Merlin Betts looks at an embroidery, an arts centre, and Britishness

Commissioned in 1965 by Group Captain Ralph Bagshaw Ward, the Hastings Embroidery was imagined along somewhat similar lines to the Bayeux Tapestry, when Ward visited Bayeux with his wife. There are differences and common ground between the two. The Hastings one covers 900 years rather than the comparatively short period in which William conquored Saxon England. In that sense it’s more ambitious and less precisely political, if deliberately political at all. It aims to tell a story, record a perspective on history, and celebrate what some people think makes Britain great. Tapestry, by the way, is a misnoma in both cases. The Bayeux one is also an embroidery – the designs aren’t woven – even if we all know it as The Tapestry regardless. Maybe tapestry sounds more mysterious or exotic?

Captain Ralph Ward’s Notes on the Centenary Embroidery

Group Captain Ward was appointed official organiser of the 9th centenary celebrations for the Battle of Hastings. His idea for a new and rather different Tapestry was paid for by Hastings Council, and produced by the Royal College of Needlework in record time (despite a strike over pay and conditions). It measures 245 feet long (two feet more than in Ward’s plan) and consists of 27 panels depicting just over 80 signficant scenes from English and then British history. And it was made for a purpose-built display centre on the end of Hastings pier. Imagine that. Eventually the Embroidery somehow left the display centre and never returned, instead settling in what might’ve been a dusty basement owned by HBC. The display centre became an aquariam for a time, and was eventually sold for scrap, which in turn was used to make part of the amusement arcade that still sits on the end of Brighton pier.

The start of the installation’s walk around the Embroidery
© Richard Grebby

Now the Embroidery is being displayed as centrepiece of an installation at Bridge Point Rye, a new arts centre currently based out of a few warehouses on Rye’s industrialised riverside. Tim Hopkins, in charge of the installation’s visuals, says “we’ve tried to devise an unexpected experience for audiences…which features the complete 1966 embroidery, as well as other images, fragments in sound and vision, echoing Britain’s past and present”. It’s certainly a powerful, sometimes surreal experience. The location itself follows the theme: Britain’s now declining industrial past (the otherwise empty warehouses) meeting a kind of creative and cultural future in the arts centre. The centre itself is aiming to eventually replace the industrial buildings with much more modern architecture (designed by local firm RX Architects) providing shops, art spaces, and homes in an £8mil development project. Bridge Point’s ambitious plans have it ultimately rival or join other major arts institutions on the coast, like the Jerwood, DLWP and the Towner over in Eastbourne.

Sections of the Hastings Embroidery
© Richard Grebby

Illustrious curators of “the Tapestry Project” installation, Tim Hopkins and Robert Thomas, think that bringing back the Embroidery at this time helps us to reflect on British identity, a sometimes contraversial topic. The Embroidery’s version of British history and identity is exactly the kind of glorious and ultimately conservative thing you’d expect, really. It celebrates Royalty, the Empire, and technological advancements. There isn’t any blood. Bridgepoint’s installation invites you to see it in context. Hopkins and Thomas aren’t making a last hurrah, they’re having us enjoy the fact that British people are strange enough to make something like this and then hide it away.

People – unprompted – queue to start to the Embroidery walk, others choose to wander freely
© Richard Grebby

There was a similar story being told by Christine Lindey last Tuesday, in Printed Matter (Queen’s Road). Her recent book “Art for All: British Socially Committed Art from the 1930s to the Cold War” discusses the paintings produced for workers and specifically trade unions, and the artists who made them. These artists were shunned for using older techniques (requiring less artistic training to interpet) when communicating their message to Britain’s poor and ill-educated. Their socialism or communism didn’t go down well either. Many of their works now lie quietly in Unison’s basement, unseen and, like the Embroidery, disregarded. Part of our cultural past. But it’s a mention of “socialist” in a book title that apparently gets publishers’ refusal, and it’s the paintings ‘for the common man’ that sit in the quiet, betrayed by their commissioners, while the Embroidery gets an art installation and buckets of English sparkling wine. An interesting way we’ve gone since dreams of a post-war Utopia.

The final panel of the Embroidery

The message, of the Embroidery and of Hopkins’ and Thomas’ installation, is that we need to reflect. For my part, I can’t help but reflect on what a narrative of Britishness leaves out: the history of tyrannical, class and colonial repression. The many failings. The fact that we mostly haven’t been Britain, we’ve been a selection of culturally similar peoples on an island, with many different names and words and beliefs. Somehow, when we Britons talk about Britishness, we act like symbols of terror and evil – monarchs, bloody battles, unbridled accumilations of wealth – are proud achievements. I can’t be pround of that, of them. I can’t pretend that the Hastings Embroidery – and specifically the narrative it represents – is an entirely innocent or quaint bit of art. But I know we don’t deliberately supress the truth, we just want a nice story to tell ourselves before we go to sleep, and then again before we go back to work the next day. We have to survive. It’s hard to do that if things look so bleak, so instead we generally take the nearest nice story to hand and carry on.

The next showing of the Tapestry Project (yup, not Embroidery – maybe Tapestry really is more exotic?) will be at Bridge Point, Rock Channel via St Margaret’s Terrace, TN31 7DE, from Saturday 8th June to Sunday 9th June, open between 11am and 3pm. Visitors aged 26 and under will go for free, others will be charged £3. The site has full disabled access. The Embroidery is well worth a look, and you might find some other excellent works on display in the rest of the Bridge Point space too.

Bridge Point is looking for volunteers to help manage visitors to the installation over six weekends between now and October. Volunteers will be able to get an early view of the exhibition, free t-shirts, and refreshments. Email the Project Producer Anastasia Witts at [email protected].

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