I decided to write this post about Thetis and her wonderfully vibrant work, because it is almost a year ago since I travelled out to Indonesia on my Thetis Blacker Scholarship adventure and I am very grateful to her and Temenos for making this opportunity possible.
Thetis Blacker created richly coloured, energetic batik paintings notable for their symbolic and visionary qualities; as a distinguished and respected batik artist her batiks were commissioned for churches and cathedrals in the UK, Europe and the United States. In England her most prominent work were sets of banners on themes such as the Creation, resurrection and the Apocalypse, seen at Winchester Cathedral, Durham Cathedral and St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Her subjects were mainly mythological, drawn from Christian, Asian and classical sources, her style was vigorous, clearly articulate and full of colour, like her personality.
Ann Thetis Blacker was born on 13th December 1927 at Holmbury St Mary in Surrey. She was the daughter of psychiatrist Carlos Paton Blacker and her grandfather Carlos Blacker was a close friend of Oscar Wilde.
Thetis originally planned a singing career. She studied in London with the lieder-singer Elena Gerhardt, appeared in the chorus at Glyndebourne in the 1950s and sang the role of Mother Goose in Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress. Despite a promising start, Thetis Blacker felt that her true destiny lay in visual art.
Having decided on her vocation she received painting lessons from Brenda Moore (Mrs Campbell Taylor, who now has artworks in The National Portrait Gallery), and she studied drawing and painting at Chelsea School of Art.
In 1970 Thetis was awarded a Churchill Fellowship, a travel scholarship which enabled her to visit India, Iran, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, where she worked at the Batik Research Institute of Yogyakarta. She was very taken by the spirituality and symbolic nature of the batik art she saw there, inspiring a love of this magical and vibrant technique. Thetis later visited Peru and Bali which further inspired her and helped to form her style.
Thetis believed in the divine presence in all things and that creative art has a life and soul of its own. She considered inspiration, although part of human experience, to be something that comes from a source other than the human, and was also influenced by her vivid dreams and the mythical power of
animals and ancient spiritual texts.
In 1973 her book A Pilgrimage of Dreams was published, and the poet Kathleen Raine wrote the foreword to it. “ A Pilgrimage of Dreams”, is an anthology of Thetis’s vivid dreams and feature her batik pictures of mythical beasts and birds, such as the phoenix, the griffon or the unicorn. ‘These paintings are not intended to be illustrations in the literal sense, rather they are like punctuation marks, pauses for contemplation’. It was the sacred element in Thetis’s art that endeared it particularly to Kathleen.
Blacker was a close friend of Kathleen and later became a fellow of the Temenos Academy, dedicated to “Education in the Light of the Spirit”. (Temenos was founded by Kathleen Raine, Keith Critchlow, Brian Keeble and Philip Sherrard.)
Initally it was launched as a Journal devoted to the Arts of the Imagination. From these early beginnings The Temenos Academy was established as a teaching organisation dedicated to ‘ the Learning of the Imagination’, where scholars and teachers would be invited to hold study groups and give lectures on this recurring philosophy.
Over the years Thetis Blacker produced several memorable series of work based on mythical themes. A phoenix rising from the ashes was a favourite subject, a typically fiery example being featured on the altar frontal in St George’s Chapel, Windsor (1997), where a major exhibition of her work was held in 2000.
Thetis had significant commissions; a Phoenix for the dining hall of Grey College Durham; Apocalypse (St Andrew’s House); A Bestiary of Mythical Creatures; The Creation (Winchester Cathedral); Search for the Simurgh; Arbor Cosmica; work for St Albans Abbey, and her last major work, commissioned by Blacker’s dealer Henry Dyson – banners of St Cuthbert and St Oswald for Durham Cathedral (2001). Her work is hung in over 500 private and public collections across the world, clearly she was a prolific and dedicated visionary artist.
In June 2002, Thetis Blacker was awarded an Honary Doctorate by Durham University. Four years later she died at Bramley in Surrey, on 18th December 2006, working right up until the end on her stunning batik artworks.
Thetis was a member of the Batik Guild and The Temenos Academy has established a biannual award in memory of her, to further the study and research of batik. This award is currently open for applicants for the 2014 scholarship via the Batik Guild and the Temenos Academy.
I will be returning to Java and Bali next month, to study and further research traditional batik methods, motifs and batik tool making. I hope to revitalise my own batik techniques and return with renewed inspiration and ideas.