Magic Carpet • Raymond Honeyman / Ehrman

Playing With Pattern: Raymond Honeyman

27th August 2010

Following the recent surge of interest in quilting and knitting another traditional craft, tapestry – aka needlepoint – is enjoying something of a renaissance of its own right now. The artistry lies as much in the creation of the original pattern as it does in the stitching.

Jill Glenn discovers more at MoDA’s A Passion for Painting Pattern, an exhibition devoted to the work of textile designer Raymond Honeyman.

Even un-made-up, Raymond Honeyman’s tapestry designs are arresting. Indian Garden, for example, stops you in your tracks half-way up the stairs with its richness and depth. Beneath the main pattern the stippled colour reference squares with their eloquent descriptions – chocolate, coral, dull rose pink, sea green – bring the piece to life as much as the design itself.

In A Passion for Painting Pattern: The Textile Designs of Raymond Honeyman the canvases are displayed in the intimate gallery space at MoDA* as pure works of art in their own right, with labels neatly propped up on coloured pencils – a pleasingly quirky touch – beneath wide pale wood frames and broad cream borders. The formality emphasises that these designs are art now, not simply patterns for art to come. On one level the creativity has already happened. On another, it is embryonic. It’s an interesting aesthetic hiatus.

Mikado Maids • Raymond Honeyman / Ehrman

They have a wonderful trompe l’oeil effect. From a distance the impression is of a complete ‘picture’; close up, the design is so clear and detailed that you could think it was stamped on, rather than delicately and elaborately created by hand. Most of Honeyman’s tapestry designs have 144 stitches to the square inch “and I paint out each and every one of them”, he observes. That’s around 50,000 stitches per design. The process – from initial sketch to end result – takes several absorbing weeks. Creating each new design is like a short-term full-on love affair; unable to bear being parted from it, he takes his drawing board around the house with him – even into his bedroom so that he can lie in bed “and ponder the next stage.” That’s dedication. Or obsession.

By all accounts and all evidence, and, indeed, his own words, Raymond Honeyman is indeed obsessed, with the fundamental building blocks of design: colour and pattern, and the interplay between the two.

He is, in many ways, a traditionalist. “Drawing,” he says simply, “helps one to see.” His detailed, painstaking approach – curiously out of kilter with the modern mania for computer-aided design and technologically driven print processes – hasn’t changed much since he was a young man, although he now uses gouache to create the artwork instead of watercolour. His refusal to surrender to the cult of the computer resonates now with a global resurgence of interest in artisan values and meticulous craft-based skills. Raymond Honeyman is both of, and not of, the modern age.

Born in Perth, Scotland, he spent his childhood drawing and painting. His favourite shop was Dunn’s Art Stores, on Scott Street, where he could lose himself for hours among the shelves stacked with artists’ materials; his constant request at Christmas and birthdays was paint and paper. His early love turned into his life path: a degree in Decorative Design at Art College in Dundee, and a career in textiles that began when Liberty of London bought a design – Snowdrops – from him when he was a young graduate touting his portfolio around. Snowdrops features in the MoDa exhibition, along with other early pieces, in which his future direction can clearly be traced; it was the first of several bought by Liberty, but he still recalls the excitement of that first sale.

Now, in his mid-late 50s at an educated guess (his precise age is curiously difficult to discover) he is recognised as one of the great contemporary textile designers. He has worked – either freelance or full time – on painted designs for printed dress and furnishing fabrics produced in London and New York, in Germany and Japan; since 1995, he has been creating artwork for needlepoint kit company Ehrman.

Ironically for such a master colourist, his first design for Ehrman was inspired by sepia (yes, sepia) photographs of an Eastern bazaar. Now that’s skill. His ability to see colour allowed him to imagine “the splendour and richness” of the carpets on sale in the pictures and led him to a pattern he called Magic Carpet: immediately popular, and still available today.

He now teaches part-time at the University of Cumbria, continues to design patterns and, increasingly, paints. “I love the feel of the brush in the paint pot… the sensation of paint-laden bristles…”, he says. The way he describes it, it’s a deeply sensuous experience as well as an emotional one. His response gives the lie to any preconception that Scots men might be dour or dark or unable to respond to beauty.

I’m curious to know where his inspiration comes from, and the answer seems to be ‘everywhere’. He’s a hoarder – everything from tartan ties to oriental tea caddies – and, as he puts it, “undoubtedly attracted to the old rather than the new”, but says that his ideas “usually emerge from an emotional reaction to an exhilarating visual experience”.

His Shanghai design, for example, came to life after a visit to “a breathtaking exhibition” of Chinese costumes; French Flowers after a spring trip to Paris and the sight of “a bounteous array” of bouquets in a florist’s doorway. His phraseology is so open that it’s easy to see how much he relishes colour and pattern. All his pronouncements home in on extravagance: “dazzlingly colourful”, “resplendent”, “sumptuous”, “lavish decoration.”

Despite this expansiveness, his tendency in naming runs, surprisingly, to the literal – Kasbah, Thistles, Austrian Roses – although he betrays a fondness for the alliterative too: Punjabi Paisley, Persian Peony, Bruxelles Bouquet. The simplicity of the titles might imply a lack of sophistication to the work. Far from it.

Daisy Fan • Raymond Honeyman / Ehrman

A Passion for Painting Pattern is a quiet, almost understated exhibition, that you can appreciate on many levels. Needlepoint enthusiasts, of course, will marvel; actually, even needlepoint novices will marvel, and probably, like me, be debating which of Honeyman’s lush Ehrman kits to order, whether or not the expense is justifiable, whether or not time to complete one is likely to be found. Art lovers will appreciate the technique; even wordsmiths will love it. How could you resist all that wonderful terminology, the vision conjured up by colours like flamingo, hyacinth, bright mauve?

It’s a clever idea to include several completed canvases in a couple of central display cabinets, and even cleverer not to juxtapose them too closely with the original design. There’d have been too much temptation to compare one with the other; this way each can have its own moment of glory.

There are no flashing lights here, no interactive buttons, just a clear, clean focus on Raymond Honeyman’s work. There’s some info about the man too, but not much. Just as it should be, really: the design is what you’re there for.

A Passion for Painting Pattern: the textile designs of Raymond Honeyman continues until 20 March 2011 at
MoDA, Middlesex University, Cat Hill, Barnet, EN4 8HT.
Opening hours:
Tuesday-Saturday 10-5; Sunday 2-5.
For more information see www.moda.mdx.ac.uk or call 020 8411 5244.

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