Do you support hangings? I certainly do if we are discussing the four embroidered wall hangings at Shakespeare’s Globe in London’s Bankside, designed by Wellington artist Raymond Boyce and made by over 400 women from North Shore to Southland in 1991. They are Aotearoa New Zealand’s proud gift to Shakespeare’s and a handsome testament to the important place of William Shakespeare/ Wiremu Hekepia in our cultural inheritance. Te Papa is fortunate to own the full-size cartoons for them. As 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, now seems like the right moment to interview Raymond Boyce, who at 88 retains a wonderful recall of the exciting events of a quarter of a century ago…
MS: Tell me about the highlights of the hangings, your involvement in them and how you chose the subject matter.
RB: It all came from the Wellington Shakespeare Society. They decided to help Sam Wanamaker who made it his life’s work to discover where the Shakespeare playhouse was, and to get it rebuilt. I had a call from the Society to say that they have an idea to gift a set of hangings, curtains. Dawn Sanders said ‘Give Raymond Boyce a call’, because I was a professional designer, and working with scenery and everything, and ‘he should know something about it.’ Well I did, and I warned them you’ve got to be careful, because it’s going to be presented to the director of the company, and what happens if he doesn’t like them? Directors don’t like using second-hand scenery, I can assure you of that, so beware! But the Society must have discussed it because a couple of weeks later their president, Neil Coup, rang me up and said they would very much like me to design them.
MS: So you couldn’t really say no. But initially you were arguing against your own best interests.
RB: That was so! But I have an interest in design whatever it is – I’d do the best I could. Then we got talking and they appointed Dawn as the production manager, which was wonderful. What was the best idea of connecting New Zealand to the hangings, that was really the first premise. It was Phillip Mann who said: ‘Let’s look at trade first of all, the biggest trade in England at that time was wool… and now New Zealand is exporting exactly the same kind of thing’. So that was a starting point. Secondly, what would be the subject?
MS: One of Shakespeare’s problems was that Aotearoa wasn’t in his mind when he was writing all those plays and poems!
RB: Kind of, but of course [Sir Francis] Drake had just circumvented the world, and he would have sailed the Pacific… It was pointed out to me, by London actually, that instead of the globe being held up showing the Northern Hemisphere, wouldn’t it be a good idea if it actually showed the Southern Hemisphere?
At the time I had some money to travel, so I went over to Britain. We had to know about what the stage looked like and its dimensions, and exciting discoveries were being made that established the site – and the shape – of the original Globe Theatre. First of all, it seemed there were 15 sides and a square stage, but then they found it had a rectangular stage, which elongated the background, and this meant more area of curtain which had to cover it.
MS: So much the better for you!
RB: Yes, I was in London when all this was going on and it was really very exciting. The architects were able to help determine the distances that we would have to cover, the heights that would have to be hung from. As for the main designs for the curtains, what subjects should we take? I didn’t know very much about Shakespeare outside his plays, but someone suggested that one of the most famous poems that he wrote, Venus and Adonis, would be appropriate.
MS: Although this is a famous poem, everybody thinks of the plays first.
RB: That’s true, but we wanted something that was important to Elizabethans at that time. Amazingly, in the week we decided this, a tavern built in 1600 in St Albans was then being renovated. On the first floor, plaster was taken off a big wall area, and below the plaster was a mural of the story of Venus and Adonis. It just had to be that!
MS: Did you change the style of your cartoons following the discovery of these paintings?
RB: No, not at all. What I did do was a lot of research into embroidery and tapestries, because we had to decide how they were going to be made. Sadly, a tapestry was quite out of the question because that would take years, it had to be embroidery. But that was perfectly authentic.
MS: Did you consciously work in a style that was Shakespearean?
RB: Well, I didn’t copy, but one couldn’t depart from the established way of drawing. And of course we needed to look at how the hangings were going to be placed on their stage. The stage has one central door and one on either side of the stage of half the size and width… so why not have Hercules on one side and Atlas on the other?
MS: You obviously looked at artistic precedents, but worked in your own style. Did you feel restricted at all?
RB: Oh no, no one suggested I should do this or that. I had freedom! And yet you don’t step outside what you find in research. It was common sense really, and there was the practical side of it as well. It had to be those two sizes, the two large ones on the sides and two narrow ones in the centre.
MS: Did you do lots of sketches in preparation?
RB: Very few, I had a focus from the beginning, you might say. It’s my training, quite honestly. As soon as I picked up a paintbrush I usually was pretty right in what I was putting down.
MS: The story of making the hangings is wonderful, of how women from up and down the country actually made your designs a reality. Tell me more about that.
RB: Well, it was absolutely incredible. First of all we had to find a large enough space to work in, and that came by with the artroom of the old Erskine College. Members of the Shakespeare Society came out, they had to scrub the floors as we were going to have to work on the floor… and they had to put brackets on the wall to hang the hangings!
MS: Do you think this is a distinctively Kiwi ‘can do’ attitude?
RB: I don’t think it could happen that way in England. The Shakespeare Society members mucked in and did all these kind of things and supported us all along. But one slight difficulty occurred. Who was going to do all the embroidery work? Naturally Dawn and I, and most of our members thought what a wonderful opportunity to bring the embroiderers together, this is something I’m sure they would love to do. But in general, the professionals stayed away.
