The Scotsman

Douglas Gri­er­son

Mas­ter weaver who worked with some of the great­est artists of the age


Douglas Gri­er­son did not call him­self an artist, in­deed he qui­etly avoided the ti­tle. How­ever, as a mas­ter weaver, he worked in close col­lab­o­ra­tion with some of the most im­por­tant artists of the last 50 years, cre­at­ing ta­pes­tries which hang in pub­lic and pri­vate spa­ces through­out the UK and around the world.

For half a cen­tury, Douglas worked at Ed­in­burgh’s Dove­cot Ta­pes­try Stu­dios, bring­ing a life­time of crafts­man­ship and ex­per­tise to bear on projects with artists such as Ed­uardo Paolozzi, David Hock­ney, John Bel­lany, Bar­bara Rae, Frank Stella and many more. When the or­gan­i­sa­tion was saved from clo­sure in 2001, he helped su­per­vise its re­birth in its present in­car­na­tion. A work­ing-class boy with no art col­lege de­gree, Douglas went on to win the re­spect of many in the art world for his con­sum­mate skills and knowl­edge.

Douglas grew up in Por­to­bello, the el­dest of four chil­dren. His fa­ther was a car­pen­ter, his mother worked in trades union of­fices. He loved foot­ball – equally happy to at­tend Hearts matches with his fa­ther, and later watch Hibs with his brother Andy – and mu­sic. Ecletic tastes, rang­ing from opera to folk, swing, jazz and pop, stayed with him through­out his life.

The day after his 15th birth­day in 1961, he be­gan his ap­pren­tice­ship at Ed­in­burgh Ta­pes­try Com­pany at Corstor­phine. Dove­cot Stu­dios, as it has al­ways been known, had been founded in 1912 by the Mar­quess of Bute, named after the 16th-cen­tury dove­cot which stood nearby. When Douglas joined, the stu­dio was un­der the lead­er­ship of John No­ble and Glas­gow de­signer Harry Jef­fer­son Barnes, and had a rep­u­ta­tion for work­ing with some of the top con­tem­po­rary artists of the day.

The first ta­pes­try Douglas saw in pro­duc­tion was Hans Tis­dall’s colour­ful ab­stract work, The Golden Lion, a com­mis­sion for the Io­nian Bank. He later told El­iz­a­beth Cum­ming, au­thor of the book The Art of Mod­ern Ta­pes­try: Dove­cot Stu­dios Since 1912: “It was prob­a­bly the first time I had come into close con­tact with an ab­stract piece of work, and I was so im­pressed. The colours of reds and golds were set against the gloomy in­te­rior of the stu­dio, the washed floor­boards, the brown cork walls and the even­ness of the north light. I thought it was the most beau­ti­ful thing I had ever seen.”

He ap­plied him­self rig­or­ously to learn­ing his craft, work­ing six days a week in the stu­dio while tak­ing night classes at Ed­in­burgh Col­lege of Art in ta­pes­try, draw­ing and printed tex­tiles. Any spare money was spent on art books and gui­tar lessons. It was, his son, the ac­tor Sandy Gri­er­son, said, “the be­gin­ning of a cease­less pro­ject in self-di­rected ed­u­ca­tion”.

In 1968, at Dove­cot, Douglas met Fiona Mathi­son, a ta­pes­try stu­dent at Ed­in­burgh Col­lege of Art who spent her hol­i­days work­ing at the stu­dio. They stayed in touch and later, when Fiona was study­ing for her Masters at the Royal Col­lege of Art in Lon­don, Douglas trav­elled down to help her fin­ish a ma­jor piece for an in­ter­na­tional ex­hi­bi­tion. Weav­ing side by side for weeks, more than a ta­pes­try grew be­tween them, and they were mar­ried in Ed­in­burgh in 1973.

For a time, Douglas and Fiona worked to­gether at Dove­cot, Fiona be­com­ing artis­tic di­rec­tor of the stu­dios from the late 1970s un­til early 1980s. Their son Sandy was born in 1978 and Douglas be­came a proud fa­ther who en­joyed shar­ing his time and his in­ter­ests with his young son.

His ap­pren­tice­ship long fin­ished, Douglas was now a mas­ter weaver, work­ing in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the artists who were in­vited to the stu­dio. Cre­at­ing a ta­pes­try based on a paint­ing or print is never sim­ply an act of copy­ing; con­sid­er­able ex­per­tise is re­quired in colours, ma­te­ri­als and de­sign in or­der to bring out the best in a work in this new form.

