Art’s intriguing new canvas: the pocket square

Silkily showcasing everything from painterly landscapes to digital dreamscapes, pocket squares are packing some spirited artistic punch. Christian Barker reports

Pam Weinstock silk Clementina pocket square, £40
Pam Weinstock silk Clementina pocket square, £40

It’s safe to say that few artists long to see their works transformed into fridge magnets and coffee mugs. But pocket squares and scarves? A much more interesting prospect – as the complexity of an image takes shape in textile and becomes wearable art. A collection of artists working today are embracing this metamorphosis and creating their own accessories businesses in parallel to their fine-art work, while others are enthusiastically taking up collaborations with pocket-square and scarf specialists. 

Sarah Jessica Lumley for Baxter & Baxter limited edition silk Crowned Pigeon, £30
Sarah Jessica Lumley for Baxter & Baxter limited edition silk Crowned Pigeon, £30

Photographer Pam Weinstock speaks of the satisfaction she has in seeing her travel-inspired imagery take on a new life – blown up and abstracted on a range of silk items, including pocket squares. “I wanted to use my photography for different mediums and not just in the traditional sense,” she says. When her images are translated into a garment or accessory, “there is a marriage between the fabric and the print, all brought to life by the person wearing the item.” Particularly striking is the vibrant orange Clementina design (£40), which sees a repeat pattern of a close-up of a glass of Aperol Spritz taken “during a beautiful lunch in Venice”; and the electric-blue Blue Palm, which shows the reflections of palm trees in a Dubai swimming pool. “It is a real challenge for me to be able to take my photography one step further by printing onto cloth,” says Weinstock. 

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When creating an artwork for an accessory where the entire image won’t be visible when worn, artist Emma Greenhill believes colour is the most important factor – she prefers it “clashing, strong and bright. The rest I like to leave up to chance.” Greenhill believes that the great thing about graphic scarves and pocket squares is their adaptability. “Every time you wear a pocket square of mine, depending on the corner you choose to highlight, it looks like a different square,” she says. “You may see a horse or an owl popping out of your top pocket.” Her pocket squares are made by a family-run company at a factory on Lake Como that has produced silk accessories for Gucci and Alexander McQueen. A former fashion PR for names such as Karl Lagerfeld and John Galliano, Greenhill launched her brand in 2014 and hand-illustrates each square herself; on Grey Charleston (£60) coloured shapes strewn on a grey background evoke, she says, the lightfooted movements of the dance itself. 

Emily Greenhill silk-twill Grey Charleston, £60
Emily Greenhill silk-twill Grey Charleston, £60

Hand-drawn illustrations are also the basis of Emily Carter’s pocket squares, which are all proudly British-made. Their intricate, kaleidoscopic designs are “inspired by the natural world, insects, scientific illustration and my upbringing in the country”, Carter says, also citing the fluidity of art nouveau and the geometry of Matisse’s cut-out works as reference points – take, for example, the colour-saturated Spectrum design (£45) in cobalt or pink, or the monochrome Python, a seething swirl of scales. 

Emily Carter silk-twill Spectrum, £45
Emily Carter silk-twill Spectrum, £45

Equally vivid and emotionally engaging are the “dreamscapes shaped in ink on silk” by design duo Pig, Chicken & Cow, which stretch from the neon psychedelia of the Eden series (£54 each) to the surreal sight of a galleon soaring over a city’s rooftops (£54). “A scarf is a canvas for us to showcase our art,” says co-founder and designer Ying Wu, highlighting that many customers buy the brand’s scarves and pocket squares to frame and hang. Working alongside fellow Shanghainese expat Shan Jiang in their north London studio – where the duo also operates a creative agency catering to clients including Hennessy, Apple, Volvo and Habitat – Wu says: “We avoid traditional scarf designs that have repeated patterns in four corners. We create our collections as one large illustration, which is then divided into smaller artworks. Each one is initially hand-drawn and digitally coloured; it usually takes hundreds of hours to complete. We express ourselves through these art pieces, and they are personal and timeless; they don’t follow trends – they come from our heart.”

Pam Weinstock silk Clementina, £40
Pam Weinstock silk Clementina, £40

Singing from the same emotionally intense hymn sheet is Irish designer Jennifer Rothwell. “All my prints tell an important story,” she says. “A story about Irish heritage and culture – celebrating Irish artists, folklore, legends and traditions through a fashion accessory, but in a modern and contemporary way.” Three of her designs have been acquired by the National Museum of Ireland, and Rothwell recently produced a series (€45) based on the creations of Dublin-born, early-20th-century stained-glass artist Harry Clarke. “I’d always wanted to design a stained-glass digital print on fabric and everyone kept telling me to look at Harry Clarke’s stained‑glass windows because my cobalt blues were so similar,” she says. When she visited the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin to view Clarke’s Keats-inspired “Eve of St Agnes” window, Rothwell says she was, “blown away by Harry’s work – and the rest is history”.

Pig, Chicken & Cow silk-twill Southsea Ship, £54
Pig, Chicken & Cow silk-twill Southsea Ship, £54

Pocket-square and silk specialists have, unsurprisingly, been keen to collaborate with artists on original designs. British silk-accessories brand Jane Carr issued a limited edition of 100 pocket squares (£75) in collaboration with blue-chip gallery Hauser & Wirth, based on specially commissioned work by Zhang Enli, the first Chinese artist in residence at the Royal Academy. Zhang’s nature-focused, Chinese ink-influenced images, taken from three separate works, are printed and handcrafted in Como with subtle pink, red or white hand-rolled edges and matching-hued gingham on the reverse. 

Terence Gilbert for David Watson silk-twill Ascot, £45
Terence Gilbert for David Watson silk-twill Ascot, £45

David Watson, the British pocket-square company established in 2015, has made a specialism of collaborating with artists, designers, galleries and museums. “Initially I met artists at art fairs and galleries,” say founder/creative director Sam Petty. “However, over time, more and more of them contact me directly.” Printed, cut and hand-finished in the UK, David Watson’s pocket squares and scarves feel quintessentially British – from artist Ian Weatherhead’s colourful watercolour of the boats at Cowes Week to Ascot equestrian scenes (£45) by painter Terence Gilbert, whose past works on canvas include a commissioned portrait of the Queen and Ronald Reagan riding together that was later presented to the president. 

Jane Carr x Zhang Enli for Hauser & Wirth silk, limited edition of 100, £75
Jane Carr x Zhang Enli for Hauser & Wirth silk, limited edition of 100, £75

But it’s not only established artists who are being courted for such projects. One of three-year-old British company Baxter & Baxter’s recent commissions is with Brighton-based textiles student Sarah Jessica Lumley, whom founder Alexander Baxter discovered via Instagram. The result is the vibrant limited edition Crowned Pigeon pocket square (£30). “The artists we work with love the challenge of developing something from scratch,” says Baxter. “I usually provide a theme or feeling that I’d like to convey through the design, but that’s as far as my input goes.” All designs are then handed to artisanal silk manufacturers on Lake Como, says Baxter, who “reproduce complex patterns with flawless attention to detail. This ensures our artists’ designs are captured in their true form – and remain a real work of art.”  

Jennifer Rothwell silk Harry Clarke Two Ladies, €45
Jennifer Rothwell silk Harry Clarke Two Ladies, €45

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