The Story of Glorafilia (Part 8)

Glorafilia The Venice Collection (Book 2)

In part 7 of the Glorafilia story I told you about Book 1 and how we met Maggie who became our literary agent. Through her we were taken up by the publisher Conran Octopus who produced beautiful art and coffee table books.

We chose Venice as the inspiration for our second book. Why Venice? Because not to put too fine a point on it, we are both besotted, passionate and entranced with the city. Venice has been an inspiration for writers, musicians, artists, designers, for centuries…….but needlework? Rarely. Venice itself is a tapestry – a magical marriage of past magnificence and present kitsch – so it seemed time to redress the balance.

Carole and I have actually spent more time together in Venice than with families, husbands and other friends. In the Sixties when we were 20 we travelled on a Greek ship from Venice, third class, when we painted freckles on our faces and had shipboard romances with people who had names like Nikos and Costos. We have been in Venice wearing stiletto heels, (big mistake) in mini skirts, Afghan ethnic, transparent voile and fur coats. We have been severely poor and superbly extravagant. We have had breakfast in a back street café, deciding which pastry we could afford and on a beautiful flower filled terrace of a Grand Canal Palazzo, though not on the same day. And we now know that what the French call “A certain age” means comfortable shoes and an American Express card.

As with most friendships over so many years we have lots of shared memories,
many of them labelled ‘ Venice’. While researching this book (this was definitely a requirement – we had to make several research trips!) we made a sentimental journey to the Venice Lido. It was early in the year, the season hadn’t started yet, the sand was banked up from the winter and those silent elegant beaches were being prepared for the coming summer. We walked from the public beach at the bottom of the Grand Viale to No. 1 Cabana on the Excelsior Beach. (We have used both.) We reminisced about gorgeous summers before responsibility entered our lives, giggling over the director at the film festival who had one hand on one knee and one on the other, about our near escapes, parties, romances, fireworks. We looked for Beppino’s record shop and Maria Grazia’s family villa and found the house that let rooms where we stayed one summer.

As years went on, either together or separately we spent less time on the Lido and more time in the city; as we got older the Lido seemed to hold memories of our youth. How could we have ignored Venice itself? It became the favourite destination of celebration, honeymoons, birthdays, anniversaries, reminiscing with our daughters of our past escapades. Any excuses will actually do for a dinner at Harry’s, a lunch at the Locanda in Torcello or, now, if you can get a table, Alle Testiere.

It is twenty years since the Venice book was published in 1991 and a lot of water has flowed under a lot of bridges. Thankfully the cruise liners that dwarfed the city have finally been banned. They now dock outside the city. However, the travellers that they disgorge pollute Venice with their rubbish, trample over La Serenissima for a few hours, bring their own food, clog the narrow streets, take selfies and perhaps buy a souvenir postcard. Sadly, while Venice stands it will always be so. We shouldn’t be so proprietorial, but we are. Venice needs tourist who spend money, not just create havoc. Now, if you want to enjoy Venice without tourists you have to go around November to January or perhaps March after the carnival. Ok, enough preaching. Time to tell you about our research and needlepoint in Venice.

The cold and rainy Spring that we went to Venice to research the book, we took an apartment in the San Lio district, between the Rialto and St. Marks. It was in a palazzo – in Venice everything seems to be called a Palazzo. The ground floor like so many seemed to be damp and disused and flooded at the hint of high-tide. Below our windows was the canal shimmering reflections into the rooms, marbled floors like fruitcake, sloped and ancient furniture with wood worm, tottered. We lay in bed at night and heard the tinkling of the rain which is like being surrounded by a thousand waterfalls. We were woken by chiming bells, mating pigeons and people calling, all resounding because of the water. It was one street away from one of our favourite restaurants Alle Testiere, but luckily it didn’t exist then as our budget would not have allowed it. Instead nearly every exhausted evening we would roll into a little family restaurant and eat Risotto Primavera – a joke because there was nothing spring like about that time spent in Venice. Occasionally we would go to La Madonna for granseola, the soft shell crabs that Venice is famous for, or to warm ourselves up at Harry’s with a martini or two, or buy irresistible sweaters, avoiding Missoni which was dangerously adjacent. On one of our visits to Harry’s, two bedragelled ladies arrived after a tiring day researching. We were met by the distinguished Arrigo Cipriani, owner of Harry’s Bar who asked what had brought us to Venice this time and we explained about the book. He disappeared and came back with the draft of a book he had written, which he asked us to read and if we thought it interesting, to recommend him to our agent. I read it one night and Carole the next, we thought it really had something, not realizing that the book had already been published? Maybe this is his “Come up and see my etchings line”. I keep getting distracted I am supposed to be writing about a needlepoint book!

Mostly we climbed stairs in dusty buildings searching for scraps of embroidery, sometimes finding a gem like a fancy waistcoat in an ancient glass case. We found inspiration at Mariano Fortuny’s house – wonderful brocades and velvets, spectacular windows and a mustiness that was pure Venice. Even more inspirational were the mosaic floors in the Basilica di San Maro, or the carved marble columns at the Frari Church, reflections of the endlessly reflecting water or the culture of Commedia dell’ arté, the traditional crafts of marbled paper, lace and glass-making or pietre dure, the art of marquetry in stone. The gorgeous buildings themselves stimulated us to create some of our most successful needlepoint projects. We also had time to meander admiring the magic. Venice is for dolce far niente, doing sweet nothing, stopping for just an espresso, or perhaps something sugary or one of the little sandwiches, tramezzini stuffed with chicken, paper thin ham or Russian salad, Having no particular destination is such a change from our busy lives living in London.

