North East Connected

Shirt Tales

The lives and works of five famous writers have inspired a new exhibition at a leading North East cultural hub.

Newcastle-based textile artist Richard Bliss has used themes found in works by authors as varied as Bede and Lewis Carroll to design and make a series of men’s shirts.

And the resulting exhibition, Shirt Tales, has opened at The Word, National Centre for the Written Word, South Shields.

In creating the five garments, Richard, whose work has been exhibited across the UK, has drawn on the feelings and inspiration he experienced when reading texts by the Venerable Bede, Phillis Wheatley, Lewis Carroll, Elinor Brent-Dyer and Julia Darling.

Some of the authors he has featured have links to the North East, with The Scribe’s Shirt echoing the colours used by Bede and his fellow monks to create the imagery in the Codex Amiatinus, a copy of which can be seen at Jarrow Hall Anglo-Saxon Farm, Village and Bede Museum.

The Archivist’s Shirt draws on the character of Gert in author Julia Darling’s first novel Crocodile Soup. Gert works in a municipal museum, cataloguing its exhibits, and Richard has used the record cards typed by archivists such as Gert as his inspiration.

The magical, illogical and sometimes disturbing worlds created by Carroll, who regularly visited his cousins at Whitburn, are explored on The Logical Fantasist’s Shirt, while The Head Girl’s Shirt is inspired by South Shields author Elinor Brent-Dyer, creator of the hugely successful Chalet School books, first published in 1923.

The garment combines the values of leadership and decision making with the practical uniforms of British girls’ schools in the British inter-war period.

Finally, The Painter’s and Poet’s Shirt celebrates the life and times of Phillis Wheatley, who was kidnapped into slavery at the age of eight.

Her collection: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in London in 1773 – the first book to be published by a black woman during her lifetime.

The shirt celebrates not only Phillis but also artist Lubaina Himid, who became, in 2017, the first black woman to win the Turner Prize.

“I am interested in how our ideas about clothing are caught up with conventional ideas about colours, styles and patterns,” said Richard. “And in these five shirts, I’ve attempted to break some of the ‘rules’ of what a man’s shirt should be.

“The idea is that they move beyond simple clothing and become blank canvases upon which to tell story in their own right.”                                              

The free exhibition runs until 2 June and Tania Robinson, Head of Marketing and Culture at The Word, National Centre for the Written Word, said it provides “a wholly unique and creative interpretation to our response to the written word.

“Each shirt has so much detail that it’s a work of art in its own right,” she said. “He’s taken written texts in a brand new direction to create something that’s really unusual and visually striking.”

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