Portrait to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Death of War Poet Isaac Rosenberg

This weekend is the sees the 100th Anniversary of the death of war poet and artist, Isaac Rosenberg. Over the last few years, I have been working on a series of portraits of poets who died during the First World War: Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas and here are photographs, with a bit of background about my portrait of Isaac Rosenberg.

Isaac Rosenberg

Isaac Rosenberg hand stitched portrait.

Rosenberg came from a deprived, working class background. His parents were pacifists who had fled from Lithuania so that his father could avoid conscription to the Russian Army, first moving to Bristol then onto the East End of London. He was the eldest son of Orthodox Jews and “for his part Rosenberg claimed that Jewishness gave him and his fellow Jewish artists ‘that which nothing else could have given’”. (Jean Moorcroft Wilson, ‘The Making of a Great War Poet’, page 3.)

Isaac Rosenberg

‘Daughters of War’ detail.

Rosenberg was a painter and a poet, he attended the Slade School of Art and trained as an engraver. Due to his background, he was automatically enlisted to the 12th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment (a Bantam regiment) as a Private rather than as an Officer, he therefore found that doing jobs such as a stretcher bearer gave him more of a gritty reality of war and this is reflected in his poetry.

Isaac Rosenberg - Daughters of War.

Daughters of War

Within this portrait, I have used hand stitched references to his poetry and his life. A number of his poems I found very pictorial and as I was reading his biography by Jean Moorcroft Wilson as preparation for the portrait, I was noting ideas for imagery. One such poem was Daughters of War, which drove my I need to find a way to illustrate these ‘spirits’ taking the souls of the dead and dying soldiers to be their partners. I stitched frenzied figures dancing, with a section of the poem hand stitched around them.
The figures of the Daughter of War, also symbolise the soldiers who also dance around a flame in ‘Louse Hunting’. This poem depicts some of the terrible issues the soldiers had to put up with day to day, besides fighting in a war.

Isaac Rosenberg

Detail from portrait of Isaac Rosenberg.

‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ and ‘In the Trenches’ were two poems which I have also used to aid the composition of this portrait. ‘In the Trenches’ talks of a poppy at the top of a parapet, not far from the barbed wire of no man’s land, and the terrible aftermath of a shell with the poppy strewn on the floor.

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Detail from portrait, poppy on the parapet of the trenches.

I have also included imagery of Whitechapel Library where, before the war, Rosenberg spent many evenings with his fellow artists and poets, in this portrait Whitechapel Library is positioned in the place of no man’s land, where he would die.

Isaac Rosenberg, framed portrait at the Sage Free Thinking Festival, March 2018.

Framed portrait of Isaac Rosenberg at this years Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival, at the Sage Gateshead, March 2018.

Rosenberg died at dawn on the 1st April, 1918 during a German raiding party but his body was not recovered until the 16th April near Arras. His war poetry is now considered to be some of the finest from the First World War.

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Edward Thomas (1878-1917), hand stitched portrait.

I have been working on this portrait for far too long and I had dearly wished to have had it completed for the 100th Anniversary of his death, at the Battle of Arras, on the 9th April, 1917. My only excuse is that life got in the way, as it does…

The portrait is part of my series of portraits of First World War poets who died during the war: Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and finally Edward Thomas. I work by spending a lot of time reading and researching about the person first, as I like my portraits to have biographical elements in them, so that you ‘read’ the picture – not just ‘look’.

Edward Thomas 1

The beginning of my Edward Thomas portrait and research material.

I write copious notes whilst researching, noting influences, interests, where the subject lived, loves, past times etc. I also spend a lot of time reading their poetry, to help me develop an idea of who the person really was and what I feel would be important in the portrait.

With Edward Thomas, it was his love of the countryside, how it influenced his writing, for a long time writing prose and being a major author of books about England. Later, through the encouragement of his great friend, the American Poet, Robert Frost, he turned to writing poetry.

Edward Thomas 2

Stage 2 of Edward Thomas portrait, with the map of the Battle of Arras on the day that he died, stitched in the background.

This love of the English countryside and what it meant to Thomas, was one of the reasons he choose, finally, to sign up to fight in the First World War. He didn’t need to, he was older (39 when he died), but through his poems – three of which I have stitched sections into his portrait – go someway to explain why he decided to go (first and last verse below):

For these 

An acre of land between the shore and the hills,

Upon a ledge that shows my kingdoms three,

The lovely visible earth and sky and sea

Where what the curlew needs not, the farmer tills:

……

For these I ask not, but, neither too late

Nor yet too early, for what men call content,

And also that something may be sent

To be contented with, I ask of Fate.