RB: I’m not quite sure. There was a national conference [of the New Zealand Embroiderers’ Guilds] in Nelson. We encouraged them to join in and do it but they steered away. I think it’s because they weren’t in it at the beginning, it wasn’t their show, and this happened here in Wellington as well. But there were about a dozen very proficient embroiderers who really came to the party. What really helped was when we decided to encourage lots more help, we would hold work days with the designs out, invite as many people as possible to come along and take sample works… well they went away and came back the next day with what they had done, and it was wonderful. So we held another work weekend and they brought their friends… and soon there weren’t enough small items of design for them to take away!
[By early 1990, the work had become truly national, with members of local Embroiderers’ Guilds coming to the party despite the initial apathy at the 1989 Nelson conference. As Raymond Boyce says, samples of individual slips (motifs) were being made locally to enrich the hangings.]
MS: So you ended up with potentially too much help!
RB: I had to redesign a lot of little items, those bees, little houses, and stuck them all on so there was always something. When the samples came in, what our great people were doing, they were fantastic, I just couldn’t believe the ingenuity, like the woman from Blenheim [ Mary Moore, for Adonis] who made her lamb with real wool and that’s her concept. Wonderful, isn’t it?
MS: But they had to essentially follow your designs.
RB: Yes, they had to. But they explored them and developed them in a way I had never expected. They improved them all the way through.
MS: That’s great, because in art it so often works they other way, and the creator’s dreams are compromised.
RB: I know, I couldn’t believe it, it’s really lovely.
MS: The hangings should surely be regarded as a triumphant outcome of the women’s art movement in New Zealand, in this ingenuity and at the same time collective spirit of production.
RB: Yes. Aunty talked to her aunty who talked to her daughter and soon there 400 –can you believe it? A few years ago I was in London and went to the Globe, and looked at the hangings. The exhibitions officer said: ‘You’re not going to take them back are you?’ ‘No, why?’ I said. ‘Well, so many people come here and tell me that their cousin or friend had made this part or that part… they didn’t necessarily come to see the shows, they’ve come to see what their families have done!’
MS: That’s surely a good reason to visit the Globe, and when it has those particular, personal associations with now elderly and much loved relations, it must be a source of pride.
RB: It’s good if they’re lasting that long. The last I heard was they were taken into the Wanamaker Theatre, all candle lit on the walls around. That’s really great.
MS: Tell me more about the subject matter of the hangings. You’ve chosen this standard representation of Hercules in the lion’s skin, wielding his club in a characteristic pose, set in an architectural surround.
RB: Yes. It’s very hard, actually, to get something like Hercules to fit into this shape.
MS: Getting the balance right, the proportions and dynamism of the figure, not making him hemmed in.
RB: And the club sticks out too far if you don’t watch out!
MS: You’ve obviously got a feel for architectural detail and ornament, which would have come about through your stage set designs. And you’re equally happy depicting animals too.
RB: In the end, when it became too popular, with the workshops, there weren’t enough items for the women coming in and wanting to be a member of the team. So I designed odd little bits and pieces which they could take away themselves and make…
MS: But at the same time you couldn’t overcrowd your composition, you had to balance it.
RB: Yes, it needed to be typically Elizabethan.
MS: What about the huge fritillary plant, isn’t there a certain comedy in the scale?
RB: In the poem, it says that there is a tiger-patterned flower, from which blood dripped on the death of Adonis, when he was killed by the boar. I asked around as to what flower it was. The first design I did was on a single stem, but a dear friend said: ‘They don’t grow like that!’ I wanted to be inventive, but I also wanted to work in a way that was typical of the time. Another detail I like is Venus with her mirror, so you can see a bit of her face!
MS: It’s cute! In art historical terms, were you an admirer of artists like Rex Whistler, and Osbert Lancaster?
RB: Oh yes, and particularly John Piper. He was one of the tutors at the Slade [School of Art] when I studied there. The problem was that all the students came out as John Piper imitators!
MS: But his genius for stage set design and architectural panoramas rubbed off.
RB: And his colour too was important.
MS: While these are standard representations of Atlas and Hercules, you had to exercise a bit more imagination for Venus and Adonis.
RB: Of course – for the sun, there are all kinds of representations. The hardest thing was to develop the plausibility of the wind.
MS: It looks like you had great fun. They convey a real sense of enjoyment.
RB: Oh yes, I think the Tudors had that too.
MS: So you felt yourself living in the skin of an Elizabethan?
RB: Yes. In theatre design… I always did an in-depth study of the playwright, because unless I knew a playwright’s world, I wouldn’t really know what was in his mind… I wanted to have a feeling of what he was up to, all the time, what he really wanted to say, and I had to convey that to the audience. You had to be persuasive, you didn’t take chances.
MS: And the same logic was clearly applied to the hangings. I can now see the intelligence and logic behind the subject matter, but it isn’t that straightforward.
RB: It probably introduced all the embroiderers who worked on it to an appreciation of what was happening in Shakespeare’s time.
MS: And that mattered, so really rather than just illustrating Shakespeare, you were trying to create something Shakespearean. Tell me, do you look back on the hangings as being the highlight of your career?
RB: One of them, yes. Actually whatever I was working on at the time is a highlight.
MS: Aha! That’s how artists tick! Thank you, Raymond!