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.