 

This poem was written on the day he decided to sign up, much to his wife Helen’s great distress.

Edward Thomas 4

Edward Thomas portrait, detail of ‘tea’ painting into the areas of ‘fields’.

As you can see from the photos above, my portrait of Thomas, has the battle plans stitched representing the Battle of Arras on the 9th April, 1917. The different vertical lines, show the different stages: red dotted line is the front line, then there is (difficult to see in the photos) the blue, green, brown and black lines. There are also the infrastructure elements of the area, including the roads, railway lines and settlements.

I thought, once laid out and stitched onto the portraits background, the lines from the map resembled the layout of English patchwork fields as seen from the sky, which is how I developed the imagery. Linking back to Thomas’s love of the countryside.

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Edward Thomas, portrait detail of the compass.

As part of the map design, I decided to use a large compass, symbolising Thomas’s own inner moral compass but also reflecting upon his writing before the war Also linked to the compass imagery: he helped train fellow soldiers to read maps, he ‘read’ the aerial photographs and his last post was on the Observation Post, where he died.

Edward Thomas 3

Working on the portrait at the BBC 3 Free Thinking Festival this year.

Besides sewing partial sections of Thomas’s three poems: For These, The Sun Used to Shine and There Was A Time; I have also stitched a small section of Shakespeare’s Sonnet No 73, as Thomas was re-reading his poetry and had a small book of them, which his wife had given him, in his pocket when he died.

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Edward Thomas portrait, detail of the poem ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ – a poem about his walks with Robert Frost.

I have also included abstract representations of some of the flowers he loved and wrote about, including tansy and old man’s beard. These his wife took to his grave to plant, with cuttings from their garden.

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Edward Thomas, portrait detail showing embroidered abstractions of the tansy flower.

This portrait holds many elements and reflections upon Thomas’s complex character. Hopefully it will intrigue and inspire the viewer to read and find out more about one of our much loved writers of the 20th Century.

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Finished portrait of Edward Thomas, stretched, pinned and ready for the framers.

Charles Darwin portrait, finished.

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The Man from The Mount (Charles Darwin)

My textile portrait of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), is part of my series of ‘Cultural Hero’ portraits, including William Morris and W. G. Grace.

I chose Charles Darwin to be part of my series for many reasons including: he was a very cool naturalist, he had a great beard, he was born in Shrewsbury (where I am from) and he had a very interesting life! Simply, he has always been a hero of mine.

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Charles Darwin portrait, first phase.

When I am working on a portrait, I never have a finished overall plan of how it is going to look. It evolves, over time as I am working on it. I tend to do quite a lot of background reading and like to find out more about the person, where they lived, so that I can drop in links to their background in the portrait. So when I first start, I machine sew the initial portrait onto white cotton, then paint it with tea!

Phase 2 Charlie

Charles Darwin, with hand stitched background.

The background was drawn on and hand sewn, it includes images of the Tatochila Theodice Gymnodice butterfly which he found 1834; Scymnobius Galapagoenis found in the Galapagos in 1831; the Vermillion Flycatcher, also found in the Galapagos and sundew heads, which are found near where he was born at The Mount, in Shrewsbury.

Phase 3 Charlie

Working on a tapestry frame, hand sewing and painting the details.

Once the lines are stitched, I start to paint in with acrylic whilst working on a tapestry frame. This keeps the textile portrait taught, as I am not working on a canvas and the fabric would very easily start to shrink and stretch in all the wrong places.

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Vermillion Flycatcher, Charles Darwin portrait detail.

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Tatochila Theodice Gymnodice. Found by Charles Darwin in Chile in 1834.

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Detail showing the Scymnobius Galapagoenis (the Ladybug Beetle) and Sundew heads, embroidered onto Charles Darwin’s cloak.

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Detail from Charles Darwin portrait.

Since finishing my portrait of Charles Darwin, I have started again working on my portrait of the War Poet, Edward Thomas, which I hope to get finished by the middle of March, ready for the anniversary of his death during the First World War, on April 9th, 1917.

 

W. G. Grace portrait – work in progress.

Today is the 100th Anniversary of the death of one of England’s greatest amateur cricket players: W. G. Grace. To commemorate this and my families love of cricket, I decided to make a portrait of the great man. The portrait is not quite finished yet, there are still a lot of little details I wish to stitch further into it. Symbols and visual metaphors which honour and celebrate his life as an outstanding cricketer but also as a physician will be embroidered into his waistcoat and shirt.

