It is with great sadness that we farewell renowned Scottish tapestry weaver Archie Brennan, who played a major role in the development of woven tapestry in Australia. In the mid-1970s Archie advised the Victorian government on the establishment of the Victorian Tapestry Workshop, now the Australian Tapestry Workshop (ATW), and taught two influential tapestry weaving workshops in New South Wales and Victoria to young artists caught up in the burgeoning fibre art movement. Rather than teaching set ways of weaving an image, his approach to teaching tapestry skills, while grounded in precise and efficient technique, fostered experimentation to determine the best way of exploring the characteristics of the weave to make an image.

His work, was informed by his deep understanding of the medium and the history of European tapestry, was utterly contemporary and aligned with British pop art of the 1960s, taking everyday images and wittily translating the ordinary and the ephemeral into the dense durability of woven tapestry. This deep understanding of the medium was generated through decades
of practice and his roles running the Edinburgh Tapestry Company (Dovecot Studios) a setting up the tapestry program at the Edinburgh College of Art. His knowledge was communicated with passion and humour engaging a generation of artists who went on to develop a distinctively Australian version of the medium. Even after moving to the USA to live and work, he retained his connection to Australia. Archie returned many times to teach workshops and give lectures, and later in the 1990s to work with Garry Benson in Adelaide, to develop a series of educational videos to pass on the skills of tapestry weaving framed by his ethos and understanding of the medium.

In European culture, spun thread and woven cloth have been used as metaphors to describe the course of human life or the connectivity that characterises a community. For Archie, the medium of woven tapestry was, as he wryly noted, a minor art form but one to which he devoted his life as a practitioner and a teacher. He understood tapestry as an art form that grew up the warp, pass after pass rather like the way life unfolds day by day. He once said, ‘tapestry is like life, you can’t change what you did yesterday, but you can modify it by what you do today’. This understanding of the constraints and choices offered by the medium can be seen in the trajectory of his own life; his capacity to take life as it came day by day while grasping the unexpected as it turned up. After the public acclaim and influence that characterised his achievements from the 1960s to 1980s, he opted for a simpler life. From 1993 when he moved to New York with his partner Susan Martin Maffei he focused his attention on weaving small tapestries and teaching workshops. It’s been his unwavering commitment to a life centred on tapestry weaving that has provided a powerful model of practice for many weavers across the world. Along with his many achievements as an artist, educator and advocate for the medium, this is his legacy.


In 1976, five young women and their Director, Sue Walker AM, sat together in a vast building, filled with hope for their new venture – the Victorian Tapestry Workshop, now the ATW. With no tradition of tapestry weaving in this land, we had been gathered from other disciplines including painting, sculpture, fashion and graphic design – to be newly trained as weavers who would form the core of what would become a flourishing enterprise.

The ATW owes a great debt of gratitudeto the vision and foresight of Archie Brennan whose ideas were fundamental to our future. A renowned weaver and teacher, Archie transformed woven tapestry in the 1960s and 70s into a medium that stood unapologetically beside painting and sculpture as a valid art form.

Archie had overturned the constraints of historical practice to do this, and as our advisor, he saw Australia as a place, where unburdened by the past, we could soar to new heights, starting at a point that was informed by his new ideas. It was his strategy to employ people who had attained a qualification in the visual arts and who could apply a trained sensibility to the process of interpretation. He also advocated that we worked with living artists and designers so that collaboration between artist and weaver could create an individual work of art in its own right.

My first impression of Archie was that he was amused and delighted by the fact that we were all young women engaged in what had been a male dominated profession for centuries. In that sense we had already turned the tables on tradition. We had even commenced our first sizeable project, a design by painter Alun Leach-Jones that looked disarmingly simple to execute but which had us falling at the first hurdle! Unused to the subtleties of technique, we were not experienced enough to make the seemingly simple shapes into elegant, coherent forms. Achieving that skill was our first big lesson from him.

Archie was an easy person to like, someone who smiled and delivered information with a dry wit that belied the serious depth of knowledge that he dispensed with open generosity. I can never remember a time in all the years of meeting him that he didn’t exude friendly warmth, that he didn’t seem charmed and interested by everything and everyone around him. And he was a wonderful teacher who encouraged experimentation and an open, questioning attitude to weaving tapestries.

Archie was able to suggest exactly what was needed to further an idea or a technique. You always felt regarded as an individual as he created a pleasant intimacy between master and student that extended beyond the task at hand. And to watch him weave was a lesson in itself, the quiet precision he exercised as he sat relaxed in front of the loom, ‘owning’ every subtle movement and thought process that went into his creation.

Archie’s influence has spread over three continents – Europe, Australia and America where he made his last home for over thirty years with his partner Susan Martin-Maffei. He will be missed by all who learned the art of tapestry weaving from him or those he taught over many decades. Here, at the ATW his legacy has lived on through many generations of weavers. And, those five not so young women, founding weavers of the ATW – Merrill Dumbrell, Sara Lindsay, Marie Cook, Liz Nettleton and I will think of him with much affection, and gratitude that he helped to set us on our life’s chosen path.


Image: Left to right: Archie Brennan with Ruth Schuer and former ATW Director Sue Walker AM at the International Tapestry Symposium, Melbourne, 1988. Photographer: unknown.

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