This summer the spotlight is on Philadelphia native, George Biddle (1885–1973). Biddle spent most of his childhood in New England. He went to the Groton School, where President Franklin Roosevelt was a classmate, and received both his undergraduate and law degree from Harvard. In 1911, upon graduating law school and passing the Pennsylvania Bar exam, Biddle left a career in law behind setting off for Paris, France, to study art at the Académie Julian. Over the next five years, Biddle also studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, learned printmaking in Madrid, Spain, and spent summers in Giverny, France, to study Impressionism. After serving in World War I, he traveled extensively, going to Tahiti, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the West Indies, and France.
The Battery, Evening, 1931, by George Biddle
In 1928, Biddle traveled to Mexico with muralist Diego Rivera. He spent six months with Rivera, learning the techniques of mural painting and soaking up the social and political ideas embodied within the art of the state supported Mexican School. In 1933, Biddle wrote a letter to President Roosevelt, his boyhood friend, campaigning for a government funded arts program to use as a platform for “expressing in living monuments the social ideals [President Roosevelt] was struggling to express.” The letter was acted on almost immediately and by year’s end the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) was established—the predecessor of the Federal Arts Project (FAP).
The Crowd, Folly Beach, 1930 By George Biddle
Biddle spent May and June of 1930 in Charleston, South Carolina, sketching a series of illustrations for George and Ira Gershwin, who were then developing the opera Porgy and Bess based on the 1925 novel Porgy, written by Charleston native Dubose Heyward. While Biddle was in town, Heyward encouraged him to explore downtown Charleston and the piers of Folly Beach. During those two months, Biddle created works reflecting the spirit and customs of everyday life and developed a large folio of drawings and watercolors recording the social and cultural landscapes of Charleston.
—Sara Arnold, Curator of Collections, Gibbes Museum of Art
Works by George Biddle are on view at the Gibbes Museum through September 29, 2013, in the H Gallery.
This June, I had the pleasure of traveling with a group of about thirty Gibbes Fellows to the great city of Chicago. Because the trip was planned by the Gibbes, the visual experiences were unparalleled. Many people who actually live in Chicago were involved in the planning process, so we visited the typical tourist destinations but also private homes, collections, and clubs. Even when we visited a public venue, we had a customized experience with a tour given by a museum curator or private collection owner.
The Cloud Gate, aka “The Bean,” by Anish Kapoor in Millennium Park, Chicago.
So where did we go? On the first night we had dinner at an exquisite Art-Deco style private club in River North. The next day was a picture-perfect clear day and we strolled through Millennium Park to see “The Bean” and Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion and watched the children frolicking in the “Crown Fountain” with the changing faces on our way to our private tour of the Art Institute of Chicago with its new Renzo Piano-designed modern building. We felt at home at the museum because we had lunch at the Terzo Piano restaurant.
Chicago’s spectacular skyline, seen from a guided cruise on the Chicago River.
People always talk about the Chicago river cruises and there is a reason for that—we went on one and it was amazing—the knowledgeable guide (who is a volunteer docent) gave the background and description of about 50 world-class high-rise buildings that have made Chicago famous. But the day was not over for us, off we went to an elegant private home that housed a collection that rivaled the best of the Museum of Contemporary Art, all described by the knowledgeable owners. Already, we knew, this was not going to be a cookie-cutter, boring trip!
A view of Lake Michigan from a rooftop garden of a private residence.
A mirrored sculpture installed on a private rooftop garden in downtown Chicago.
On Friday morning, we visited the Museum of Contemporary Art which exhibits thought-provoking art created since 1945—very cutting edge—but then we visited a private home with a rooftop garden featuring a mind-blowing array of art. Needing refreshment, we went to the Arts Club of Chicago for lunch. Although this club is private, there are works by the likes of Picasso, Klee, Matisse, Noguchi, and Braque hung casually on the wall so it is a very special place. Our next visit was a real change of pace—the Driehaus Museum which is a huge late-19th century Victorian mansion, darkly decorated with heavy wood paneling, Tiffany lamps, and highly polished stone. Later that afternoon, we went to the high-end, commercial interior-decorating studio of Suzanne Lovell so that we could learn how to live with all this fabulous art. The day came to a perfect end with cocktails in the home of a member of our group, a beautiful Art-Deco apartment in the Palmolive Building looking out over Lake Michigan and Lake Shore Drive.
