Whyte, Kathleen (1909–1996)

views updated

Whyte, Kathleen (1909–1996)

Scottish embroiderer and teacher . Name variations: Helen Kathleen Ramsay Whyte. Born in August 1909 in Arbroath, Scotland; died in 1996; educated at Loreto Convent School in Darjeeling, India, and Arbroath High School in Scotland; studied at Gray's School of Art in Aberdeen, 1927–32; studied embroidery with Dorothy Angus, from 1920, and design with James Hamilton; graduated with Diploma of Design and Decorative Arts, 1932; attended Aberdeen Teacher Training College, 1932–33; studied weaving with Ethel Mairet at her Gospels studio in Ditchling, 1942–43.

Taught art at Frederick Street School, Central Secondary School, and Aberdeen High School for Girls; was a lecturer in embroidery and weaving in the Design and Craft section of Glasgow School of Art (1948–74); formed the Glasgow School of Art Embroidery Group (1957); awarded MBE for services to Scottish art education (1969).

Kathleen Whyte's early childhood was spent in Arbroath on the east coast of Scotland, where she was born in 1909. Her father was an engineer, the youngest of nine children of a master joiner. Her mother, an accomplished needlewoman, had been a lady's maid, employed by county families whom she accompanied on their fashionable seasonal visits to Italy. Both parents conveyed a sense of aesthetic appreciation to the young Kathleen, whose first efforts at embroidery began at age four.

From 1911 to 1913 and again from 1920 to 1923, Kathleen and her family joined her father in Jamshedpur, India, where he had been working. These years in India had a huge impact on her visual sense and appreciation of the variety of colors and textiles. Living in an isolated community, the family relied on visits by traveling "Box Wallahs" with their dazzling arrays of silks and white cottons. During her second visit to India, Whyte attended the Loreto Convent School in Darjeeling, in the foothills of the Himalayas, as a boarder. She enjoyed her time at Loreto, including the picnics in view of Mount Everest, and was encouraged by the nuns in drawing, crafts, and sewing.

On her family's return from India, Whyte attended Arbroath High School from 1923 to 1927, and then Gray's School of Art in Aberdeen, where she took the Diploma Course in General Design, an innovative four-year course introduced into the four Scottish art schools in 1920. Along with all art school subjects, embroidery enjoyed a revival in the late 1920s. Dorothy Angus , appointed teacher of embroidery in Aberdeen in 1920, was an important figure in the transformation of British embroidery into a dynamic modern art form and away from its nostalgic referencing of the arts and craft tradition established by William Morris. Angus introduced Whyte to "the vast potential of stitchery … an entirely new alphabet, the key to what I had been groping after all my life." Kathleen studied design with the eccentric James Hamilton, who stressed individuality and encouraged his students to produce large, decorative but highly disciplined charcoal drawings which were translated under Dorothy Angus' supervision into rich textile surfaces. This distinctive, expressive work done in Aberdeen in the early 1930s was to prove an influential force in the development of embroidery throughout Britain.

Whyte achieved much success at art school, winning prizes every year of her course, before her 1932 graduation with a Diploma of Design and Decorative Arts. After a year at Aberdeen Teacher Training College, Kathleen taught art at Frederick Street School in the East End of Aberdeen and at the Central Secondary School. She then moved to the Aberdeen High School for Girls, simultaneously teaching art school evening classes (instructing military personnel in

leather work during the war) and occupational therapy. In the early 1940s, Whyte made several visits to the respected weaver Ethel Mairet at her Spartan workshop (known as "Gospels") in Ditchling, perfecting her weaving skills under Mairet's exacting tuition.

In 1948, supported by Angus, Whyte successfully applied for the post of embroidery and weaving lecturer in the Design and Craft section of Glasgow School of Art. She remained in this post until her retirement in 1974. Although the immediate postwar period was a boom time for art schools, Whyte faced numerous obstacles in Glasgow. Embroidery teaching had declined at the school since the early 1930s, and standards were low. She was helped by the re-emergence of the Needlework Development Scheme (NDS), which had been founded in 1934 to raise the standard of embroidery design and to encourage greater public interest. Responsible for numerous exhibitions and lectures, the NDS received new impetus after the war, in 1948 appointing as embroidery expert the Swedish Ulla Kockum , whom Kathleen befriended. Whyte was very impressed with Scandinavian design, having visited Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Boros, great centers of weaving and embroidery, after the war.

Kathleen Whyte revitalized embroidery teaching in Glasgow, with gradual introductions of new techniques, an emphasis on draftsmanship and experimentation, and a stimulating, demanding teaching style. To encourage students to develop their own ideas, she allowed no embroidery books in the department, apart from technical or history books. In 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain, the Design and Crafts Department was invited to exhibit at the Rayon Centre in Grosvenor Square, London, the first time representatives from any Scottish art school had exhibited in London. By the mid-1950s, the Design and Crafts Department was the largest in the school, although the status of weaving and embroidery there remained low, relegated to a separate building for much of the 1960s.

Whyte's teaching style was dynamic, incorporating exercises inspired by other art forms and trends, from ballet to pop art. Concerned that students needed a public outlet for their work and an incentive to continue producing work after graduating, she formed the Glasgow School of Art Embroidery Group, which held its first show in 1957. Without setting a rigid syllabus, she maintained exacting standards; three of her former students were to become heads of the Embroidery Departments at Dundee, Aberdeen, and Glasgow Schools of Art.

Kathleen Whyte's own work reflected her exceptional sense of color, wealth of inspirations and constant experimentation with the boundaries of the art form. She received a number of commissions from the Church of Scotland and worked on the Tay Road Bridge stole, commissioned on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II in 1966. In 1969, Whyte was awarded the MBE for services to Scottish art education for her work on numerous boards and panels. After her retirement, she continued teaching small groups privately and pursuing her own work. She died in 1996.


Arthur, Liz. Kathleen Whyte, Embroiderer. Batsford.

Paula Morris , D.Phil., Brooklyn, New York

More From encyclopedia.com