Georges Mora in his role as art advisor to the National Australia Bank held a steadfast belief in building the first “collection of tapestries designed by Australian artists and woven in Australia”1, an attainable ambition and concept with the establishment of the Victorian Tapestry Workshop in 1976. The newly minted organisation was fuelled by the desire to introduce a new tradition of tapestry in Australia and pioneer a cultural industry that would innovate and not replicate its overseas counterparts. The country’s high-quality wool and the decision to train fine arts graduates as weavers were seen as its secret weapons.
Following founding director Sue Walker’s proposal to the NAB that they consider tapestries for its Melbourne Head Office Development, the workshop and Bank under Mora’s curatorial stewardship swiftly developed a close and rewarding partnership, that was defining for both.
Mora initially developed a strategy for six tapestry commissions to form a nucleus within the broader art collection. A few years later, he envisioned expanding it to encompass a further ten tapestries by living Australian artists to create a legacy “of outstanding historical and artistic value for this country”2 in a medium which has endured over the centuries.
Ultimately, under Georges Mora’s direction, nine tapestries across an eight-year period were acquired for the Head Office from VTW. Interestingly, these tapestries were not the first to enter the collection and were in fact preceded by the acquisition of John Coburn’s Arabian Sun 1976 and Bushfire c.1976. Produced by the leading French textile firm, Ateliers Pinton, Coburn’s Aubusson tapestries were part of a modern era revival for an art form that had long been regarded as old-fashioned. Whether by happenstance or by design, these in vogue and now classic works from Coburn’s oeuvre paved the way for the formation of a remarkable suite of eleven tapestries unrivalled by any Australian corporate collection.
Deep consideration was given to the curatorial cohesion and visual impact of the tapestry collection; and in the first instance, the works were designed to be of identical dimensions. (The exception was the workshop’s large-scale commission; Early Days in the Goldfields 1982 by Albert Tucker. Measuring 5 x 2.4 metres it was a site-specific commission conceived as a hero work for the Bank’s Collins Street premises and it remains in their permanent collection.)
Fittingly, Mora saw that the VTW commissions granted a valuable opportunity to engage with the burgeoning generation of contemporary artists and took the key decision to select artists unfamiliar with the medium, with the view to injecting an edgier dynamic.
Jeffrey Makin, Lesley Dumbrell and Jan Senbergs were the first artists chosen and in 1979 their three tapestries were cut from the loom. The principle of collaboration lay at the heart of VTW’s philosophy. Undoubtedly, the commissioned artists were invigorated to navigate new territory in partnership with the weavers, who in turn were excited by the tightrope walk of interpreting the artist’s painted vision to bring it to life in thread.
The choreography of coloured intersecting rods dancing across the surface of Lesley Dumbrell’s Snakes and Ladders appeared to be deceptively straightforward to reinvent in woven form. However, during the weaving process, it was discovered that the straight lines warped as the weft compacted creating wavy lines rather than taut rods as intended. As fate would have it, good synergies were at play with Dumbrell’s sister, Merrill Dumbrell, one of the weavers assigned to solve this conundrum. It brought an added dimension to the notion of collaboration between artist and workshop.
For Jeff Makin’s commission the artist produced a painting to scale. The rich and pronounced painterly qualities of Port Campbell demanded a sophisticated and sensitive reading by the weavers to translate and articulate the subtleties within the expansive blue seas of the Southern Ocean.
A single state print was the source material for Jan Senbergs’ West Melbourne 1979. The tapestry is a testament to the weavers’ interpretative abilities and dexterity in finding ways to masterfully depict the complex grey tonal variations and markings inherent in the print.
Mirka Mora’s Curlews in the Garden 1980 became the fourth commission completed in 1981. Mirka was well versed in textile media and was known for exhibiting virtuosi embroideries filled with imaginative imagery and a playful spirit. Tapestry, undoubtedly, was a natural fit and she relished its expansive stage, sandwiching a menagerie of fantasy creatures between two ornate borders, all extravagantly embellished with lurex thread – a luxury afforded to Mirka and subsequently rarely repeated by the workshop! This composition brimming with unabashed richness gave the weavers a special joy to create.
Dale Hickey’s arresting design was based upon the principles of linocut, but in reverse. The trees of Cottlesbridge Landscape delineated in black ink, painted on clear acetate film were laid upon a canvas, whereupon Hickey applied random strokes of colour. Sue Walker observed that this singular approach afforded the weavers a pronounced freedom in their interpretation and execution of the tapestry.
Blue Pacific by Alun Leach-Jones was introduced into the collection in 1984, rather than commissioned. During this mid-1980s period, the workshop was experiencing extraordinary growth, that in turn was beginning to cause creeping delays to the scheduling of the NAB’s commissions. To protect momentum and keep the project on track, Leach-Jones’ tapestry rendering of his signature screenprint was swiftly made available to the collection. In many ways this unexpected addition was seen as a coup as Leach-Jones was one of the workshop’s most in demand tapestry artists of the era.
The NAB’s dedicated patronage to contemporary tapestry and the growing reputation of its collection was recognised early in 1982 through the National Gallery of Victoria’s exhibition The Seventies: Australian Paintings and Tapestries from the Collection of the Australia National Bank.
The VTW also acknowledged the NAB’s contribution when Sue Walker in September 1985 wrote to Mora that “the Bank’s encouragement and confidence in the workshop has been a key factor in the extraordinary success that the workshop now enjoys”3. This success engendered a raft of significant commissions and notably a monumental tapestry by Arthur Boyd for the new Parliament House in Canberra. Measuring 9 x 20 metres, it would require two years to complete and as irony would have it, this impacted on the schedule and progress of the NAB’s own commission program.
Even so, ambitions were well stoked, and Georges Mora had already received the green light from the Bank to launch the second phase of the collection after completion of the core six VTW tapestries. Tantalising plans were formed to commission both a diverse and new wave of rising artists; Susan Norrie and Howard Arkley were among those selected to prepare future designs. Ultimately, the eighth and ninth commissions, and the last executed by the workshop, were Janenne Eaton’s Fly 1986 and Anatjari Tjampitjinpa’s Untitled 1987. Their tapestries illustrated the orienting of the collection’s compass fearlessly towards the frontier of contemporary practice and were a promise of what was to come.
1 Georges Mora in letter to Sir Andrew Grimwade dated 18 Oct 1984
3 Sue Walker to Georges Mora in letter dated 12 Sept 1985
Banner Image: Jeff Makin alongside his tapestry, Port Campbell, at the Victorian Tapestry Workshop