‘Layer upon Layer’: artist Jilly Edwards shows us College through fresh eyes

Newnham College commissioned artist Jilly Edwards to create a work for the new Dorothy Garrod Building, a new courtyard building bringing together student rooms, research offices and social space. The resultant pieces are a subtle exploration of the rhythms of College life, with its mixture of vibrancy and detail.

Jilly Edwards, whose fluid, complex pieces are worked in woven tapestry, is known for her subtle evocation of place. Her own personal response to a location is integral to the pieces she creates: “The work has to be my work, not just a woven piece of tapestry that is anonymous,” she explains.

Newnham, which was founded in 1871, has a strong tradition of the arts, and significant examples of global textile art. However, this newly commissioned piece was very much to be a contemporary work.

Edwards uses journals to gestate her work, uniting reflections in writing, sketches, and found objects. The journal for this commission is a fascinating account of an artist’s view of the College, and the creative process itself.

Reflecting on the College community, she wrote “I am struck by the way this college links education and life during the student stay and staff tenure. There is a strong connection with the past but also very aware of looking forwards. How do I connect the buildings / gardens / education / Cambridge and my work? The colours are my way in, with perhaps shapes within a segment or piece.”

Through her sketches, the journal begins to build up blocks of colour that reflect the College: “College colours / movement and flow / rhythm and beat,” she writes, with the first influx of grey, gold, white and blue. It is the College scarf shaken out and reimagined, or the sky and buildings run together.

The colours appear and transform themselves in sketch after sketch, exploring the setting of the College, its purpose and details. Subtle gradations of colour develop, alongside a vertical rhythm that recalls the strong lines of the Dorothy Garrod Building that would house the completed works.

One sketch, far on in the design process, brings together rich golden tones with washes of black, and perhaps a flock of starlings in flight. The accompanying note is “Murmurations! Murmurings! Students chatter and laughter. Staff in discussion and meetings. Whispers in the trees.”

The final designs show emphatic verticals, “megalith stone shapes reflecting the past”, Edwards writes. They are also the books and spaces between books that had fascinated her in her visits to the library. Are the spaces on shelves awaiting books yet to be published, or books currently being read? she had wondered.

The details nod to the buildings and atmosphere of the college, without being purely representational. The College’s famous Clough Gates are reimagined in swirls of black on grey. “There is the referencing to the metal work of the Clough Gate but I see it as more abstracted than that, it’s the intertwining of student-staff, building-surrounding, past-present.”

The initial designs were created in watercolour – “It gives the sense of layer, which is so much part of life and education” – although this would be far more difficult to translate into a woven tapestry.

“Layers at Newnham College are abundant,” Edwards muses. “Old – new buildings. Constant replenishment in the gardens as the seasons progress and added to in courtyards. Students coming and going. Staff in and out. Fluidity yet stability, like water always flowing – returning – breathing life. The whole college felt like this in my abstract mind.”

To create the tapestry, the design is scaled up into a cartoon drawing, which sits behind the warp threads as a guide. It takes Edwards and her studio assistant two days to warp up 100cm of double warp, one up a ladder, one at the base. “You have to work across the loom, building up areas, interlocking them, rather like brick,” Edwards explains.

Newnham Fellow Dr Lucilla Burn, formerly of the Fitzwilliam Museum, commented, “The tapestries have exceeded our hopes and expectations: the thoughtfulness and depth of the concepts that inform them, combined with the physical and aesthetic quality of their textures, shapes and colour shading, make them truly remarkable works of art that repay close and repeated inspection.”

Newnham College Podcasts: Hear Jilly Edwards in conversation with Annie Warburton, discussing Jilly’s work and this commission for the College (20 mins)


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