but was very strict with myself about only buying things that I really liked and wanted. I have to admit I did think about asking artists if I could photograph their tea towels in order to blog about them. My conscience got the better of me; I recognised that as a tea towel collector it wasn’t the thing to do. Artists are trying to make a living by selling tea towels and don’t need some obscure blogger writing about their work but not be willing to buy. So I sorted my conscience out and got on with the job in hand. The tea towels I chose are the ones that really appealed to me.

Caroline Rees

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This is a stunning tea towel that you spot a ‘mile off’. Bright white cotton background with a black papercut design and one spot of teal to add colour. Caroline works in  papercuts. She says “I specialise in creating contemporary and original black and white papercut art work, painstakingly cut by laser and by hand from the finest paper with the smallest of scalpels”. The tea towel is a piece of papercut artwork, transferred to material. It makes a fantastic design for a tea towel. I’ve already used it for drying up – the task took longer than usual because I was fascinated by the detail – the bird on the garden fence, the rows of houses, children and families, the woman with the shopping basket, the trees, the girl with a pony tail, the different roofing, the tenements……. I can look at it and sometimes see a Charles Rennie MacIntosh design and at other times the dilapidated cottages on St Kilda that have lost their roofs or the old tenements of the Gorbals in Glasgow, that have since been knocked down.  It doesn’t matter so much what was in Caroline’s mind when she designed it, for me as the proud owner, it is what it now inspires in me. I understand that Caroline does papercut workshops. I’d love to do one.  [www.blastedglass.co.uk]

Alice Shields: Fancy Pants Birds

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100% cream, unbleached cotton , “machine washable and all that jazz” says the label.  Alice Shields has her own small business which she set up in 2011, specialising in creating a unique range of ceramics for the house, garden and cardigan ornaments. She does her own transfer illustrations for mugs etc. Quietly, in the corner of her stall at the Craft Fair, were her tea towels. She has four designs: Selection of Garden Birds, All at Sea, Traditional Household Pests and Fancy Pants Birds. What would I buy? I was tempted by All at Sea but I do already have one of lighthouses. There was no way I’d have the Household Pests in my kitchen. It would be like my worst nightmare, especially since it is just black sketches, no colour, and looks scary. Fancy Pants really caught my attention. There are four fantastic illustrations – Paradisea Rudolphi or the Blue Bird-of-Paradise from Papua New Guinea. In real life, it has a phenomenal blue plumage which Alice has really caught, especially with the fluffy , feathery tail feathers. The Phoenicopterus Ruber is the American Flamingo. The American Flamingo breeds in the Galápagos Islands, one of my favourite places In the whole world and somewhere I couldn’t find a tea towel. The two other birds are the Scalet Macaw and the Blue Peafowl. All four birds have these amazing colours.  Alice has a way of drawing them so they look as though they know they are special, a slight look of arrogance.  I like the ‘handwriting’, it gives it a different look. But looking at the birds makes me think of the places I have yet to visit. The tea towel gives a bit of class to the world of washing up.  [www.alice-shields.co.uk]

House by Hazel

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House by Hazel is a unique home wear company specialising in limited addition, hand-crafted home accessories inspired by Cornwall. This tea towel was displayed on an easel, as if it were a painting and that is what it is – the true blank canvas. I was struck by its simplicity – two daffodils in a jug, on a windowsill overlooking the sea. The image it creates in my mind is of the stories written by Derek Tangye, known as the Minack Chronicles, about when he and his wife moved to St Buryan in Cornwall from London, to grow daffodils. This tea towel depicts how I imagined his life when I read his simple stories in 1980s. I don’t need anything else but to look at this tea towel and remember his gentle tales. I also remember that daffodils are my favourite flower and the only flowers I used at my first wedding (bouquets, button holes and table decorations). In fact, I’m going to buy one of Derek Tangye’s books for my Kindle so I can read them again, about his love of Cornwall and growing daffodils.  [www.housebyhazel.com]