Douglas par­tic­u­larly en­joyed col­lab­o­ra­tions in which the artist be­came deeply in­volved. He knew his craft and was never over­awed by fame and for­tune, per­haps one rea­son why so many artists – even those with a rep­u­ta­tion for dif­fi­cult be­hav­iour – en­joyed work­ing with him. In his eulogy for his fa­ther, Sandy Gri­er­son said: “Douglas was a man who knew him­self, who liked to be him­self and never sought to jus­tify him­self to any­one, nor did he ex­pect any­one to jus­tify them­selves to him.”

A pri­vate man in many ways, Douglas also loved com­pany and quickly found com­mon ground with the artists with whom he col­lab­o­rated. His en­joy­ment of his work was clear, from the “fun” the weavers had trans­lat­ing Paolozzi’s col­lages into ta­pes­try, to the rap­port he de­vel­oped with Harold Co­hen: after their for­mal dis­cus­sions were com­plete, they would sit down with gui­tars, man­dolins and pipes for some tunes over a cup of tea. Alan Davie, with whom he worked on a com­mis­sion for the new Ed­in­burgh Univer­sity Med­i­cal School at Lit­tle France, was a par­tic­u­lar joy, vis­it­ing the stu­dio fre­quently for long dis­cus­sions about art and jazz.

Douglas also pro­duced his own de­signs both for tapes tries and for tufted rugs, which he pi­o­neered at Dove­cot. Handtufted rugs led on to gun-tuft­ing, a quicker process than ta­pes­try and there­fore a way of cre­at­ing a more af­ford­able prod­uct line for the stu­dio.

Per­haps the most cel­e­brated and am­bi­tious ta­pes­try pro­duced at Dove­cot was RB Ki­taj’s If Not, Not, for the en­trance hall of the Bri­tish Li­brary. At seven me­tres square, the size brought its own chal­lenges: a new loom had to be built, and Douglas was one of those who trav­elled to Lux­em­bourg to match colours to Ki­taj’s paint­ing, which was on tour around Europe. Seven weavers worked on the ta­pes­try and most were also in­volved in its hang­ing in Lon­don. Douglas said later: “My abid­ing mem­ory is of be­ing har­nessed on top of a scaf­fold with six peo­ple un­der­neath hold­ing the weight of this huge roll.”

Large pub­lic projects like Ki­taj’s helped to keep Dove­cot go­ing, but ta­pes­try is a time­con­sum­ing art which is not easy to com­mer­cialise and the stu­dio of­ten strug­gled fi­nan­cially. By 2000, with debts of over £350,000, the de­ci­sion was taken to close.

How­ever, Dove­cot was saved by Alas­tair and El­iz­a­beth Salvesen who bought the name, the looms and stock and hired two of the weavers – Douglas and David Cochrane – to be­gin again in a for­mer class­room be­hind Don­ald­son’s School for the Deaf. The Salvesens would later buy the derelict swim­ming baths in In­fir­mary Street which opened in 2008 as a new home for the stu­dios and a cen­tre for the ap­plied arts in Ed­in­burgh. As head weaver, Douglas’ ex­per­tise, and his em­pha­sis on the im­por­tance of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween artist and weaver, helped guide the or­gan­i­sa­tion to a dy­namic new be­gin­ning.

Douglas re­tired in 2011 after 50 years at Dove­cot. This brought the op­por­tu­nity to travel: Canada, Italy, Turkey, a trip down the Nile. He and Fiona be­came “the trun­dles”, set­ting out on each new ad­ven­ture with their wheeled suit­cases. This pe­riod also brought the ar­rival of two grand­chil­dren, Su­san­nah and Innes, with whom Douglas loved to spend time.

After Douglas died, his fam­ily found emails to him ad­vis­ing that a ta­pes­try he worked on, de­signed by Ian Hamil­ton Fin­lay, was to be dis­played at St Andrews Mu­seum, and that a new piece of work, one of his own de­signs, had been ac­cepted for an in­ter­na­tional tex­tile ex­hi­bi­tion in Italy. The show opened the day after his fu­neral. To those who knew him, it is poignant proof that he was – as ev­ery­one knew him to be – a true artist in his cho­sen medium.


 ??  ?? Douglas Gri­er­son, mas­ter weaver. Born: 16 March, 1946 in Ed­in­burgh. Died: 17 Septem­ber, 2019 in Ed­in­burgh, aged 73
Douglas Gri­er­son, mas­ter weaver. Born: 16 March, 1946 in Ed­in­burgh. Died: 17 Septem­ber, 2019 in Ed­in­burgh, aged 73

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK