STUMPWORK

 

Cicely had seen all the great paintings, and she knew what she liked: The Mona Lisa, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, Sunflowers. To be sure, they were all vibrant and stimulating, but to her mind, they were not busy enough. Perhaps the problem was that they were easel paintings. After all, the world was not flat: why should pictures be so? Why should they not give the sense of a lumpy world, a tactile one of hillocks and peplums? Easel paintings limited the viewer, she thought.

Accordingly, she set to work to remedy this. She was fond of the embroidery practice of stumpwork - a technique of inserting cotton or lint underneath figures or objects, and of giving a solidity and variability to the flat surface. She would convert all the great pictures into stumpwork. First of all Cicely thought she’d buy cloth-printed versions of the paintings, and stuff fillings into them as appropriate. But it would be more satisfying to begin afresh, and  to present them as a three-dimensional world. 

 

Cicely bought an array of silks and stuffings. The threads were like rainbows, but she gave them more exotic names: magenta, sienna, midnight, peony, peacock, dawn. The stuffings needed to be variable in texture: kapok, animal hair, winceyette, cotton-wool. Some of the little bodies on the pictures would need the filling to be packed really tight, and in a brainwave, she thought that unused tampons might fit the bill.

 

She set to work, labouring for days at a time. She started off with Leonardo’s Last Supper, which was perhaps over-ambitious. Each of the apostles’ bodies was formed by a Tampax. Jesus himself needed a more lustrous gown, and so she provided him with a blue satin one, with gold spangles. The supper itself had always seemed rather paltry, she thought, and so she embellished the frugal fare on the table with dishes she would have liked herself: a large pork pie, a bowl of Maltesers, some bananas, a bottle of Bailey’s. These were quite hard to do, particularly the pork pie, which needed to be glistening. The action of packing the stuffing into the coloured pockets of cloth was surprisingly soothing. The finished picture was full of interest, although it looked like a hundred molehills. But they were her molehills.

 

Next off, she tried The Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was much more of a challenge. The girl in the original picture was both enigmatic and winsome, with smooth cheeks. The latter were very hard to achieve in stumpwork, especially if you were new to the craft. Cicely’s technique  made the unknown girl look rather portly (none the worse for that, she thought), but to make up for it she decided to reward her with a much larger earring. The pearl  had to be huge, and as it was very round, it hung in the middle of the picture like a street-lamp. It was The Pearl Earring with a Girl now.

 

Cicely stitched and stuffed for months, and extended her repertoire. Lowry was no challenge at all: far too easy. Renoir was no problem, though his ladies depleted her store of kapok. Cicely liked embellishment - as many sparkles as possible - and she liked rough as well as smooth textures. Accordingly she roamed the fields cutting off the end of horses’ tails where she could, and sticking them onto the round heads of her heroes in the pictures. That might be a good technique for the Mona Lisa’s hair, she thought, but that must wait for another time. Her one concession to Modernism was to try a Mondrian, but that was simple: she made the pictures into huge patchwork cushions.

 

She showed her work in various local venues, and eventually it caught some agent’s eye. In the interim,the stumpwork paintings had suffered a little. The damp in the atmosphere had entered some of the stuffings (perhaps they had not been sewn down tightly enough)  and they swelled up unconscionably. Jesus’ disciples now looked monstrously obese. Worse, some of the tampons had burst open the covering fabric, and their strings oozed forth. This happened with the Lowry figures as well. Nothing loath, Cicely decided to pretend that this was all part of her intention. 

 

Eventually, she had an exhibition at a small gallery in London. It had stunning reviews, and Cicely was hailed as an artist who had broken the mould. Her work was seen as profoundly subversive (which perhaps it was), and she had the gratification of seeing the sales of cotton-wool balls rise 100%, when her imitators took to the shops. Stumpwork had never been so voguish. The art world would never be the same again. A lumpiness, a billowing effect, a jangling, scratchy softness was in artistic fashion for quite a while, and it was forever called “The Cicely Effect”.

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© 2020 by Sue Harper

feminist gothic literature | tales of the macabre | fantastic and supernatural | gothic fiction | written by women | gothic literary tradition | gothic fiction | supernatural | fantastic and paranoia | literary female gothic | gothic narrative | stories of transformation and surprise | sue harper | short stories | feminist gothic literature | The Dark Nest | portsmouth university | emeritus professor sue harper | feminist gothic literature | tales of the macabre | fantastic and supernatural | gothic fiction | written by women | gothic literary tradition | gothic fiction | outstanding achievement award | british association of film, theatre and television | professor of film history at portsmouth university | film, media and creative arts | british academy and the arts and humanities research council | stories of transformation and surprise | sue harper | short stories | feminist gothic literature | The Dark Nest |