Since my last posting on W.G, here are some more images of his progression:

Hand stitched 'cricket' themed 'wallpaper' background.

Hand stitched ‘cricket’ themed ‘wallpaper’ background.

Building up the cricket wallpaper background.

Building up the cricket wallpaper background.

Lapel badge, symbolising W. G. Grace's career as a physician.

Lapel badge, symbolising W. G. Grace’s career as a physician.

W. G. Grace portrait, almost finished - though not quite!

W. G. Grace portrait, almost finished – though not quite!

Over the next couple of weeks, I shall be finishing a couple of other projects off for delivery but hope to find time to do the finishing touches to the portrait, ready to be framed for Ouseburn Open Studios at the end of November.

‘Super Heroes’: W. G. Grace

Besides the series of First World War poet portraits, I am also working on a series of portraits of ‘Super Heroes’. The first in this series was William Morris and although I had planned to work on Charles Dickens next, that plan has been changed to W. G. Grace whose 100th anniversary of his death is coming up next month on 23rd of October.

William Morris part of the 'Super Hero' series portrait.

William Morris part of the ‘Super Hero’ series portrait.

When I was growing up in Shropshire, cricket played a massive part in our family life. My Dad and my brother were both very good cricketers, playing for Wem and Acton Burnell, so every Saturday was spent going to the match, my Mum making the cricket teas (which were always very popular as there was always a lot of cake involved) and I was often volunteered to be the teams scorer – not always an easy job. Whilst a student studying art in Shrewsbury, I then worked on a series of large scale cricketing inspired paintings. So, it seems quite fitting to create a portrait of an amazingly talented cricketer.

Born in 1848 near Bristol, William Gilbert Grace was certainly part of a cricketing family (his father and brothers all played) and he believed his great skill came from hard work and lots of practise. Playing as an amateur, training as a medical practitioner in 1879, he played Marylebone Cricket Club, Gloucester and England. By the time he was 27, he had 50 first-class centuries and once Grace scored 839 runs in 3 innings in 1 week (344+177+318)! The statistics are amazing!

I have just begun his portrait and so far, I have machine stitched ‘W.G’s’ head and shoulders. I shall embellish the portrait with acrylic and further hand sewing. I haven’t quite decided how I shall tackle the background but I must admit I am really looking forward to starting his wonderful beard!

Stitched line drawing of W. G. Grace.

Stitched line drawing of W. G. Grace.

Hook a Portrait: Marilyn Monroe

Line drawing onto hessian.

Line drawing onto hessian.

This weekend I am teaching a workshop on Saturday about using the traditional technique of ‘Hooky’ matting or Rag Rug to make portraits, at the Biscuit Factory in Newcastle. I have used this technique before to create the portrait of my Mum, Nan and Great Aunty in my ‘Matriarchal Trefoil’. So I decided to have another play with a new portrait, using much bolder colours and blocking of fabric – like a Pop Art screen print.

I decided to make a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, as it fits into the style I was wanting to play with: Pop Art and it’s the 90th Anniversary of her birth next year – so why not!

Rather than to sew the hessian onto a mat frame – as this would be quite restrictive for a one day course – I decided I would recycle an old wooden frame and staple the hessian straight to the back. I then free hand drew the portrait on to the hessian – though for the workshop I will show fellow makers how to use a cheating method of using net and printed portraits.

'Line drawing' with hooky.

‘Line drawing’ with hooky.

Hooky mat technique can be a little like creating stained glass windows and that was how I approached this portrait. I ‘drew’ a line with the hooked black strips of wool – I will create a video/photographic ‘How To:’ sometime soon…

Filling in the colours.

Filling in the colours.

The next stage is to start filling in the colours. I wanted to keep it very much in the genre of the pop art screen print, so used blocks of colour rather than attempting shading. I have used recycled blankets, velvet children’s clothes and old dresses.

Completed background.

Completed background.

The fun part was choosing which colours and fabrics I wanted to use, with what I had at hand and I wanted to keep the colour palette small.

Painting the frame.

Painting the frame.

Now, this may seem like I was painting the frame at the wrong point in making the portrait but, in my defence, I was hooking straight onto the frame and was worried I would damage the newly painted wood with the hook; plus, until the picture was finished, I really didn’t know what colour the frame needed to be to enhance the picture.

