Crumpled and draped over a chaise longue in the Third Marquess of Bute’s Purple Library, Annabelle Harty and Sheelagh Boyce’s Quilt 9 takes on something of the proportions of a spartan interlocutor in the voluptuous domestic interior. It’s one of 19 pieces sited across the bedrooms and family spaces of Mount Stuart, the Isle of Bute’s beautiful, ludicrous fin-de-siècle arts and crafts country house, now repurposed through an engaging contemporary art programme. The exhibition notes offer some context for the decision to place the quilts in these informal arrangements, 'almost as people…in dialogue with their fellow inhabitants.' The flip side to this engaging curatorial choice is that the objects – which are difficult to display effectively because of their important tactile qualities and double-sided designs – cannot be appreciated as overall visual forms, in all their architectonic patterning.
Collaborating under the name 'Arrange Whatever Pieces Come Your Way', Harty and Boyce’s references to building design are both abstract and precise. Precise in that a particular site is always referenced—in the above case, a curved lip of black and set of intersecting rectangles allude to Oscar Niemeyer’s Communist Party Headquarters in Paris. Abstract because only in a couple of instances – as in Quilt 13, which show the iconic balcony silhouettes of London’s Barbican Estate – can we make out a coherent and singular viewpoint. More typically, particular features, motifs or trills of the architecture are magnified, tessellated, distorted, making it difficult to trace the source. Often, front and back offer a counterpointing of more close-up and removed or aerial-style views.
Harty and Boyce’s hand-sewn quilts are as interesting for what they are made of as what they represent. The duo gather together the worn clothes of family and friends and cut them up into large cross-sections, arranging the pieces together, Escher style, to form rectangular jigsaws of fabric. These sheets retain many of the tell-tale signs of their former use: from collars to labels and lapels, hems faded through wear and tear, and colour gradients revealing where the inside and outside of a pocket used to meet.
The overall visual appearance has something of a mid-century modernist feel, alluding to commercial design as well as fine art. Patterns and colours resonate as much with the warm minimalism of Marimekko and Scandinavian interior design as with second-generation abstract painting (say, Terry Frost). The quilts on display here – created across the last few years rather than having been designed for the site – were made by attaching two sheets together, using lines of hand stitching which contain and separate the ribs of padding.
This method of creation is about sustainability: besides the emphasis on recycling, natural fabrics are preferred to synthetic ones, with cotton and corduroy heavily in evidence. But it’s also about biography and family. Harty’s father, the architect Brian Henderson, designed Manchester’s now demolished modernist magistrate court, referenced in Quilt 15 in the family bedroom (Harty herself practices as an architect alongside her husband with their firm Harty and Harty). Hanging between two grand mirrors in the Dining Room, Quilts 27-29 comprise a triptych portrait of the artist’s brother, the chef Fergus Henderson, founder of the St. John Restaurant. This homage – which, taking a playfully macabre line of analysis, seems to lay out strips of clothing representing different body parts like an animal carved up for the chef – is rendered more poignant by Fergus’s recent Parkinson’s diagnosis.
Harty and Boyce’s emphasis on quilting as a collective or at least collective-minded endeavour is borne out through the community project which accompanies the show. Individuals and groups across Bute are working with the artists to cut up their own garments and arrange them into quilts with their own personal and collective stories. In a way, it’s a modernist update on the folksy American ritual of intergenerational patchwork quilt-making. Indeed, the makers name both North-American and Japanese traditions of quilting amongst their influence.
The end feel, admittedly, is often more Mondrian than Americana. Some of these pieces have an almost austere feel, striking a defiant note amongst the ornately wrought woodwork, marble columns and patterned ceiling panels. They seem like the rebellious offspring of the house, ill at ease with all the stuffy detail of their inheritance. An engaging and animating tension, though, and a worthwhile reinvention of the space.