Embroidery September / October 2020
Vivienne Beaumont’s machine embroidered narratives capture her affection for the ancient landscapes of rural Shropshire and personal themes of love, fragility, fear and loss
Vivienne Beaumont acknowledges iconic embroiderer Audrey Walker as a powerful influence on her work. For Beaumont, Walker’s work features relationships implied with ‘glances and inward smiles’, speaking of female relationships and kinship. ‘So much is inferred, hinted at in the glances between her monumental figures’. A sense of strong female role models runs throughout Beaumont’s experience of stitched textiles. ‘As a child my mother made my clothes. One aunt was a maker, another taught embroidery. I’m still using her thread stash.’ Although it felt natural to Beaumont, her journey into becoming a textile artist took time.
Originally trained in fine art, ‘not knowing creative textiles was an option’ Beaumont has taught for decades. With a move to Shropshire in 1995 she discovered City & Guilds courses at Westhope College which ‘re- introduced textiles to my life and helped me re- engage with my own work’.
Beaumont enthuses about the haptic nature of working with cloth and thread. ‘You can’t hug a painting; touching a charcoal drawing ruins it. I like the robustness of textiles; you can handle them,’ she says, scrunching her work between her hands with evident pleasure. Beaumont describes her work as ‘pictorial narrative with an emotional quality. The atmosphere in the imagery is airless, the space internal. Figures are usually a focal point. I’ve been working on Lyrical Landscapes for the last year, influenced by my surroundings.’ Beaumont has ‘always been attracted to ancient landscape, reflecting the hand of man, particularly the flowing drift of windswept grasses on the baked sculpted forms of banks and ditches, features of hill forts along the Shropshire Welsh Marches.’
During her MA she’s been working with imagery and themes relating to the cyclical nature of female life and feminine archetypes. Her interest in life’s ‘ephemeral nature and the feminine are symbolised in the use of flowers and harvest’s cornucopia. I use gold as a metaphor for transformation.’ Connecting themes that inspire and inform Beaumont’s imagery are symbolic associations hinting at more personal themes of love, fragility, fear and loss: ‘Many of the figures are based on my daughter... family connection is important to me.’
Beaumont works ‘with threads as I would with paint – blending and layering. I use sketch books to manage thoughts and ideas, filtering narratives valuable to my discourse.’ Her works, richly machine stitched, are often embellished lightly with hand stitch, with thicker threads adding texture and dimension. She works with a small range of hand stitches: ‘Fly stitch for mark making, looped stitches for securing things.’ Where appropriate she adds found stitch. Her Flora series incorporates her aunt’s hand embroidery of flowers, which Beaumont inherited unfinished. Knowing she wouldn’t complete it (‘I can’t see the point. I want to do my own work’) she cut it up. Audrey Walker also used her mother’s work, though added to it rather than cut it up. In contrast Beaumont’s aunt’s embroidery ‘stands proud against my stitching. That prominence honours her.’ As well as being inspired by her materials, drawing and design are key to Beaumont’s practice. ‘I always start with a drawing; I combine drawing and mark-making by hand with Photoshop.’
Sometimes she uses the computer to deliberately distort images. ‘My poor daughter. I’m playing with her face on the computer; I’m enjoying that, she laughs. ‘I don’t want my figures to be too pretty... distorted faces become more characterful.’ The end results are redolent of Paula Rego’s drawn faces.
In contrast Beaumont’s take on fabric and threads is straightforwardly aesthetic. She loves silk thread and French linen, and loves physically putting together images, colours and surfaces. ‘That’s when I’m most creative.’ She’s currently enjoying mono-printing, ‘mostly covered with stitch, sometimes just working into the dark areas’.
Her enjoyment of hand placement’s serendipity extends to free-machining’s inherent jeopardy. Speedy mark-making means Beaumont can’t entirely control the creative process: ‘Sometimes I think have I ruined that? Can I save it?’ But these practical concerns align with Beaumont’s conceptual approach. Working with the gold that features prominently in her work to represent transformation is ‘technically challenging’. Beaumont’s ‘tough beast of a Brother’ Irish embroidery machine is, ironically, ‘over sensitive; fussy about threads. I’ve wanted to throw it through the window several times.’ After a number of engineer visits, it now works properly. Metallic threads still snap, but she loves the results, so she perseveres. She prefers a ‘dull finish, not overtly metallic’.
Sketching outdoors remains a constant joy, and underpins much of Beaumont’s work. She feels her current MA is consolidating her practice, aligning her beloved ancient landscapes, the figures with their ‘sense of family and broader themes, like loss’, with nature-inspired symbolism, including ‘cornucopia for abundance, and pomegranates; markers of cyclical time.’ Developing themes and concepts organically, involves much redrafting, but most importantly to Beaumont – time. She sums it up as: ‘A need to refine, to step away and come back to see anew. I often stitch two pieces from one drawing, working on each simultaneously. It takes twice as long but enables exploration and development.’ For drawing details using free-machine embroidery, Beaumont enjoys the visibility that the Irish machine’s lack of foot allows (the Bernina’s darning foot partially obscures her view). ‘I draw a dark line over the initial embroidery so I can see where I’m stitching, then stand back to consider. I pin work to my bedroom curtains so I can look at it before I go to sleep, the next day thinking I must alter that.
‘Art is naturally affected by the human condition and the transitory nature of life; as soon as a painting or art work is finished, it’s in the past. Every time we engage with the image we’re different; we age, the artwork ages, the context changes.’
Beaumont works with machine threads of different thicknesses, layering colour with zig zag and straight stitch. She often uses a second colour through the needle for subtle blended effects. The rich texture of the work densely stitched, where the handle of the work just gets better but there’s a point where Beaumont fears a piece could become overworked. Beaumont’s relentless refinement of her work means there’s little danger of that.