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Art in the Frame > Workbox article
This article by Pat Robson appeared in Workbox magazine
Textile artist Christine Witham, from Jersey, will be well known to readers of Workbox Magazine and visitors to the Jersey Textile Showcase for her beautiful textile jewellery and her established and well organized workshops. Christine studied fashion and textiles at Goldsmiths College, in the exciting and progressive times of Constance Howard and Barbara Dawson. At Goldsmiths she rediscovered her childhood love of hand embroidery. Christine then went on to take a Masters Degree at The Central School of Art. Her love of hand embroidery and the skills she learned whilst training have stayed with her for the rest of her textile career but Christine continually pushes the boundaries forward experimenting with new materials and techniques. Christine recently won The Judges Award in the 2009 Textile Showcase, judged by textile artist Diane Bates, with a piece from her Organics range.

Although Christine is less well known for her fine hand embroidery, she has over the last five years completed four significant commissions for Jersey resident and collector of film memorabilia, David Gainsborough Roberts. These are four embroidered jackets, which in the future could be museum pieces and would not look out of place in the V&A collection, although I do not think that the owner would ever part with them as they will become a firm part of his own collection. The first design came about in May 2004, when David had a jacket with a rattlesnake motif stolen whilst travelling. He wanted this replaced and having purchased a similar jacket looked for an artist to produce a snake onto the back. He found this artist at The Harbour Gallery, Jersey in the form of Christine Witham.

Christine had to use all her ingenuity to design and create the scales, coils and the rattle to fit onto the back of the jacket. Initially she drew out the design onto calico and then, working on a frame, applied fragments of old crocheted lace to piece the snake together. The main colour was added with fabric paint, also used on the satin covered rattle. When finished, seventy hours later, the snake was carefully cut out and attached to the back of the coat. Finally Christine added gemstones, rocaille beads and hundreds of french knots. The snake's tongue was sewn directly onto the coat as were defining lines to give a relief effect to its face.

In May 2005 Christine completed a second embroidered coat for David Gainsborough Roberts to wear to the preview of The Wild West Exhibition at The Jersey Museum. Working to the theme, the design featured a Native American Chief. This gave Christine more technical problems to overcome, especially as the coat provided was of a far heavier fabric, and because David wanted real feathers used on the headress. Working from a composite of photographic images Christine came up with a wise and noble face which she drew out onto white cotton and again painted with fabric paint, finishing it with fine hand stitching and padding some areas to give a relief effect. The real feathers were split in two to achieve the black/white mix and give flexibility and most securely anchored with black, white and metallic threads. The headband was beaded onto lace with red chenille and marabout supporting the feathers. The hanging ribbons were achieved by attaching strips of painted chamois leather, the necklace is of real beads and the earrings are silver. One hundred and thirty hours later it was finished and received by a delighted David Gainsborough Roberts. This dramatic piece was difficult to work but gave Christine a great sense of achievement and satisfaction when she saw it worn.

David is a great collector of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia and this theme provided Christine with her third and fourth commissions. The first Marilyn, a portrait, was completed in sixty-nine hours in March 2006. The brief was to work with the Andy Warhol image of Marilyn but Christine did not want to just copy this iconic image, she wanted to show Marilyn's more vulnerable side. Christine drew out the portrait using a very fine black waterproof marker onto white cotton. This she overlaid with painted organdie to add colour and give a graphic quality. Old lace net was used to create gentle curves and shadows on the face, with features beautifully accentuated in hand stitching. The hair was worked in stem stitch, back stitch and couched metallic threads, with small but significant pieces of lace added for texture and highlighted with an assortment of spangles and little beads.

From March to December 2009 the Jersey Museum is holding a major exhibition of stage and personal costumes worn by screen idol Marilyn Monroe. This exhibition is a window into the life of the ultimate Hollywood star and all the exhibits belong to David Gainsborough Roberts. One of these pieces is the glittering red dress worn by Marilyn in the film, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. David gave Christine a cover from Time magazine 1953, showing an image of Jane Russell and Marilyn, wearing the red dress. At the same time he gave her his latest ankle length black coat and her fourth commission. This time a full length image of Marilyn measuring about one meter, again bringing its own design issues.

This black coat, although in a lighter and easier fabric to work on, had a centre back split from waist to hem with another pleat on either side. The design had to be worked around these. Christine drew out the design on paper to position and reposition on the back of the coat until it fitted. The whole figure was again drawn out on white cotton with a fine line waterproof pen. This time the face had to be more brazen, stronger. Christine again used a layer of painted organdie on all flesh areas. The dress was painted in red fabric dye, using fabric crayons to get the squiggly effects and overlaid with a semi-transparent red silk. Yet more painting and drawing was used on top of that to achieve the finished very 3D and textural effect. Christine mixed her own glittery fabric glue, completely permanent and totally transparent and this was applied with a tiny stencil type brush to build the sparkle. Small sequins and rocaille beads add to the effect so that the dress really shimmers. The jewellery, bracelets, earrings and ring look like diamante but are in fact made of silver lined crystal beads.

The coat took one hundred and sixty hours to make and was a huge success when David Gainsborough Roberts wore it at the preview of the Marilyn exhibition at the Jersey Museum.

Looking back over the four coats, each one has had its own design problems to solve. Each successfully fulfilled its brief and gave satisfaction and pleasure so that both Christine and David Gainsborough Roberts have been very happy with the final outcome.

Working on commissions forces Christine to use and extend her embroidery and design knowledge and she is happy to accept new challenges whether from Rockstars/musicians, sportspeople, brides etc.




Snake

Native American

Marilyn Monroe

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