Archie Brennan (1931-2009), tapestry artist, formative director of Edinburgh’s Dovecot Studio’s modern era, and sometime pop artist of the textile world, was an innovator whose prolific output belied a life spent teaching and promoting tapestry worldwide.

Well known amongst tapestry aficionados, his light faded at home when he left Scotland in the 1970s to pursue his passion for tapestry abroad. Innovatively using photographic and mass media for images for his work, including those of Muhammad Ali and Princess Diana, and questioning the notion that a weaver should only copy paintings, he packed up his portable loom and travelled the world, a long way from his Edinburgh origins just half a mile from the Dovecot’s original studios in Corstorphine.

When he died in 2019 in upstate New York, Brennan had left a legacy worldwide, from Australia to Papua New Guinea and Hawaii. This exhibition, the first major retrospective of his long and far-flung career, brings together tapestries from all points of his life, in a joint venture between Dovecot and the National Museum of Scotland.

“It’s been a very long time in the making,” says Kate Grenyer, Dovecot curator, who says she first encountered Brennan’s work when she joined the Studios in 2012. Working with Lisa Mason at NMS – the museum has a number of Brennan tapestries in its collection – the pair started to survey works in British collections, which were all largely from the 1960s and ‘70s, then contact galleries worldwide to cover Brennan’s later career.

“Very little research had been done here on his work since 1980 and yet he continued to have a really impactful career across the globe,” says Grenyer.

Brennan knew at an early age that he wanted to create. Aged 12, in the early years of the Second World War, he wanted to be either a fighter pilot or an artist. With the war over, he began evening art classes aged 15, where he met students from The Edinburgh Tapestry Company (now Dovecot), who encouraged him to visit. A year later, he had become an apprentice, and in 1963, its Director, his tenure infused with the idea that tapestry was not about copying paintings, whilst also implementing the innovative idea of bringing weavers out from behind the loom to sit in front of it, so that they could see what they were weaving.

“It gave the weaver much greater control. The weaver stopped being a technician who produced work and started having creative input in to seeing the whole tapestry come together.”

By the late 1960s, frustrated with the idea of translating work into tapestry without engaging with it, he had introduced the idea of collaborating closely with the artist doing the design – and artists which The Edinburgh Tapestry Company worked with at this point included Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore.

“He made sure his voice was as important as the artist’s.” Brennan was also designing his own works. “He soon took away that idea of needing to work collaboratively. He felt that the weaver could be an artist in his own right. And that’s when he felt it was time to cut ties with Dovecot.”

Brennan moved to Australia as consultant on the foundation of the Victoria Tapestry Workshop, before moving again to Papua New Guinea for four years. Determined to work just on his own tapestries, he then moved to Hawaii, from where he finally moved to New York. “His work got smaller as he moved around – we have his travel loom in the gallery. He was so full of ideas, and his tapestries were dictated by the length of time he had to work on them. He churned out a lot of work towards the end, all of it brilliant, whether translating photography or other mass media into tapestry.”

He also had a subversive sense of humour, not least in his work. “He once posted a tapestry parcel to a textile exhibition in the UK in the 1970s,” says Grenyer. “He wove the address on it, made the string out of knotted weave. The only thing that was not tapestry was the stamp, and it went through the post and arrived! After that he sent tapestry parcels and postcards to friends and art galleries.

“He leant, too, that it was illegal to send nude images in the mail in America, so he split a tapestry nude in to 12 pieces and got friends from other countries to send them to the gallery in America. Elsewhere he created a 72 postcard world map. “It’s a fascinating part of what he did – so irreverent to the idea of tapestry!

“But it reflected back to what tapestry used to be, which is transportable. Henry VIII took cartloads of tapestries around the country to decorate his rooms!”

It is perhaps surprising that amongst all this prolific work, Brennan also managed to find time for what might seem an incongruous passtime – bodybuilding – becoming Mr Scotland, 1953. No passing youthful fad, when the curators of this new exhibition went to visit Brennan in the upstate New York house where the then 85-year-old was living, he reported he still kept his muscles strong and healthy. Retired from his Manhattan life in New York, a studio set up in the spare bedroom, his drawings out, “He still had very strong views!” Grenyer laughs.

Archie Brennan: Tapestry goes Pop!, Dovecot Studios, 11 Infirmary Street, Edinburgh, 0131 550 3660, Until 30 Aug, Mon – Sat, 10am - 5pm Tickets to book online: £9.50, Concessions available, under 12s free.

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And so here we finally are, back in a lovely world in which access to culture can once more be part of our everyday, real-world lives.

With the recent easing of restrictions, many of Scotland’s art galleries and museums – and libraries too, if your local council is playing ball – are reopening from this weekend, ready to welcome all, in a socially-distanced, mask-wearing, hand sanitising, and fully-ventilated way. Whilst most commercial galleries are operating like non-essential shops, appointments are necessary at some of the public galleries, from Modern Two in Edinburgh, which has just reopened with its Ray Harryhausen exhibition to Glasgow’s CCA, whose exhibition “ambi” opened yesterday.

Working out what’s open and what’s not is still a lottery, however, and so the Scottish Contemporary Arts Network, under Director Moira Jeffrey, have brought all the diverse information from various galleries together in a campaign called #ArtUnlocks, allowing gallery-goers to check what’s opening when via

It’s a rosy picture already. In Orkney, the Pier Arts Centre is already open, as is An Lanntair on Lewis. In Dundee, the V&A opens today, with its new exhibition, “Night Fever: Designing Club Culture,” a boon for anyone wishing to vicariously relive that now rare nightclub experience, and nearby, Emma Talbot’s much-delayed “Ghost Calls” at DCA (above). CAMPLELINE in Dumfriesshire is reopening – again - with Sara Barker’s exhibition “undo the knot”, and in Edinburgh the Ingleby Gallery finally gets to open its installation of large scale Kevin Harman glassworks.

Further in to May, galleries from Talbot Rice in Edinburgh to Glasgow Print Studio will be reopening – check for details or follow #artunlocks. or follow #artunlocks