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A History of Tapestries

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  A History of Tapestries by Martin Vernon

A History of Tapestries.
A tapestry wall-hanging in your home brings not just interior beauty but also a sense of history. European weavers have produced these textiles for centuries, including the medieval, renaissance and Arts and Crafts periods.
Tapestries have been woven for hundreds of years in diverse cultures. Both ancient Egyptians and the Incas buried their dead in tapestry woven clothing. Important civic buildings of the Greek Empire, including the Parthenon, had walls covered by them. However it was the French medieval weavers who brought the craft to fruition.
In the 13th and 14th centuries the Church recognized the value of tapestries in illustrating Bible stories to its illiterate congregations. Few of these have survived. The oldest existing set is the Apocalypse of St John, six finely woven hangings 18 foot high, totalling 471 foot in length which were woven from 1375 to 1379 in Paris. This was the centre of production until the Hundred Years War (1337 - 1453) caused the weavers to flee north via Arras to Flanders (now Belgium and northern France).
Tapestries became status symbols amongst the aristocracy in the Middle Ages. They also had much practical use, providing insulation for castle walls, covering openings and giving privacy around beds. Kings and nobles took them on their travels from castle to castle for reasons of comfort and prestige. Tapestries often changed hands after battle, and since the victor's door and window openings might be a different size the acquired hangings might be cut up or even joined to other tapestries.
Many of the best known works such as the 'Lady with the Unicorn' series were woven at the turn of the 15th century in the Loire valley. It has been estimated that 15,000 people were employed in the craft at this time. Many were itinerant and passed their skills from father to son. Their charming 'mille fleurs' scenes had backgrounds of small local flowers, perhaps inspired by the practice of strewing roadways with flowers on local fete days. At this time it would take a skilled father/son team two months to weave just one square foot of tapestry - and, remember, these were on a large scale.

Medieval weavers extracted their dyes from plants and insects in a range of less than twenty colours. For example, red came from madder, poppies or pomegranates and woad produced blue (a process that was so profitable in 16th century France that importing woad from the East was punishable by death).
The most popular medieval images were Biblical stories, myths, allegories (the ever-popular unicorn represented purity), and contemporary scenes of peasants working or nobles hunting. Battles were commissioned by victorious monarchs after the early 1500's. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was even accompanied into battle by his court painter who made sketches at the site for later weaving. Hunting scenes led to 'verdure' tapestries of lush landscapes which later became romanticized with increasing Italian influences.
Medieval weavers used working sketches which they freely adapted with imagination and sometimes humour. By the Renaissance these had become full-sized working drawings ('cartoons') which were rigidly copied by the weavers. Thus tapestries became mere copies of paintings rather than independent works of art. In 1515 Raphael was commissioned by the Pope to paint cartoons for the 'Acts of the Apostles' tapestries for the Sistine Chapel. His introduction of perspective and composition together with the use of finer yarns dyed in up to 300 colour shades led to the subservience of tapestry to painting for over 300 years.

In 1663, during the lavish reign of Louis XIV, Les Gobelins factory was founded in Paris employing over 800 artisans in the production of tapestries for the royal court. Other European countries followed, opening factories on behalf of their rulers. They employed Flemish weavers who by now had to complete a twelve year apprenticeship. Louis XIV's estate inventory at his death listed 2,155 Gobelins tapestries. Henry VIII's collection totalled over 2,000 in seventeen royal residences.
Rococco landscapes were popular in the 18th century typified by the designs of Francois Boucher (1703-70), director of the royal workshops at Beauvais for 30 years. His cartoons produced over 400 tapestries.

During the French Revolution the social changes of the times so decimated the tapestry market that the French Directory ordered 190 be burnt in 1797 rather than retain them for their value complete. They considered the gold and silver threads to have greater value. However a positive development of this period was the invention of the Jacquard mechanical loom in Flanders in 1804. It processed perforated cards, like pianolas or early IBM computers, which fed the coloured yarns to the shuttle. It enabled tapestries to become accessible to a wider market and it still forms the basis of the techniques used today.
By the late 1800's the Gobelins dyeworks produced a colour range of 14,000 tones. Producing tapestries with such detailing had not surprisingly become very expensive. Furthermore little creativity existed with most pieces being based on earlier designs.

Modern tapestry weaving owes much to the vigour and freedom bought by the Arts and Crafts Movement headed by William Morris in England. He revived many old crafts; tapestry weaving being one of the beneficiaries of his fresh vision and creative energy. He visited French weavers in 1878 and described the workshops at Aubusson as 'a decaying commercial industry of rubbish'. A year later he had a high-warp loom built in his bedroom where he taught himself to weave from an 18th century French craft manual. With colleagues and friends he designed tapestries, like the Woodpecker, based on medieval styles and techniques. The weavers at Morris and Co. achieved commercial success and, more importantly, revived the ailing craft.

Today few tapestries are hand-woven due to the expense of their laborious production. Les Gobelins does continue this tradition on 19th century looms, producing modern designs for prestigious French public buildings. But for us modern yarns and techniques enable us to enjoy superlative copies of works of art at affordable prices (sometimes cheaper than a framed print). Today's tapestries include reproductions of museum originals and classic works of art but they also offer a wide variety of contemporary designs. The range is broad, with something for everyone.

Martin Vernon is the Preseident of Past and Present Tapestries who have been working with European weavers and selling their tapestries since 1994: see //

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