Finished Marilyn Monroe 'hooky' mat portrait.

Finished Marilyn Monroe ‘hooky’ mat portrait.

A couple of coats of paint are needed to completely finish the picture so that I’m happy with it. but this has been such a brilliant, fun project to do. The finished picture is about 70cm square, framed. I am so looking forward to seeing what the the workshop participants create!

William Morris stitched portrait.

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William Morris, ‘The Maker’, finished.

Since Easter, I have been working on a couple more portraits. My portrait of Isaac Rosenberg, the First World War poet has been started but put on hold until hopefully this weekend and whit week, when I might be able to get my teeth back into it. But, my portrait of William Morris has been a wonderful roller coaster ride and now it is finished. I do find I get obsessed by projects and therefore find it difficult to do other things which I am meant to be doing like feeding the children, working on ‘work’ projects, remembering to pick the children up from school…And this has been no exception!

William Morris, the beginning.

William Morris, the beginning.

I decided to make a portrait of William Morris for many reasons. The first being that I had so much fun with my ‘Green Man’ and his beard, I wanted to create another piece in which I worked in a similar manner. Secondly, because his body of work – poetry, writing, design, arts and crafts, hand-working, philosophy – inspire me constantly.

Acanthus leaves drawn onto the background of the finished sewn portrait.

Acanthus leaves drawn onto the background of the finished sewn portrait.

Unlike my war poet portraits, I wanted to ensure this portrait was full of colour, almost psychedelic but I like to keep the face of the portrait down to very simple expressive lines, which allows the viewer to create their own feelings about the character of the ‘sitter’.

Hand stitched acanthus leaves, painted with acrylic.

Hand stitched acanthus leaves, painted with acrylic.

I had a lovely time drawing out the acanthus leaves which were then hand stitched and finally painted with acrylic. The hand stitched is slow and methodical, but very meditative in nature.

Finished acanthus.

Finished acanthus.

Originally, I had intended to further embellish the acanthus leaves but I was so pleased with how they looked when I finished painting them, that I decided it would be rather ‘over egging the pudding’ if I did.

Waistcoat and shirt detail.

Waistcoat and shirt detail.

It was difficult to decide upon colours for his waistcoat and shirt, as obviously photographs of Morris were in black and white and in paintings he tended to be seen wearing dark, dull colours. So, I did some research on Victorian costume of the 1860s to try and get the right tones and colours.

'News from Nowhere' quote.

‘News from Nowhere’ quote.

Hand stitched around Morris’s collar is a quote from his ‘News from Nowhere’, a book which encapsulates his idea of utopian socialism.

Portrait stretched on a frame for painting and stitching.

Portrait stretched on a frame for painting and stitching.

Before choosing the colour of Morris coat, I painted his beard and hair in fabulous tones of orange and brown, only then could I decide upon his coat’s colour.

Hand stitched tweed.

Hand stitched tweed.

When I had finished painting his coat, I decided to hand over stitch a check, using colours I had already stitched into the acanthus leaves. You can see I also hand stitched oak leaves into his shirt – this is an ‘homage’ to his love of using the oak leaf also in his design and the William Morris designs often used in Liberty print shirts.

Detail of Morris's hair and beard.

Detail of Morris’s hair and beard.

The stitching on the shirt was the last piece of sewing to complete the portrait. The last two weeks, I have been busy getting the picture framed – I have chosen to use the same style frame I used for the ‘Green man’ – and to get my first set of Giclee prints done, which I am very excited about.

Giclee prints of my portraits.

Giclee prints of my portraits.

This weekend it’s The Late Shows in Newcastle and once again my studio is open, which encouraged me to promptly organise some prints of my work, as visitors had asked if I had any of my ‘War Poets’. I was absolutely delighted with the results and now just need to pick up the picture mounts and they will also be ready to then go onto my Etsy site, too.

'The Maker'.

‘The Maker’.

Centenary of the death of Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England.

Extract from The Soldier, 1914.

Today, at 4.46 pm, 100 years ago, the poet Rupert Brooke died of septicaemia on a French hospital ship, moored off the island of Skyros, where he is buried. He was on his way to  Gallipoli to fight in that historic First World War battle.

Embroidered portrait of Rupert Brooke.

Embroidered portrait of Rupert Brooke.

