Karen Finch and Gerda Henning

Karen's centenary
Karen Finch and Gerda Henning
May 8, 2022 • By Tove Engelhardt Mathiassen0 comments

Tove Engelhardt Mathiassen. Photo copyright KammaMogensen.

By Tove Engelhardt Mathiassen, guest scholar at The Centre for Textile Research, University of Copenhagen.

Tove Engelhardt Mathiassen is trained as a crafts teacher with weaving as her main subject and as an ethnographer and social anthropologist at the University of Aarhus, Denmark. She has curated large exhibitions and has published extensively about historical dress and textiles as well as other subjects. Since 2020, she has been guest scholar at the Center for Textile Research at The University of Copenhagen and from 2021 also research assistant at CON AMORE, Center for Autobiographical Memory Research at The University of Aarhus – supported by the VELUX Foundation.

In November 2021 she embarked on a research project about the Danish textile artists and weavers Kirsten and John Becker – supported by Agnes Geijers Fond för nordisk Textilforskning, Sweden, Aage & Johanne Louis-Hansen Foundation, Denmark and Marie Jacobine Snedkers Mindefond, Denmark. 


Katrina Finch suggested this article for the website and I will take on the task.

In the beginning of the 1990s, I met Karen Finch for the first time, and in the years to come we met once or twice a year in Denmark or elsewhere, for instance in 1997 the memorable conference for the 50th anniversary of Platt Hall in Manchester. Karen was always so interesting and kind. She connected people in her own subtle way.

Detail of frontpage of Jytte’s and my assignment about Gerda Henning from 1982. The pattern shows the carpets designed for staircases in Designmuseum Denmark by Gerda Henning.

In 1982, Jytte Bertelsen and I wrote our final assignment in our main subject, weaving, at the Craft Teachers’ College in Kerteminde, Denmark. We focused on the important weaver Gerda Henning (1891-1951). At the time, we did not know that in the first half of the 1940s, Gerda Henning was the teacher of Karen Finch – although we knew of course that Gerda Henning had influenced a whole generation of very skilled weavers. That is why in the first place we wanted to study her work. Much to our joy, there was a keen interest in our work and we were asked to give copies of the small assignment to the libraries of what is now the Royal Academy in Copenhagen, Designmuseum Danmark and others.
  
Since then, the Danish weaver Vibeke Klint (1927-2019) has written her sensitive portrait of Gerda Henning in the Scandinavian Journal of Design History, vol. 5. 1995. After Gerda Henning’s death in 1951, her husband, the sculptor Gerhard Henning, wanted Vibeke Klint to take over Gerda Henning’s weaving workshop, and so she did. 

Gerda Henning’s teaching

In the following I will translate into English selected parts of Jytte’s and my paragraph about Gerda Henning as a teacher. The necessary explanations for English readers are in brackets. 

An important part of Gerda Henning’s work was her years as a teacher, from 1923, when she took in apprentices in her private workshop, to 1927 when she was appointed the leader of the Weaving Workshop of the Museum of Decorative Arts (now named Designmuseum Danmark). This workshop was from 1930 part of The School for Decorative Arts (now called The Royal Danish Academy, which is an association of several institutions), and here she worked until she passed away in 1951.

Karen Lund (art historian/journalist who published a great deal about textiles in the journals of the time) writes about the weaving course, which included weaving in practice and theory as well as book-keeping, chromatology and art history, plus knowledge about mechanical looms.

Mogens Koch (1898-1992, Danish architect, especially known abroad for his exquisite furniture design) expresses admiration for Gerda Henning’s ability to design and produce larger and more solid weaves than the ordinary cushion covers, table runners and bedroom rugs, and he continues:

Mrs. Henning has been one of the leading Figures in this work of making hand weaving wider than the somewhat sad home weaving Level. As leader of the Weaving School at the School for Decorative Arts, the goal of her work is that students should get a genuine professional education1.

Original photo from the weaving school at The Museum of Decorative Arts in Copenhagen. In these rooms Karen Finch learned to weave. Thanks to the weaver Berthe Forchammer for giving me this photo by Elfelt from Kirsten and John Becker’s estate. 

Mogens Koch tells us more about the course: besides the already mentioned subjects it included drawing and learning about textile fibres. Part of this is hand spinning and Koch writes:

This way of getting to know the fibres, either wool, linen or silk, is probably right, and though it does not currently give any result in terms of sales, the experience from the trials will probably benefit other fabrics. (ibid.)

Another student, Karen Møller (and she is indeed Karen Finch before she married Norman Finch) tells us about the education in an interview by Karen Lund, 19452:

Mrs. Henning’s teaching helps us to work independently; while she lets the sense of colour, pattern and technical skill of every single student bloom, she guides us in our choices of colour and quality, in order to make us more and more secure in our understanding of an object, so as to make it both artistic and of high quality, and in every case characterized by the individual work of the student (…) Some times during the school term we get some large and very interesting assignments: for instance we have to calculate the pricing of a fabric. So, one must start from the very beginning by making a pattern from the sample and calculating the yarn type and weight. We have to calculate wages, workshop costs and profit; you cannot forget anything in the assignment at the school and later when we get our own workshop. 

Afterword

Jytte and I did not know then either that Karen Møller was Karen Finch, or that the weaver Lotte Møhl had given a copy of our Gerda Henning assignment to her. When Lotte was a child, Karen sometimes looked after her, so they knew each other well for many years. After Karen’s death, Lotte gave me copies of a letter from Karen to her dated 24th of April, 1998. In this letter Karen commented on our assignment and her time at Gerda Henning’s weaving school in Copenhagen. I translate part of the letter:

I had totally forgotten the Journalist (Karen Lund), who came and tried to make us talk about Mrs. Henning and how difficult it was to talk about her and her influence. 

What I told Karen Lund about how she taught us to work independently and think every detail through, before we started, was undoubtedly a very important part of our education – as well as making calculations and keeping books about time and money.

 
At the moment, I am re-reading all the written sources, that Jytte and I collected 40 years ago, because from the 1st of November, 2021, I embarked on a research project about the weavers Kirsten and John Becker, who were also educated by Gerda Henning – Kirsten Becker finished at the Weaving School in 1942 probably just before Karen Finch started there. Katrina Finch most kindly has lent me her mother’s notebook from Karen’s time at Gerda Henning’s weaving course and this book is an extremely important element in my research, which I will publish in its totality at a later date. I would have loved to have talked with Karen Finch in more detail about her weaving education.

Aarhus, April 2022

Footnotes

  1. Koch, Mogens: Gerda Hennings Vævestue. Samleren. Tidsskrift for Kunst. 14. Årgang, 1937.
  2. Lund, Karen: Gerda Henning. Haandarbejdets Fremme, nr. 3, 1945.