Design no. VI for St. Catherine’s Wheel tapestries
Pencil and watercolour
Width 18 cm x height 38 cm
Museum no. E.144-198
© Tom Phillips
This design is in a pattern known as a ‘composite overlay’. Such a composite overlay is created when one repeat system is overlaid by another. The pattern in the background is a block repeat of a pattern unit consisting of a wheel. The repeated pattern units (wheels) form horizontal rows in the background. Pattern units (wheels) in paler colours are overlaid on this block repeat in a half drop repeat. The pattern unit (wheel) is repeated by dropping each pattern unit (wheel) half-way down the pattern units in the background.
The wheels have been drawn in pencil by using a compass. The pinhole at the centre of each circle is evidence of the use of a compass. The design was then painted in watercolour. This design is one of a series of five for the three tapestries which St. Catherine’s College, Oxford commissioned Tom Phillips to design. Edinburgh Tapestry Company, Edinburgh, Scotland wove the tapestries. Although the Tapestry Studio carried a palette of 400 colours of woollen yarn, this did not provide enough rich colour. The richness of Phillips’ designs, as can be seen in the variety of colours in this design, demanded a different type of wool. The weavers used a Norwegian wool, thicker and with more lustre, in addition to their palette of colours. The tapestries were completed a year after Tom Phillips made this design. They are still hanging in the Hall at St. Catherine’s College.
The design is based on one of the versions of the legend of St. Catherine of Alexandra. St. Catherine was a young noblewoman who protested about the persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Maxentius. She was martyred early in the 4th Century when she was tied to a wheel, tortured and finally beheaded. St. Catherine’s symbol is a spiked wheel. She is patroness of scholars, hence the link with Oxford, and of wheelwrights, amongst others.
Tom Phillips was born in London. He studied English Literature at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, from 1957-1960; and Painting at Camberwell School of Art 1961-1963. He taught Art History at Ipswich School of Art (1965-1966), Painting at the Bath Academy of Art (1966-1967), and then taught at Wolverhampton College of Art (1967-1970). He also taught at the Royal College of Art and at the Slade School of Fine Art (1975).
Howard Coutts, the curator, described Phillips’ working method for a painting entitled ‘Map Walks No. 1’ which can be compared to this design. He stated ‘In this project ‘‘a street walk is aerially designed to be elegant in itself. Sometimes sitting in an aeroplane one sees a street ‘picked-out’ because its lighting has (or has not) been modernized’’ (Tom Phillips, Works. Texts. To 1974., p.126). In this image he has used the modern medium of acrylic paint on the actual pages of an A-Z of London to pick out those streets worthy of investigation. The background has deliberately been darkened and blurred to suggest the darkness of night, and the route indicated with brilliant cream paint to suggest the fluorescence of the sodium lights on the street.’1 Phillips thus combined art in which recognizable figures or objects are portrayed, known as figurative art, and abstract art, that is art which does not show recognizable figures or objects. In the case of ‘Map Walks No.1’ he used the actual pages of the A-Z of London (figurative art) and combined it with blurring which suggests darkness and brilliant cream paint which suggests the fluorescence of sodium lights. Both suggestions of darkness and fluorescent lights are achieved by abstract art. This type of art, which combines figurative and abstract art is reflected in this design for the St. Catherine’s Wheel tapestry. It depicts the wheels figuratively yet in an abstract design. There is a sense of some wheels in the foreground showing clearly on top of others which form a darkened, blurred background.
This image can be found in Print Room Box 7.