I decided to start of my series of portrait of First World War poets who died during the war, last year. I was actually trying to find the right inspiration for another project and I could never get the right idea. The ideas and imagery for the portraits came to me whilst on a long car drive. Since I was a teenager, I had loved reading the poetry of Rupert Brooke, my favourite poem being ‘The Beginning’. As a teenager, the fact that Brooke was a beautiful man, dying in tragic circumstances, also aided my admiration for him. By it’s an admiration for his work, that has never waned.

Hand stitched, the poem 'The Beginning'.

Hand stitched, the poem ‘The Beginning’.

The portrait of Brooke, was the first I completed. I have decided to keep the portrait quite ethereal, through the simple line drawing of the sewing machine to the delicate hand stitched details of his life. Upon his tie, I hand stitched the words of the poem ‘The Beginning’. Behind Brooke, as though a school map on the wall, is stitched a map of the World, with the words of ‘The Soldier’ stitched around it.

The poem 'The Soldier' hand stitched around the map of the World.

The poem ‘The Soldier’ hand stitched around the map of the World.

Throughout the portrait, I have stitched metaphors of Brooke’s life. Framing the picture is the olive leaves which are found in the olive grove where Brooke is buried. Hibiscus flowers and hollyhocks, symbolise his lost loves in England and Tahiti and the lilac flowers represent his famous poem ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester.’

Hollyhocks and hibiscus flowers.

Hollyhocks and hibiscus flowers.

This weekend, there will be many events to commemorate Brooke’s life in Grantchester and Cambridge andThe Second I Saw You: The True Love Story of Rupert Brooke and Phyllis Gardner’ and new book written by Lorna C. Beckett is having it’s official book launch.

Close-up of Rupert Brooke portrait.

Close-up of Rupert Brooke portrait.

In Newcastle, the Biscuit Factory, the UK’s largest contemporary art gallery, is currently exhibiting my portrait of Rupert Brooke, alongside that of Wilfred Owen, to commemorate Brooke’s death.

Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen portraits, exhibited at the Biscuit Factory.

Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen portraits, exhibited at the Biscuit Factory.

New Portraits

I have been itching to get on with starting some new portraits but time and other work commitments have been getting in the way. But over Easter, I have managed to start two. I thought, due to the way I work on them, it would be much easier to have two pictures running along each other, so whilst one is drying or I’m planning the next section I can get on with the other one.

Intensive preparation for my portrait of Isaac Rosenberg.

Intensive preparation for my portrait of Isaac Rosenberg.

The first one, I have been planning since completing my portrait of Wilfred Owen in November. It is a portrait of Isaac Rosenberg , a First World War poet and painter who died on the 1st April, 1918. He is to form part of the series of portraits of War Poets, I am making. He is a fascinating character but at the time I didn’t know much about him, so I spent most of January reading the very in depth and interesting biography of him by Jean Moorcroft Wilson.

Isaac Rosenberg, machine line drawing.

Isaac Rosenberg, machine line drawing.

Within Rosenberg’s portrait, I intend to capture images of the Whitechapel Library, images of dancing women to evoke his poem ‘Daughter’s of War’ and other elements I have to finalise. As with the portraits of Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen, which I have completed and are now hanging at the Biscuit Factory in Newcastle, I intend to sew parts of his poetry into his clothing adding texture and visual metaphors.

My second portrait I have started working on is of William Morris. Morris has always inspired my work and way of thinking. The Arts and Crafts movement during the Victorian  period placed great importance on quality of fabrics, beauty in design and the quality of craftsmanship.

William Morris, the beginning.

William Morris, the beginning.

I work, initially creating the portrait using a sewing machine to ‘draw’ the lines and then I continue the portrait using hand sewn stitches which are slow and laborious but also very meditative. The portrait of Morris, will also be painted in acrylic then over stitched, using similar techniques to my recent picture ‘Portrait of a Green Man’.

Sewn line drawing complete.

Sewn line drawing complete.

Over the next month or so, whilst working on commissions for the Hancock Museum and printing some more lino prints, I shall also be working on my portraits, which bring me great enjoyment.

The Wilfred Owen Association

Just a quick post but I am delighted and proud to say that my hand stitched portrait of Wilfred Owen has its own page on the Wilfred Owen Association’s website. Working on his portrait has been a very moving and inspiring project. I have received the most amazing and supportive feedback from people who have seen the portrait in the ‘flesh’ at my studio and from the wonderful people who have seen it on the internet through my blog, twitter and Facebook all over the world.

The Wilfred Owen Association is dedicated to commemorating the short life of Wilfred Owen and his poetry.

Wilfred Owen, hand stitched portrait.

Wilfred Owen, hand stitched portrait.