The stained glass dome in the Driehaus Museum, attributed to Giannini & Hilgart.
On the last day, we headed out to the North Shore for house and garden tours. When we started out, it was pouring rain and we imagined that we would view those gardens with our noses pressed up against the windows of the bus. But fortunately, the rain became a mist and we toured a house and garden in Lake Bluff, right on Lake Michigan that housed a museum-quality collection of 17th and 18th century antiques, oriental carpets, oil paintings, and decorative arts—with another section housing Stickley furniture and decorative arts—talk about variety!
A whimsical sculpture towers among the tree trunks in a garden along the tour.
A sculpture bust peeks out from behind a hedge.
By this time, we were on top of the world, but there were more delights to come—two more world class gardens and private collections including the Chicago Botanic Garden and a visit to the Lenhardt Library, a horticultural rare book library housing million dollar editions. We ended the day with the best part—a stroll in the garden and a dinner in the handsome Winnetka home belonging to a couple in our group.
Take my advice, if the Gibbes Museum offers another trip—go for it!
—Eleanor Hale, Gibbes Board Member, Adventure-seeker, and Guest Blogger
Society 1858′s Habanero Rhythm event packed the house.
When I began working at the Gibbes Museum of Art in October 2012, I quickly realized that as an employee, a lot of different hats are to be worn. We are a non-profit after all! Currently, I am the events and rental coordinator for the museum, and I assist in coordinating in-house events and all outside rentals. The Gibbes is such a popular venue with requests ranging from small, intimate gatherings such as cocktail parties, dinners, and business meetings to large wedding receptions, ceremonies, and corporate events. For more than a century, the Gibbes Museum of Art has been a beacon for the visual arts in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina.
The Gibbes consists of a small staff of approximately 20 full- and part-time employees, and at one point or another, they have all assisted in planning a rental. Between our curatorial staff, development team, marketing group, facility manager, and security staff, rentals planned at the Gibbes would not be perfectly executed without the help of my colleagues. We rely on each other to make sure each client is pleased with their Gibbes experience, not only as a museum, but also as a venue.
‘Tis the Season to get Married
Working at the Gibbes has given me an abundant amount of first-hand experiences when planning the bride’s big day. One of my favorite rentals that took place at the Gibbes was Catlin and Chris Whiteside’s wedding reception. Caitlin, an event planner at Calder Clark, was, as you can imagine, highly organized and knew exactly what she wanted. Her husband Chris, aka Whitey, was a joy to be around and brought laughter to every conversation.
A gorgeous wedding ceremony in the Gibbes Museum Rotunda gallery.
Caitlin and Chris hold special memories of the Gibbes as their first date took place in the Gibbes Courtyard, so where better a place to have their reception. The months of planning for their special day came together on Saturday, February 23. Every detail was just as Caitlin had planned, including the miniature putting green built under a side tent as a surprise for Chris. The bride and groom were happy to be married and celebrating with their closest friends and family, even with the torrential downpours that happened that evening.
As Caitlin and Chris were getting ready for their send off, soaking wet shoes and all, they kindly requested a pizza be ordered and sent to their room at Charleston Place Hotel. I got an obvious laugh out of this request, but I was more than happy to make the call to Domino’s. I mean who wouldn’t want to end their wedding night with a hot pizza delivery to your suite?
A Hard Days Night
Being able to connect with different businesses through various Gibbes’ rentals has provided me a large professional and social network. Different companies throughout the nation utilize the Gibbes as a venue for dinners, holiday parties, receptions, etc. Some of these corporate rentals have brought the Gibbes new members. Recently, we were fortunate to host Carriage Properties, a longtime supporter of the Gibbes. They held a large party attended by more than 300 people that included clients and friends.
A sponsor event during the Family Circle Cup, featuring the Lee Brothers, in the Gibbes Courtyard.
