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Douglas Grierson - An Obituary

Douglas Grierson – weaver, artist

Born March 16, 1946; died September 17, 2019

Douglas Grierson, who has died aged 73, was a weaver of distinction, whose flair with colour was imprinted with his own personality. His dedication to his craft made him a key figure at Edinburgh’s Dovecot Studios, where he was head weaver for a decade after overseeing the centre’s opening in the former Infirmary Street baths. This followed the closure of the Corstorphine-based Edinburgh Tapestry Company, where Grierson began an as an apprentice weaver aged fifteen, working there right up to the move.

Grierson grew to become an elder statesman of his craft, whose wisdom rubbed off both on younger weavers and what looks like a roll-call of major contemporary artists he worked alongside. Elizabeth Blackadder, David Hockney, Eduardo Paolozzi, Ian Hamilton Finlay and a myriad of others all passed through a sphere that saw Grierson suitably unimpressed with anything resembling celebrity.

While Grierson made and exhibited his own work, he largely played down his own efforts, and was in essence a collaborator. This was the case too in Grierson’s life outside the studio, where the social aspects of everyday relationships fostered a living tapestry of connections with family and friends that will remain as vital a part of his legacy as anything created at the loom. 

Douglas William Alexander Grierson was born in Portobello, Edinburgh, the eldest of four children to his mother May, who worked in trade union offices, and his father Bill, a carpenter. The couple set up home in Portobello, where Douglas, his sister Wilma and brothers Colin and Andy were raised.

Exposure to music, film and art left their mark while growing up. Even though Grierson hated art classes at St Anthony’s school in Leith, where lessons were more about disciplining working class boys for a lifetime on building sites, he would spend his dinner money on art materials. He was offered jobs as a trainee pottery designer and a stained glass apprentice as well as the post at Edinburgh Tapestry Company. He accepted the latter, trusting his instincts, despite never having heard of tapestry.

As Grierson wrote later in The Art of Modern Tapestry – Dovecot Studios Since 1912, ‘there was something interesting and unique about the place, that was intriguing, that gave me the gut feeling this would be a good place to work, with no consideration to where it would lead.’

Grierson began his career as an apprentice weaver in 1961, the day after his fifteenth birthday. At night classes at Edinburgh College of Art, he studied tapestry, drawing and printed textiles. To suggest such experiences opened his mind and eyes to a hitherto unknown world of possibilities is an understatement.

‘It was probably the first time I had come into close contact with an abstract piece of work, and I was so impressed,’ Grierson wrote. ‘The colours of reds and gold were set against the gloomy interior of the studio, the washed floorboards, the brown cork walls and the evenness of the north light. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.’

After seven years working six days a week, Grierson became a master weaver. Towards the end of his apprenticeship, he met an Edinburgh College of Art student named Fiona Mathison, who worked in the original Dovecot outwith term time before moving to London to take her master’s degree at the Royal College of Art.

During Mathison’s final year, Grierson travelled to London to help her finish a tapestry for an international exhibition. They married in 1973 at an Edinburgh registry office, moving first into a room and kitchen off London Road, then a flat overlooking Leith Links. In 1978, Douglas and Fiona’s son Sandy was born. Growing up immersed in art of all kinds, Sandy became an actor, working extensively in Scottish theatre.

Grierson went on to work on many large scale public tapestries, including ones at the City Chambers in Glasgow, the British Library and the National Museum of Scotland. He worked closely with numerous other artists, relishing the relationship between artist and weaver, where informal chats about colours, shapes and tones were as vital as talk of music and ideas.

This was evident in Grierson’s favourite tapestry, To A Celtic Spirit, taken from a print by Alan Davie, and which now hangs at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary. Grierson described the experience of making it as ‘one of the most joyous experiences in my weaving life ... Collaboration is an overused term these days, but in this case it is entirely appropriate. There are only a handful of artists that truly see their tapestry as part of their own work, and Alan Davie was one.’

Appointed studio manager of Dovecot in 1994, Grierson introduced gun tufting, a technology that was faster and cheaper than tapestry weaving, but which also channelled the artistic skills, experience and understanding of the weaver to create tufted rugs.

After Edinburgh Tapestry Company closed in 2000, the opening of the new Dovecot a year later saw Grierson appointed head weaver, allowing him to set down the importance of the relationship between weaver and artist in a way that remains at the heart of the centre’s aesthetic philosophy today following Grierson’s retirement in 2011.

Grierson travelled widely, both for business and pleasure. Accompanying Mathison for work, there were trips to Japan, and a jazz pilgrimage to Harlem in New York. In 2003, he and his weaving represented Scotland at the Smithsonian Institute’s Cultural Festival on Washington Mall.

While a request from the British Library to interview Grierson for their National Life Stories collection went sadly unfulfilled, an old Ian Hamilton Finlay PROEM tapestry looks set to be shown at St Andrew’s Museum, and a recent work – Boxing – is currently on show at Miniartextil, a major annual international exhibition of textile art held in Como in Lombardy, Italy. The tapestry of Grierson’s life, it seems, goes on in every way.  

Grierson is survived by his wife, Fiona Mathison, his son Sandy and his wife Leah, and two grand-children, Susi and Innes.

The Herald, October 10th 2019

ends

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