Pittenweem Arts Festival

Invited Artists

Festival 2023 August 5 - 12

Our three Invited Artists of 2023. The entries below are an indication of  their work.

Wemyss School of Needlework

The Beginnings…

The Wemyss School of Needlework was founded by Dora Wemyss, daughter of James Hay Erskine Wemyss of Wemyss, in 1877. The school is based in the village of Coaltown of Wemyss in Fife which as its name suggests was predominantly a coal mining area. Agriculture was the other employment on the Wemyss estate so there was very little paid work for girls and women. There was no transport network, apart from horse and cart and the Wemyss coal trains to Methil.

Dora was inspired by the opening of  The Royal School of Needlework and realised that using a slightly different model she could educate girls and women and give them a skill to earn their own money. Dora had already set up an orphanage and primary school so the Needlework School was an extension of that. She employed a local widow, Jean Webster, to become the first Mistress who attended the Royal School to learn how teaching needlework skills was done. 

Dora Wemyss

The girls were trained in quilting, smocking, crewelwork, embroidery and needlepoint. All these techniques were copied from examples brought into the school by the Wemyss family. How better to learn than to see a beautiful piece of 17th century crewelwork. As the girls learned, so the collection grew, which is why the school now has an enormous historical collection. 

The visitors’ books show that most of the crowned heads of Europe visited the school at some time and a huge amount of silk undergarments were made for wedding trousseaux and christening robes.

As various mistresses came and went, the school’s reputation grew. Lady Victoria Wemyss became family Guardian in 1918. The school was very progressive in its treatment of women workers. If they got married, they still had a job and even when children arrived, they came back as part-timers, not whole-timers. With the Second World War, the numbers dwindled as there was more work and better transport links available. Up until then 36 girls were employed either at the school or working from home.

18th century coat

…And Now

The Second World War and its aftermath led to inevitable changes and it was only in 2012 that the building was upgraded. Now, the Museum, run by Fiona Wemyss and Sheila Hubble, houses the collection but as it is also the teaching space, most of it is hidden away. The pieces on display all have a story to tell, which Fiona and Sheila are very good at telling.  18th century waistcoats in metal thread work were found in Wemyss Castle, nobody knows who they belonged to but they are stunning and two kits have been made from their designs. 

There are examples of whitework, quilting, crewelwork and artefacts from the original school, including Mrs Webster’s very tall desk and chair. Silk embroidered curtains, crewelwork examples, samplers stitched by 8-year-olds and all manner of evening bags and garments.

The School is important in the 21st Century to continue providing excellence in needlecrafts and the teaching of skills to the next generation, not forgetting the rich heritage which has been  inherited from Dora’s vision. 

There is a group of ladies who come every Wednesday from all over Fife for a UFO get-together. Unfinished Objects provides a meeting of like minds and enthusiasts, who all arrived individually but have now forged new friendships through needlework. They volunteer themselves to help out with catering or greeting visiting groups and the School could not thrive without them. 

The original idea for the School might have changed but the vision for the future is to continue to show how the history of a place can influence what the School does now.

The School’s exhibition will also have an extensive range of kits which you can purchase.

Additionally, two workshops will be held; details to follow

Joyce Gunn Cairns

I try to draw the range of sentient life from insects to people. My skills are relative and I struggle with a sense of fraudulence but I keep on trying nevertheless for greater integrity in my work.

The attention in my paintings has shifted, in recent years, to include animals, birds and insects, and our interrelatedness. 

I am deeply troubled, not only by the horrific suffering we inflict on creatures world-wide, but also by the dangers to which we expose ourselves as a result. There is for example, a persistent purblindness in the mistaken assumption that chicken meat from the crushing misery of  battery hens  can be anything but poisonous. 

It is easy to despair but to quote someone wiser than myself, it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. 

A focus since my thirties, and continuing, has been drawing poets and writers. My most recent sitter is the playwright Jo Clifford. I have drawings of writers in many collections including several universities, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Ireland. 

Literature is an enduring passion and it has been a privilege to meet so many writers and poets over the last forty years. Actors too have sat for me, also that most versatile of musicians, John Sampson. 

I also paint people but they are imaginary, or inspired by someone I know. I am not strictly speaking a portrait painter.

Joyce will be holding a workshop in Head Drawing; details to follow.

Helen Kemp

From her studio in the garden she has created, with a pond on either side, Helen Kemp's ceramic creations develop with the changes of the seasons. In spring and summer, the garden is a wildlife haven, and the insects, birds and mammals found there inspire work rooted in the natural world.  

­Informed by immersion in the elements, through swimming, walking and gardening, her pieces  playfully illustrate human interaction with nature, and the necessity of caring for our environment. 

Some do this using mythical forms, like mermaids and the half bird and half person harpie.

As a student of ceramics, she was inspired by slip-cast Staffordshire figures, and studied this technique at post-graduate level in Glasgow. That influence is still evident, but now all pieces are hand-modelled, sometimes in series, but each unique. 

Further inspiration comes from Mexican ceramics and trees of life, with their mermaids, angels and exotic plants. 

Winter for Helen is generally a time for drawing and developing new ideas, exploring other art forms, painting objects and furniture which is sometimes used to display her ceramics. 

The Royal Burgh of Pittenweem Arts Festival

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