Weave a little magic

Kitaj may be quitting the UK, but he's leaving the new British Library a beautifully woven legacy... By Pru Irvine

"It's been an absolute joy from start to finish. The thought of weaving the biggest tapestry in Great Britain by an artist of such eminence has got to be the thrill of a lifetime. What a way to go out - on a Kitaj." Praise from the man who's spent 48 years of his working life as a master weaver at the world famous Edinburgh Tapestry Company. Now retired, Harry Wright and his six master weavers have rolled up the tapestry and sent it to hang on the towering left hand wall of the Entrance Hall in the New British Library at St Pancras. There, covered from public view, it will hang - all 6.75 sq metres of it - on Velcro until its official unveiling in early summer.

The weavers at the Dovecot Studio have mixed feelings about the loss of the art work they've been nurturing full-time for 16 months. There's a sense of anti-climax. The studio looks bare. But there's also a strong feeling of pride in the pleasure expressed by the Library, its architect Professor Colin St John Wilson and the artist himself, the American Kitaj. The work is based on Kitaj's painting If Not, Not which currently hangs in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. It's been described by the Library not only as a "beautiful object, glowing with colour, but its multiple references bring together the tragedy and the beauty, the literature and the art of our century, a gathering-in which parallels the work of a great library" - the largest public building constructed this century in the UK.

Part of the reason for choosing such a complex painting for translation into tapestry is the amount of literary and cultural allusion it suggests. The work draws from Eliot's The Waste Land and Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The murder of European Jews that is portrayed by the Auschwitz gatehouse, coincides with that view of The Waste Land as an antechamber to hell. But there is also beauty drawn from the paintings of Bassano and Giorgione.

Tapestry in the 20th century is largely unchanged from the tapestry of Ancient Egypt. But it's no longer restricted to imagery from its historical past. That's why Kitaj's work can be woven or extended into a different kind of art form - a faithful reinterpretation of an original work. "We don't copy the original," says Wright. "We modify the imagery and translate it into the language of tapestry. Paint has its own mannerisms. It has nuance and brush stroke. What we've created says exactly what the painting says. But we've added to it. We inch our way forward. We go through it with a fine toothcomb and we see and find things the artist may not discover. We've restated it in our palette of colours."

The studio won the commission in the early 1990s in open competition. The winning square metre, submitted as the equivalent of a working drawing, was for an even larger tapestry costing nearly a quarter of a million pounds. The project died when all spending on artworks for the new Library was cancelled by the last Government in 1991. However, a smaller and coarser tapestry costing pounds 189,000 was revived by a chunk of lottery money and pounds 50,000 raised by the Library itself.

But winning the commission meant building a new loom, nine metres wide. The largest ever built. It also meant dismantling the 17th-century oak looms that the Dovecot Studio had used for all its tapestries since 1946. The architectural drawings were prepared by Wright. It was built in European Ash, in-situ by a master craftsman and the one-ton rollers were hoisted into mid-air and held in place by steel girders. Next came the warping of the loom, which took two men the equivalent of a five mile walk. By the time they were ready to familiarise themselves with the painting, they discovered it had gone to Luxembourg. They went, too. It was in a "dull, dim and dreary gallery" where they could hardly see it, let alone encode it. They had shade cards but no loom so they could not test the colours. But 100 years of experience gave them a good idea of what they needed. "The tone and colour and richness is set on the music of the first foot of tapestry. It grows organically from there. It has to be a united piece," says Wright.

A weaver is not just pushing wool. There's a high degree of personal improvisation involved. You don't change the drawing but you change the key. The light in the new Library was subdued compared to that in the studio. They needed to intensify the "juiciness" of the colours: "If we'd used Kitaj's register we could have had a grey blanket hanging on the wall. The only way to retain the Kitaj magic was to set the piece in a higher key." But to change the key successfully requires a trust and friendship between artist and weaver. There were no problems but there were discussions. "If we can go through a whole piece without a murmur, we're in trouble," says Wright. If you can have heated arguments about colour, about lines and quality, then you know you're living. You know you're participating in creating a work of art." The Kitaj tapestry is expected to last 1,000 years or more.

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