Cotswold Life May 2017

Barbara Shaw’s hand-stitched sheep

Many years ago after a sleepless night under canvas, I opened up my tent and came face to face with a sheep. After the initial shock of being confronted by my bleating morning visitor, I couldn’t help but smile. Although it was clearly fed up that I had slept on top of its beloved grass, there was a cheeky expression on its face and its eyes had a spark to them. I’m reminded of that encounter when I look at a special breed of sheep that is appearing in and around the Cotswolds. The breed is very rare indeed – in fact only 12 sheep are in the flock at present – and it belongs to talented textile artist Barbara Shaw.

One of her hand-stitched sheep portraits, with its realistic shaggy wool mane, textured facial features and deliciously warm personality will be on show at Chipping Norton’s town hall as part of the 2017 Oxfordshire Artweeks. In North Oxfordshire, the Artweeks run from May 13-21, but Barbara and her fellow members of Oxfordshire Craft Guild will be exhibiting from May 16-21. Each one of Barbara’s hand-stitched sheep is unique and created by a different palette of colour and materials. One is now at the Plough Inn Kelmscott, some are in private collections in the Cotswolds, another was recently displayed at the Corinium Museum in Cirencester whilst Cotswold Sheep No 1 takes pride of place and hangs in the Cotswold Lion Café at the Old Prison, Northleach.

Barbara Shaw’s Cotswold Sheep“As it was my very first one, I didn’t want to sell it, so it is on permanent loan here so that everyone can enjoy it. I hope it will make them smile – sheep have a tendency to do that,” she says.

Barbara is quite right of course and everyone loves them. This vivacious selftaught artist has found her calling. She paints with scraps of fabric, stitching layer upon layer to create depth, form, light and movement. The Cotswold sheep, also known as a Cotswold Lion is the perfect subject. It epitomises the woollen heritage so many of our Cotswold towns and villages share and Chipping Norton is no exception. In the 15th century, it was a major wool-trading town and the impressive ‘wool’ church of St Mary, built in perpendicular style, testifies to its prosperity. The familiar historic landmark of Bliss Mill is a reminder of its heritage of wool and tweed production. High quality tweed was made here for many years.

“Chipping Norton is a vibrant arts centre with many artists and craftspeople living in the town and surrounding villages. Because of the plentiful cafes, restaurants, bars and the theatre, there are great meeting places to discuss creative works,” Barbara tells me.

“The surrounding Cotswolds countryside is hugely inspiring and you Cotswold Towns don’t have to go very far for ideas.”

Barbara’s sheep will feature alongside work of fellow members of Oxfordshire Craft Guild, some of the finest designermakers in the UK and who have a diverse mix of skills ranging from ceramics, jewellery, textiles, wood sculpture and glass. Artists include contemporary paper sculptor Graham Lester and Raku ceramicist Nathalie Hamill who makes quirky hippos, tortoises, fish, bears, sheep and ducks which lift her audience’s spirits.

Barbara Shaw sheep, at Northleach PrisonMany artists like Barbara Shaw are inspired by their beautiful surroundings. In recent years this skilful textile artist has been Artist in Residence at two National Trust properties – Chastleton House and Claydon House. She has also had a piece of work in an exhibition in Parliament and has worked on some images for an Arctic-themed exhibition in the Oxford Museum of Natural History.

“I interpret colours and textures by ‘painting’ with fabrics. Ragged edges and chiffon ribbons feature strongly in my work, providing movement and light.

As Barbara’s sheep looks at me with his amusing glance, I am reminded of my woolly encounter at my tent door years ago. Yet her sheep demands attention. It deserves a closer look – as does all the art and craft on show during Oxfordshire Artweeks. This is an opportunity to see artists at work and get a greater insight into the world of creativity. Chipping Norton is offering just one of the invitation cards in this inspiring arts festival. The rest is up to the audience.