The doors could not have opened any sooner as guests waited patiently to enter the Gibbes. Carriage Properties and Gibbes’ guests filed in for the mix and mingle. New homeowners to Charleston were pleased to have an opportunity to visit the museum and learn about its many programs and events. And, many people, longtime Charlestonians had not visited the museum in a while and enjoyed their return.
A Historic Venue
The Gibbes Museum of Art is the Lowcountry’s leading cultural institution, the premier collection of art focusing on the American South, a dynamic resource for visual learning, and one of Charleston’s most beloved and distinguished landmarks. The exceptional education programs at the Gibbes preserves and promotes the art of Charleston and the American South. Between art lectures, performances, and fundraisers, the Gibbes calendar has a busy event schedule. Along with the Gibbes events are the booming rentals which bring in an additional 700 guests per month and serve as an additional revenue source.
The Art of Design luncheon and lecture in the Gibbes Courtyard.
I hope you will consider the Gibbes Museum as a rental for your next event. I am always available to assist in your planning needs. Please feel free to contact me at email@example.com.
—Jena Clem, Events & Rental Coordinator, Gibbes Museum of Art
The Anatomy drawing class for third through eighth graders, held on Tuesdays at Hazel Parker Community Center, studied the process of eighteenth century landscape painting without the use of the camera. Each week students selected various objects from nature to incorporate into a scene that they envisioned to paint. Students learned to employ different media that are commonly used for collecting data for final paintings. The first week we used graphite, charcoal, and white conté; the second week we used pen and ink material; the third we used watercolor; and the fourth week we used acrylics to create a finished painting.
The second week, the weather was at its best so the students and I were outside at Hazel Park. We worked on developing our ability to focus more closely on the details of objects in nature. As part of our study, we chose various trees to observe and determined the angle of direction for each one. Next we determined what side the shadows were located on the trunks of the trees and how many highlights we saw. The drawings below are some of the results from our enjoyable nature study.
My experience as an artist, and for all artists, is to build observation skills. The more that I have practiced viewing objects, people, and environments from life, the better I can read and see detail which then translates into seeing color. During our anatomy lessons, I showed students how to break down what they see in into basic shapes, and how defining those shapes leads to viewing details. This process helps students gain confidence to put what they see on paper, but they have to get past the obvious. As aspiring artists, we all can see, but we have to look more closely to make our works come to life and create the believable.
—Charles Williams, teaching artist and guest blogger
I am so excited to be teaching the summer camp at the Gibbes Museum this year! Our goal this summer is to experience several different kinds of art making using new techniques and media. The campers will create art taking inspiration from the works by many fine artists at the Gibbes Museum. We will spend one week-long session learning about printmaking, using methods that are hundreds of years old. Another session will focus on exploring the world of Modern Art. We will use paints, resists, and mixed media in new ways inspired by the works of artists like Jasper Johns and Jill Hooper. Our last camp session is all about the Sea. We will make our own 3-D underwater creatures, illustrations, and learn how to create a landscape.
Summer campers hard at work.
Sea Turtle, 1929, by Anna Heyward Taylor
I work full time as an illustrator and artist, but when I am not in my studio I teach. I have been teaching workshops and private art classes for over six years. It is wonderful to be able to share the passion for what I do with others and to work in a group where students and I can inspire one another with our ideas. I love to see my younger students gain confidence through their work and see what they create with the techniques we have learned. We are looking forward to a terrific camp!
“So… what exactly is exciting about a museum?” I get that question a lot when I try to explain to people what keeps us on our toes here at the Gibbes Museum. I explain that several factors make the Gibbes a fun place to visit and become involved with; a relevant and beautiful permanent collection, new and thought provoking exhibitions, and exciting programs and events. All of these elements support one another, but our programming is especially inspired by the art displayed within these walls. The Gibbes is constantly planning new events for the community to become involved with, the most recent being the Art With a Twist event series.
Executive Director Angela Mack gave a lunchtime lecture on Impressionism and Charleston in January.
