Sunday, 13 December 2015

the many people I spoke to

I finished "Signs for Lost Children" today. In the acknowledgements, Sarah Moss wrote
"Most of what I know about late nineteenth-century Japan began with the study day at the Ashmolean Museum held in November 2012 to mark the opening of the "Threads of Silk and Gold" exhibition of Meiji-era textiles. Dr Clare Pollard, the curator of Japanese art at the Ashmolean, spent hours sharing her expertise and did me the great favour of commenting on a full draft. …"
Not only did I attend that study day, I demonstrated Japanese embroidery while my dear friend Jane delivered a lecture about the stitches and techniques of Japanese embroidery. It is entirely possible that Ms Moss was one of the many people I spoke to that day, perhaps I even answered some of her questions about Japanese embroidery.

It's a small world!

Happy Stitching

a memory stirs within

We have a book club at work and through that I have read some very enjoyable novels, the latest of which was "Bodies of Light" by Sarah Moss.

"Bodies of light" tells the tale of Ally and her battle to gain her mother’s affection and approval while striving to become one of the first female doctors in England. I enjoyed this book so much that I immediately started to read the sequel "Signs for Lost Children". This book continues the story of Ally and her new husband Tom Cavendish. It would have been enough for me to follow the progress of Ally, Doctor Moberley-Cavendish, but, as she plunges into the institutional politics of mental health, Tom travels to Japan to build lighthouses. I found the chapters that explore Tom’s experiences in late 19th century Japan totally captivating. I was easily able to imagine him in Kyoto as the descriptions of the streets and building so clearly matched my own memories of when I was there.

Tom is appointed to procure Japanese antiquities and artefacts during his stay in Japan and this quest takes him to the textile producers of Kyoto. The passages about his visits to the weavers, dyers, and embroiderers are all too brief and tantalizing but still ridiculously thrilling for someone interested in Japanese textiles. But this book had one more, exquisite surprise for me.

In the chapter entitled "hortus conclusus" Tom is taken to an exhibition in one of Kyoto’s Palaces. At first Tom thinks there is nothing different from the dozen such things he has acquired for his patron.
"And then he sees the cranes, first as five white shapes glowing like moons in the dim and filtered daylight. He approaches and finds himself before some kind of painting or drawing of five long-legged birds wading under overhanging wisterias. …"
A memory stirs within me of standing before a screen, a scene depicting five long legged birds wading under overhanging wisterias …
"He has seen flowers like that, dripping the full height of the trees in a mountain forest, and he has seen cranes bowing and dipping, their white wings raised like the arms of the dancer about to begin. …"
I have seen flowers like that, cranes like that, not real flowers nor real cranes but their image …
"The five cranes are sociable, like a Japanese family preening and teasing in the bath. One is drawn up to its full height to peer down at the others busy at their toilette, and another leans in, neck outstretched so that the black markings on its silver plumage draw Tom’s gaze across the darkness at the picture’s centre and towards the arched breasts and glossy wings of its companions. Behind them, the wisteria blossoms fall like streams of water and it’s not paint, he realises, but silk, the filament of each feather drawn in stitches smaller than a mouse’s hair."
By now (1.12 am in the morning) I was so convinced that I had seen this very panel at the "Threads of Silk and Gold" exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum that I had to fetch my copy of the book of the same name and flick through its pages until on page 116 I found the image I was looking for, "Cranes, wisteria and cycads".

"Cranes, wisteria and cycads"
© The Ashmolean Museum

"Cranes, wisteria and cycads", detail
© The Ashmolean Museum

As this exhibition was in a museum in my home town, I was privileged to visit it many times and to explore the embroideries through my own eyes and those of my knowledgeable friends. It was a delight to me to see it again through the eyes or Tom Cavendish or, perhaps more realistically, through the eyes of Sarah Moss. From her biography, I discovered that Sarah Moss studied in Oxford. It is not beyond the realms of my imagination that on a return visit to Oxford she visited the "Threads of Silk and Gold" exhibition. Perhaps we stood side by side, mesmerised by the beauty of the silk and the skill of the stitchers. Certainly her writing has transported me back to that exhibition and to my trip to Japan in the following spring – memories I am happy to revisit any day and a journey I would gladly make again.

Happy Stitching