A Golden Thread

Robbie Low visits the Jacquie Binns exhibition

IT must be nearly 20 years ago that I first had the good fortune to encounter Jacquie Binns’ work. My wife, your editor, returned from the Christian Resources Exhibition bubbling over with enthusiasm about a young artist exhibiting some remarkable embroidered vestments in a cupboard space at the end one of the lesser halls. ‘You must’, she told me simply, ‘go and see her’. As neither of us had ever been great enthusiasts for liturgical over-indulgence or ‘High Church’ tat merchants, I was more than a little surprised. However, as your editor's tone was less request an order, I approached my then boss, Peter Moore, the great Dean of St. Albans, and asked for a morning off to visit Jacquie's digs in south London. I went, I saw, I was conquered. There, in the tiny rooms she shared with husband Warwick were, in my view, the first works of a major artist in this field. I shot a roll of film, had it developed in an hour and was back at the great man's desk by lunchtime. Moore, an aficionado of traditional and modern Christian art, was his usual playful and irrepressible self. Six hours before, after early Mass, he had told me I was wasting my time. Now, he looked up from the photos with mock indignation. ‘Why on earth haven't you introduced this young woman to me before? Invite her to come at her earliest convenience.’

Within weeks the young graduate of Goldsmiths had been commissioned to make the Dean's new Cope, the first of nine amazing works of art that now grace the dignitaries of that great cathedral.

Binns’ work, vestments, altar frontals, processional banners, pyx covers, murals, reredos, diptyches is now in churches and chapels from here to the United States. Her work is devotional, her style is unique and her artistry has taken the lately unconsidered art of needlework into a new dimension. If you are thinking post Vatican II vestment styles, forget it. The world of meaningless squiggles, representing the Holy Spirit, stuck on yards and yards of spit-through polylycatexalene could not be further away. The coloured slabs of plasticine piety beloved of episcopated liberal Evangelicals would seem as out of place in the Binns’ exhibition as a pork pie at a Bar mitzvah.

Orthodoxy

There is no doubt that a major influence on her work is the Pre-Raphaelite movement. There is much that is gorgeous here but the romanticism is replaced by an extraordinary perception of the humanity of her figures and an intense and far from ‘floaty’ spirituality. The other great influence that permeates the work is orthodox iconography. To see these meditations written in fabric and thread is a remarkable experience.

Binns actually ‘paints’ with her sewing machine. Her last major ‘secular’ exhibition was a series of portraits, ‘drawn’ in an hour sitting, of stunning accuracy and perception. At the end of it she ‘painted’ the exhibition hall, Wimpole Hall and its grounds complete with livestock in a beautiful wall hanging which was in last month's exhibition at the de Morgan Centre in Wandsworth.

The de Morgan Centre (www.demorgan.org.uk) is worth the visit itself for the collection of Evelyn's remarkable paintings and William’s stunning pottery. It is as if the masters of Iznik complete with their cobalt, turquoises and manganese purples have been magic carpeted into nineteenth-century England. This Pre-Raphaelite jewel is the perfect setting for Binns’ work.

Of the smaller icons there is a simple austere St Basil exuding a stern holiness and a Black Madonna in mourning whose age and sorrow is articulated in the angle of her head and the fold of her drapes. Above these is a Noli Me Tangere in which the intensity of Fra Angelica is captured in a magical weaving of threads that produces shimmering lights across the foliage of the dawn garden.

There is a Crucifixion icon with a Christ that could have come from the walls of Studenica and the Stabat Mater and group in proximity and intensity to one another that is powerful and affecting. Binns’ latest meditation on John the Baptist concentrates less on his wildness and strangeness than on the beauty, tragedy and spiritual power etched in his aloneness and gathering darkness.

The triptych on the Life of Our Lady ( Annunciation/Nativity/Pieta) is startling for its attention to the ageing of Mary (a real person!) and the vital reality of the child juxtaposed to the derelict corpus.

A violent St George, an authoritative Pantocrator, an intriguing St Rosa of Lima and a chalice veil where heads of seraphim converge like a medieval roof boss each bring out different styles and emphases of their creator’s spirituality. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her meditation on life and death, heaven and hell and the sovereignty of Christ (Alpha and Omega), a piece of real passion and depth.

Luminescence

That these pieces are the artist at prayer is never in doubt. Binns once gave a vestment she had worked on for months to a priest because her priority was that ‘it should be prayed in’.

But there are secular pieces too and these are no less intensely spiritual. Her incredible grasp of the balance of the human form is exhibited in Con Brio, a life-size triptych meditation on the male nude. Here is no Baconesque grotesque or delicate David in a draught. No forced coarseness or fond romanticism, we are directly and unembarrassingly confronted with the simple beauty and strong sensitivity of fully realized masculinity – a therapeutic vision for our time.

And there is fun too. The Love Hanging series are joyful meditations on human love. The Annunciation – like proposal, the lover, in cossack blue star cloak like an Assyrian priest, reaching out in warm and graceful attention to the wild haired girl in kaleidoscope dress and cloak of golden light. The two faces hidden by the aura of candlelight gazing on the table spread with wine and fruit and fish, the reds of the claret, pomegranates and tomatoes against the blue luminescence on the scales of the freshly herbed and baked delicacy.

At the end of this latest exhibition, and after years of watching her work, it is still necessary to remind myself that these masterpieces are created by needle and thread and the self-effacing genius of an artist at prayer .

By the time you read this the exhibition will be over but you can see samples of her work at the Christian Resources Exhibition Stand G 98 or via her website at www.jacquiebinns.com

We are directly and unembarassingly confronted with the simple beauty and strong sensitivity of fully realised masculinity – a therapeutic vision for our time.

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