Launched in the fall of 2012, Art With a Twist is a series of events aimed at introducing new and varied experiences for all members of the community. The series kicked-off in November with a wine tasting and lecture by Mike Cohen, owner of Goat. Sheep. Cow. With close to 100 visitors in attendance, guests were in for a treat as Cohen explained the art and design behind wine labels and artistic depictions of wine consumption through the ages. A few weeks later in December, the Lower King Street Antique Stroll led visitors on tours of several beautiful antique shops along King Street. These tours were led by interior designer Kathleen Rivers, and fine and decorative art appraisers Elizabeth Ryan and George Reed. Having a chance to explore these shops with such knowledgeable tour guides, made for a wonderful and exciting evening! To close out January, nearly 80 guests enjoyed a catered lunchtime lecture from Executive Director Angela Mack who discussed Impressionism and Charleston. In February, creating a new twist on the idea of a field trip, a group of 40 participants visited the stunning Impressionism exhibition now on view at the Columbia Museum of Art, Impressionism from Monet to Matisse. The day concluded with a lovely lunch at the Palmetto Club just down the street.
Gibbes on the Go traveled to the Columbia Museum of Art for a curator-led tour of their Impressionism exhibition.
The key to any series of successful programming is to appeal to a broad audience and give people opportunities to experience something they might not otherwise be able to plan on their own. Each Art with a Twist program was planned to introduce new topics not previously discussed or experienced at the Gibbes Museum, and to bring in those within the community who may not have much prior connection with the museum. Two more programs are still ahead for this spring, a Jazz lecture and performance on April 11 and a lunchtime lecture on mixing antique and contemporary furnishings with author Susan Sully on May 20. More events are in the works for the summer and fall, including celebrity cookbook author Alex Hitz and a holiday children’s program in November. Keep checking back to the Gibbes’ calendar page for updates and to purchase tickets to any of these events.
—Amanda Breen, Membership Coordinator, Gibbes Museum of Art
The thirteen-annual Kiawah Art & House Tour, sponsored by the member auxiliary group, Gibbes, etc., will take place on Friday, April 5, 2013, from 1 to 5pm. We will have five fabulous homes within the gated community to tour. This may be the “The Year of the View” as most of the homes have stunning views that are not to be missed. Proceeds from the event benefit education, exhibition and outreach programs at the Gibbes Museum.
The footprint of this home follows a 180 degree arced shoreline of a lagoon, which appealed to the homeowners’ desire for curving design elements throughout the house.
Influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century is a lovely stucco cottage at the Cassique golf resort on Kiawah Island.
We have been so fortunate to have lovely weather on the day of the tour and we are hoping for that to happen again this year. There is one home on the tour I am dying to show my husband. From the “man cave” to the indoor theater, to the fabulous car collection, he will be amazed!
A sweeping staircase welcomes visitors to this home with expansive views of the Kiawah River and marsh.
Overlooking the 15th hole at the Cassique golf course, this beautiful shingle style home is inspired by the English Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century.
I have been involved with the tour for the past five years in a number of positions ranging from a docent to ticket chair. For the past two years, I have been the publicity chair which I particularly enjoy because it gives me the opportunity to work closely with staff at the museum in addition to all of the merchants at Freshfields Village. In addition to the house tour, we are inviting all ticket holders to come out early on the day of the tour and enjoy shopping and dining at Freshfields Village. The merchants will be offering discounts and drawings so it is well worth your time to come early and enjoy the island before the tour!
Standing on a small peninsula with 250 degree views of marshland and the Kiawah River is a gorgeous zinc-roofed shingle style home.
Tour tickets are $55 and can be obtained by calling 843.722.2706, ext. 21, or purchased at one of the three real estate offices located on the island at Freshfields Village, the Main Gate or at the Sanctuary Hotel. They can also be purchased downtown at the Gibbes Museum Store. We hope to see you there!
—Carroll Dunn, Kiawah Art & House Tour Publicity Chair, and guest blogger
Still Life with Open Book, 1991, by Linda Fantuzzo (American, b. 1950).