We returned to London, and back at Glorafilia HQ the ideas began to take shape. We combined wools and silks to create cushions, pictures, stools, mirrors and chair seats. Sometimes it was difficult to get the colours right. How do you create a smoky shade of venetian red from a shade card? - it is something that happens to walls when they are battered by winds from the Adriatic and sun that bleaches the pigment. We had a deadline for all the projects to be completed. We were photographing everything in Venice. What a hardship!

It was November clear and blue when we went to Venice for the photo shoot. We were an odd group of six, Carole and I, the photographer quite imperious, a lovely editor and a photographer’s assistant and the stylist. Temperaments were already fraying when we arrived at Marco Polo airport, a destination that had not moved with the times – things have definitely improved since then. Our boxes of cushions, pictures, props etc. were embargoed – maybe we didn’t have the correct paperwork, maybe the officials were being awkward. The gorgeous immigration officer, apparently hoping to be noticed by a movie director, and keeping his best profile on show did not use a computer, wrote on a pad, licked his pencil with a flourish. It was so Italian…..neither one of us can remember if we actually took the suspicious cargo with us or whether we had to return the next day, we just remember the carabiniere licking his pencil and smoothing his hair. We were met by our location finder, Ian. We had sent a picture of each item and he had searched the city to find perfect locations for the photographs to be taken. At the first location we arrived to oversee the photography and it was very apparent from the beginning that we were not really wanted, we made suggestions, we mentioned a shadow, or the fact that the scene overtook the project and you could hardly see the needlepoint. Or the lighting was too moody. And what was the football or the modern steel shopping trolley doing in the shot? Although the book is absolutely gorgeous and we both are so proud of how it turned out, on our return we had to photograph all the projects again in the studio to show them close up so that the person sewing could actually see them!! This group of people did not understand a needlepoint project book, they wanted World of Interior art photographs. The publishers were not happy with the photograph for the front cover so they sent the photographer back to Venice to redo it. They wanted perfection and the book is exquisite.

A funny story - one of the projects was a framed picture of geraniums on a window ledge, peeling shutters, lace curtains, a sight you see a thousand times in Venice. Ian had found somewhere perfect in Castello, an area known for its particular charming alleyways and picturesque washing. He was busy that morning and described exactly where to find it. The picture was positioned against the green and red wall. The sun swept its winter way across the wall where it would be for just a short time and as the shadows shrunk and light flooded across the wall, an upstairs window opened and the Signora wound out her clothes line of wet washing. The shadow of a candlewick bathmat fell across the picture. She refused to move it and nothing we could say or do would make her change her mind. Ian, who with his brilliant persuasive Italian could organise photography where angels fear to tread was elsewhere, persuading Florian’s into agreeing to a morning’s disruption. We failed to charm her, so as the sun was about to disappear the photograph was taken with the needlepoint picture in the shadow of the line of washing.

The locations are spectacular: from the Rialto food market to Florian’s coffee house, from Signor Barruti’s wonderful frame shop to the sumptuous palazzo that housed the showroom of textile designers, Rubelli and of course the spectacular city of Venice with its wealth of places to photograph and and and……. This is the book that we love the most and was the most satisfying to do. Can there be anywhere more of a fantasy, more frivolous, more seductive, more adored, more lonely, more pompous, more elegant, more theatrical, more ostentatious, more mysterious?

If you would like a copy of the book you can pick one up for very little money from Abe Books because it is now out of print.

I am taking a break from the Glorafilia story for the Summer and will be back in September with Part 9 the designing and research for the Kelim needlepoint cushions and our Rug collection.

If you have missed earlier editions of the story you will find them here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7.

Jennifer Berman Autograph
Victorian chairs

Jennifer and Carole, Venice May 1964.

Victorian chairs

Jennifer on the beach at The Excelsior Hotel September 1964.

Colefax and Fowler's Tree Poppies chintz

Jennifer and Carole in Venice June 1970.

Silver chair

Jennifer stitching a hole in Carole’s kaftan in Venice, June 1970.


Fruit Placemat and Napkin, a project in the Venice book, photographed in Florian.

The Travellers

Marbled Cushion, a kit inspired by marbled paper, available on this website.

The Lovers

Shells, a project in the Venice book, inspired by the sea food in the Rialto fish market.

The Lady with the Unicorn Wallhanging

Correr, a project in the Venice book, inspired by the Pietre Dure furniture in the Correr museum.

The Lady with the Unicorn Wallhanging

Barutti Frame, another project from the Venice book.

Australian Aborigine

The Geraniums, a project in the Venice book.

The Lady with the Unicorn Wallhanging

Florian, another project in the Venice book, photographed outside Florian.

The Lady with the Unicorn Wallhanging

Mosaic, a project in the Venice book, with elements taken from the mosaic floor of the Basilica Di San Marco.

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