Helen Round

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Using traditional screen printing techniques, Helen prints her unique hand drawn designs on to the highest quality linen. She says her work “is a celebration of all that is Cornwall”. She made a whole range of items in three shades – blue, fuscia and flax. I was struck, not only by the beautiful material but by the simplicity of design. I bought two tea towels because I couldn’t decide between two of her designs. One has a dark green ink sketch from her Rame Head collection. Rame Head is a coastal headland in South West Cornwall. The design has a church on a hill and again brings me back to Derek Tangye. This is such an understated design, you can feel the isolation of the hill.  The second tea towel is the same background colour but with thick white lines of a ewe with its lamb, standing under a tree. It is very striking, drawing your attention to the falling leaves and making me question whether this is autumn or spring. I like the fact that the two tea towels are so different. I was taken with Helen Round’s work and bought a lampshade in fuscia. It looks stunning.  [www.helenround.co.uk]

Plymouth College of Art

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I’ve often said that my love of tea towels has taught me things I had no idea about. I didn’t know that Plymouth College of Art is one of the few specialist art colleges in UK and was founded in 1856.

Plymouth College of Art had a big tent in the centre of the Bovey Tracey Craft Fair, offering tasters to visitors in printing and other craft work. I was immediately taken by the tea towels. Sold in packages of two, they are the same design but different colours. There were also packets of different designs. They were good value for money and good quality material. The design I chose reminded me of pages and pages of doodles that I regularly do, based on a stylised poppy. I chose the pink design because it matches the colour of my kitchen cupboards and will look splendid and stylish. I expect someone reading this will be getting advanced warning of a present of a black tea towel that they will be receiving. I like the idea that students are probably designing and producing these tea towels to raise money for the college, attracting people into the craft tent and also introducing new people to craft work. Tea towels are a great way to raise money.

Penny Seume

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My final two tea towels are completely different from the previous ones I have written about and are true canvases. Penny Seume is a textile designer who uses the urban landscape as an inspiration. She uses fabric for upholstery, lampshades, scarves etc. If you look at her website Penny doesn’t even mention her tea towels yet she produces some of the most amazing tea towels I have seen. She must have had fifteen different designs and I really could have spent hours looking through them, talking to Penny about her inspiration for each design. All Penny’s tea towels are ‘pictures’. They cover the whole tea towel, no border, you can imagine the landscape going on without limit, nothing to constrict it. Seeing them hanging up was like an art gallery. I fell in love with them, all of them and it was really difficult to choose. There was one of the London Eye, another of the ‘Gherkin’, capturing the sun reflecting on the glass. I nearly bought the London Eye because I had been there in 2006 for my birthday and had a fabulous time but maybe that was a bit obvious. There was one of Gloucester Road tube station but I didn’t have enough association with it. In the end, I chose one of a gasometer with a vibrant sky with the light catching on the bikes on the bridge and reflected in the water. Why?  It reminds me of the old gasometer between Kew and Chiswick when I lived in London; but the deciding factor was when Penny said that she had done that one because she loved gasometers.  This tea towel will always remind me of the fabulous day I spent at Bovey Tracey and the discussion with a woman, passionate about her work, and who was up all the previous night finishing off her tea towels and offering to trim a piece of loose cotton she spotted on one of the edges.

The second tea towel I bought is of the outside of Borough Market in London. When I realised where the picture was, I knew I had to have it. I discovered Borough Market when I was looking for where Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum had moved to. I wasn’t sure where I was but stumbled across the market. I didn’t realise how good it was going to be, what good food there would be, especially cheeses and pies, in an unlikely setting. I did find Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum which has sadly closed now. I did also find an amazing tea room selling loose leaf tea but that has sadly closed as well.  Looking at the tea towel, I love the bus with its number plate, the mini roundabout (whoever invented those things?), the church spire and the street lamp. I feel I could step into this tea towel and go and buy some cheese.

However, on the technical matter of a tea towel being functional, Penny’s tea towels are good for wiping up and they do have a delightful loop on the side for hanging up. I do prefer the side loop, rather than a corner loop, because it makes them more aesthetically pleasing when hanging up.

I love the fact that Penny signs her tea towels. I will always know where they come from. However, I have two regrets. Firstly, we went to the permanent home of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen for lunch (after I had bought Penny’s tea towels) and saw one of her designs of a coastal scene with one wooden pillar, probably left over from a pier. It was beautiful and I regret not buying it, just because I already had two and secondly, I regret not spending more time looking in greater detail at her tea towels because they are very special. I will find out where she is selling her work next in order that I can do that. [www.pennyseume.co.uk]

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