So what do these numbers tell us? What can we learn about our collection through this experiment? It’s too soon to tell just yet, and it may be that voting is an ineffective way to poll the community’s taste in art. The pieces of art at the top of the leader board are favorites for many reasons, including the technical skill of the well respected artists, the attention to light and shadow, and the vivid and descriptive use of color. But as the marketing and communications manager at the museum, I also wonder if the leader board is influenced by familiarity? Many of the works on the leader board are works that are currently hanging on the museum walls. Are we more apt to “like” a work of art we’ve seen before?
126 Oak Street, McClellanville, South Carolina, 2000, by West Fraser (American, b. 1955).
Corene, 1995, by Jonathan Green (American, b. 1955).
A comment about Still Life with Open Book disputes the notion of familiarity: “I’ve only recently been introduced to Ms. Fantuzzo’s works. She has achieved a style of her own and her passion for her works is obvious!” While this comment on The Veiled Lady, who is #6 on the Leader Board, comes from someone who is familiar with the sculpture: “I have stood mesmerized by this piece many times. It is just exquisite, and enchanting. It has such an ethereal beauty, and the artistic execution seems astonishingly flawless.” Some of our Featured Voters lamented the challenge of choosing favorite artists. Darcy Shankland of Charleston magazine said it was “not a fair question! How to possibly choose?!?” That’s why we wanted to give the public the freedom to vote on as many favorites as they desired, because we know how difficult it is to choose one work of art over another. That is one of the challenges curators face when designing an exhibition.
Iron Man, 2000, by Mary Whyte (American, b. 1953)
So in these next few weeks we will tally the votes, and Sara Arnold, our curator of collections, will curate your top 40 “favorite” artworks into the upcoming People’s Choice exhibition. For the next 48+ hours, take advantage of the chance to vote until our polls close on Sunday, March 31 at midnight. We can’t wait to see what you’ve selected.
—Amy Mercer, Marketing and Communications Manager, Gibbes Museum of Art
In a city as vibrant and storied as Charleston, where history is said to live and artistic influence to breathe, it seems that we locals would be remiss to miss out on the enlightenment readily available in our own backyards. Lately, Charleston has proudly embraced a love of all things local, from local business to local produce. To me, it seems only logical that we equal-opportunity “locavores” should also indulge in the local cultural fare of our fair city. It was in this spirit that the History and English instructors of Ashley Hall’s 7th grade decided to orchestrate a local lowcountry exploration—leading our class on an adventure as “tourists” in their own town.
The Ashley Hall 7th-grade girls pose in front of the Gibbes.
After studying the fundamental elements of art and architecture, the girls departed on a walking tour of the peninsula to put their new knowledge to the test. Equipped with widened eyes for art and armed with iPads poised for documentation, the class set out on foot, bundled up and bound for the Gibbes Museum of Art.
Once dubbed an “ornament to Charleston,” the Gibbes Museum has long served as a bastion of fine arts in this picturesque city. Today, the museum houses over 10,000 objects. The majority of these are tied in some way to the culture and history of South Carolina’s Lowcountry, hence the permanent exhibit’s title, The Charleston Story.
On this first trip, the girls were taken under the wings of seasoned museum docents Pat Burgess and Elise Detterbeck, who regaled them with tales of art and adventure, style and scandal, trends and broken traditions in the world of art. They led the group from gallery to gallery, bringing to life a story of Charleston than spanned centuries. The collective past they described was a vast one, told from many different perspectives and set against multiple backdrops, from the Plantation to the Sea Islands. The Charleston they described was multifaceted and marked by both astounding privilege and staggering oppression. The shared message of the exhibit resounded: the authentic “Charleston Story” can hardly be reduced to a single tale.
At the end of the training, it was apparent that what goes into adorning the walls of the Gibbes is far more complex than just picking out the prettiest pictures. In a matter of hours, the students began to appreciate the full force within the frames, and several voiced curatorial aspirations.
A 7th-grader presents Mary Edna Fraser’s batik entitled “Charleston Runner.”
After the tour, students were given time to interact with the paintings individually. Stationed before a work of their choosing, each student mused about possibilities inspired by her favorite image and penned (or, rather, pecked out) a creative reflection to post and share on the class website. Soon enough, it was time to pack up and bid farewell to Charleston’s “ornament” of a museum and its spectacular contents.
The girls departed the Gibbes and set out on the second leg of their touristy romp: an architectural tour of the city led by Ashley Hall 7th grade history teacher Mary Webb that featured visits to the Edmundston-Alston House and the Charleston Library Society. With several miles—not to mention several centuries and countless facts—under our belts, we finally returned to Ashley Hall and the familiar territory of campus.
“Mrs. Johnson (Estelle),” by Barkley Hendricks, is the featured artwork in this presentation.
In the three short weeks that followed this inaugural visit, a transformation occurred: the once-tourists became the tour guides! After selecting a specific work from the Gibbes’s collection, the girls dove into a full-fledged research project, digging for information, evaluating sources, and piecing together their findings. Through resourceful research, several students were able to contact their more contemporary artists firsthand, and 7th grader Hannah was able to strike up a conversation with renowned photographer and environmentalist speaker J. Henry Fair that ultimately resulted in a visiting lecture for the entire Upper School. Finally, students were ready to present their research for their peers in preparation for the big show: a docent tour for a live audience.
On the presentation day, the students were joined by an enthusiastic audience that included family, friends, and an entire class of first grade buddies or “little sisters” from Ashley Hall. With this group, the junior docents shared both a wealth of knowledge and a fun-filled afternoon.
Grace presents “Highway Series, #9992″ to classmates and artist Eva Carter!
A particularly special moment occurred when featured artist Eva Carter showed up to watch 7th grade student Grace as she presented Carter’s exhibited painting “Highway Blues.” When Carter initiated a round of applause in approval of Grace’s presentation, it seemed to echo my own euphoric sentiments: They nailed it! The performances not only dazzled me, but also impressed museum educators: Pat and Elise called Ashley Hall’s docent work “eye-opening” and “confident,” and Gibbes Head Educator Rebecca Sailor reported being “blown away” by the tours.
The girls were also proud of themselves. Here’s what they had to say about the project:
“I was amazed by how confident everyone was while presenting. We really knew the information and it was fun seeing our little sisters’ reactions to the art.”—Ella, 7th grade
“Our presentations were to the point, informative, and interactive. Our little sisters seemed excited to learn more!”—Olivia, 7th grade
“The best part of my project was when I got to email my artist, Jonathan Green, and find out why he painted the way he did.”—Chasity, 7th grade
“The best part of the project was when I got to meet my artist, Eva Carter!”—Grace, 7th grade
“The best part of this project was going to the museum the first day because I love the pieces of artwork at the Gibbes and loved getting to go there.”—Brooke, 7th grade
“The best part of the project was getting to walk around Charleston because it is a beautiful city that we often take for granted.”—Lou Lou, 7th grade
In the wake of our Gibbes Junior Docent project experience, I hope these students continue to nourish the instinct they cultivated in the museum to always look again—to give a second glance to the things before them-whether this be a work of art, an idea, a person, a story, or even a hometown—and to greet the world around them with ever-widening eyes.
—Anne Rhett, Ashley Hall Upper School Faculty Member, English Department, and guest blogger
Thirty-one years ago, Charleston welcomed us—my husband John, our two young children, Rough our Jack Russell terrier, and me, a painter, potter, and art teacher. We had left our stone cottage on the side of a mountain in Wales for Crystal Lake, Illinois, on a two-year job stint. At the end of our stay, John was told to “look for somewhere nice to live on the Eastern seaboard and establish a US headquarters.” So he opened the US headquarters for a European business in Summerville, and here we are!
Meyriel surrounded by her designs in the Gibbes Museum Store.
The Gibbes Museum has been a part of my life since my first visit to Charleston. I taught at the museum school on Queen Street, and I also took art classes there. As a teacher at Charleston’s Ashley Hall school for girls, I involved my students with the museum’s early internship program for high school students, which provided a behind-the-scenes look at the museum and its programs, and took many field trips to the Gibbes. One of my favorite projects was in 2006, when the eighth grade art class created a treasure hunt for children to use when visiting the exhibition Babar’s Museum of Art. It was a lovely “by children for children” adventure. I retired from Ashley Hall last year, but I am delighted that my connection with the museum continues… this time with HATS! You may have seen some of my fascinators or hats in the Museum Store.
Meyriel’s new hat designs available at the Gibbes Museum Store.
The history of millinery, or hat making, intrigues me. The word comes from Milaners, those Grand Tour folks who visited Milan to stock their wardrobes with the latest fashions. I am grateful to all those “mad hatters” poisoned by the stiffener they used, and to the medieval Guilds of Hatters, Haberdashers, Broderers, and such. They ensured that skills of a high standard were passed on. I enrolled in a millinery course at the London College of Fashion a number of years ago, and have since participated in several workshops to hone my skills and learn new ones. Just last November, I studied with Bridget Riley and Dillon Wallwork—both distinguished English milliners—at Chateau Dumas in France. From them I learned a variety of trimming techniques that are making their way into the Gibbes shop.
Millinery is surprisingly hard work. My favorite part is blocking, the process of tightly stretching damp fabric over a block of wood that has been carved into a hat form. When the fabric dries and is eased off the block, a hat is born! The block can be tall, short, indented or smooth. There are also tips and brim blocks—think of the different brims on a fedora or a Kentucky Derby hat. I will never forget the block room at The London College of Fashion, dark and creaky with shelves of old, well-used blocks of every size and shape imaginable. I felt the same sense of wonder when I visited the workshop of Guy Morse-Brown, a block maker who received the MBE for his services to millinery. Morse-Brown’s blocks were brand new, but they too were like perfect pieces of sculpture, surrounded by wood shavings. Guy’s son, Owen, has taken over the family business and he told me that blocks were traditionally made by hand because of the need to be oval not round. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century thousands of blocks were needed and machinery was invented to meet the demand. A master block was created and reproduced by a copy machine, but the copies were rough and had to be finished by hand. Today, block makers still require high level of carving skill and employ “hard hand work” using saws, planers, and sanders. Knowing this, I enjoy the sense of collaboration between milliner and block maker. I have always seen my blocks as sculptural forms—I even display them as such. They bear a remarkable resemblance to the large, hand built pots I made as one of Middleton Place’s potters, and they sit side by side on a shelf in my studio.
Meyriel’s pots and blocks displayed together on her mantel.
When I begin a hat, I have usually imagined how I will construct it, but sometimes it evolves gradually. It must fit the head comfortably and enhance the beauty of the wearer, while upholding traditional design principles and millinery standards. I find it fascinating! Each piece is a unique piece of art/craft. In order to make the fabric malleable, steam is required. I cover the block with plastic wrap to protect it and steam the felt until it gives in and the fibers stretch over the block. Sometimes, this requires a great deal of pulling and coaxing. It is quite tough on the hands and muscles, and it is easy to burn an errant hand. The moment when all the wrinkles and lumps disappear never fails to thrill me. It is magic!
Capturing the lines of inspiring hats in the “Vibrant Vision” exhibition.
Often, the hat is made in two pieces and sewn together. I stitch wire around the brim edge, and ribbon over that, then add decorative trimmings like sinamay swirls or silk flowers that I have made, or curled feathers, most of which I find. Each time I make a hat, I strive for perfection. I rarely use a sewing machine preferring to work by hand. I enjoy the break from technology. I am currently working on a series of hats inspired by the current exhibition, Vibrant Vision: The Collection of Jonathan Green and Richard Weedman, as well as by the permanent collection, and the museum’s architectural details. Most of the pieces influenced by the works in Vibrant Vision will be made on Morse-Brown blocks, but the hats created with inspiration from elsewhere in the museum are likely to be blocked on my collection from the early twentieth century. I look forward to perusing the galleries, sketch book in hand, as I design this year’s collection. The first polka dots appeared in January, and I am sure there will be more!
Sketching hats in the galleries.
Like technology, the Gibbes Museum is ever evolving. I am writing this for the blog, the shop is more vibrant with quality work by local artists and artisans, and the whole place has become a welcoming spot to bring my five-year-old triplet granddaughters for an exciting adventure. I am grateful to be part of this dear old, and, yes, contemporary museum, albeit in a very small way. And do try on a hat or a fascinator when you next pass the shop!