William Morris tapestries

William Morris tapestries: timeless and fresh. A look at Morris & Co tapestry designs.

William Morris (1834-1896) was a man of many talents; an artist, writer, social activist and textile designer being among them. In 1856 he established the ‘Oxford and Cambridge Magazine’ in which he published his ideas with regards to craftsmanship and the decorative arts. Later, he would become a valued associate of the English Arts and Crafts Movement and of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Five years later, in 1861, William Morris established a design firm, later called Morris & Co, along with artists Dante Gabriel Rossini and Edward Burne-Jones. Working at the firm, he created many remarkable textile and wallpaper designs, most of which were based upon his observations of the natural world. Morris & Co was to have an enormous influence upon decoration in the early twentieth century. However, it was William Morris who had the greatest influence upon the revival of traditional methods within textile production.

William Morris produced some of his first repeat design wallpapers during 1862 and in 1868 he created his first specific print design for fabric. Morris always preferred to use more traditional hand-crafting methods. Therefore, he virtually dismissed modern roller printing, in favor of wood block printing with hand-cut blocks he often designed himself. William Morris spent a year perfecting traditional vegetable dye methods with wool, silk and cotton at the Staffordshire Dye Works. From 1877 to 1878, Morris engrossed himself in textile production and, in particular, with the intricacies of double-woven furnishing fabrics. His aim was always to produce textiles of the highest calibre in a traditional manner. Today, the textile designs of William Morris continue to be highly respected, including his wall tapestries.

Morris & Co tapestry designs

William Morris always aspired to produce tapestries, believing it to be “the noblest of the weaving arts”. On behalf of Morris & Co, he completed his first tapestry in 1879 – the Acanthus and Vine tapestry which Morris later nicknamed ‘The Cabbage and Vine’. It was inspired by the Flemish verdure tapestries produced during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This tapestry took him more than five hundred hours to complete on a vertical loom using a cotton warp with wool and silk yarns which was set up in his bedroom. He taught himself this medieval method of weaving from a 14th century French crafts manual. The first attempt was slightly distorted due to some uneven tension and other variations within the weave. Unperturbed, he employed John Henry Dearle and established a small tapestry workshop at Queens Square in the Bloomsbury district of London. Later, in 1881, he would move to the larger workshop of Morris & Co at Merton Abbey in Surrey where nine tapestry weavers worked on three looms. William Morris would spend three or four days each week at his Merton workshop supervising Morris & Co tapestry designs.

William Morris tapestries

Six years later he designed and wove the The Woodpecker Tapestry, measuring 10 feet The Woodpecker Tapestry - Morris & Co tapestry designshigh and 5 feet wide. This, together with The Tree of Life Tapestry, was to become the most popular of William Morris tapestries available today. Interestingly, it incorporated his own verse and the image the poem presented.

Again and again, Morris & Co tapestry designs benefitted from the close friendship and working relationship between Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Their skills complemented each other, as we see in Flora and Pomona: with Morris excelling at the detailed naturalistic backgrounds and his verses and Burne-Jones at the figures. These two original 1885 tapestries are now displayed at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester.

The Forest Tapestry was a Morris & Co commission for a west London house. The original long, slim tapestry was woven in wool and silk on a cotton warp in 1887. Its swirling acanthus leaves in the background had a lion in the centre with peacock, hare, fox and raven figures designed by Phillip Webb. It is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Edward Burne-Jones, John Henry Dearle and William Morris designed a series of six tapestries known collectively as the ‘Quest for the Holy Grail’. They are based on a fifteenth century text by Sir Thomas Malory, ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’, presenting the legendary tale of the quest to find the ‘Holy Grail’ by King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. The tapestries were originally commissioned by William Knox D’Arcy for his home, Stanmore Hall in Middlesex and were designed and woven at the Merton Abbey workshop. The first six tapestries are exhibited at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Several of the series are available today from French weavers, including The Arming and Departure of the Knights.

Thankfully, we can purchase reproductions of many of fresh timeless William Morris tapestries for our homes today.

 

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Medieval wall tapestries

Medieval wall tapestries – a history starting with the Bayeux Tapestry.

Around 500AD, when Rome could no longer contain the fierce Northern European, tribes, the Roman Empire was replaced by much smaller kingdoms. The thousand years which followed are known as the medieval period. Despite the collapse of Rome, the Catholic Church continued to be a powerful institution unifying all those kingdoms. The Church became the centre for learning during these times: in science, the arts, in medicine, as well as religious culture. The rich culture of this medieval period eventually paved the way for many of the ideas which would mark the start of the Renaissance.

Historians believe small scale tapestries were produced throughout medieval times across Europe. By the end of this period, tapestries adorned the walls of castles and churches throughout the kingdoms. Tapestries were not only used in a propagandist way, to narrate the stories of brave knights or to present Christian teachings but were practical, providing insulation and decoration for wealthy homes. Hand-stitched medieval tapestries were relatively coarse in comparison to those created on a loom. However, the tapestry weaving process did allow the production of complex imagery on a vast scale with some medieval tapestries produced in sets of several pieces. At this time a tapestry could sometimes be more than ten yards long and up to five yards wide, woven by small teams, perhaps a father and his sons. It was a laborious process.

Unfortunately, few tapestries managed to survive the wars in these centuries. However, one of the most famous medieval wall tapestries ever created did survive: The Bayeux Tapestry (Tapisserie de Bayeux). Completed in 1076, this “tapestry” (actually an embroidery) depicts and records the events which led up to the invasion of England in 1066, the Norman Conquest (see above image). Originally hung in Bayeux Cathedral, Normandy, today the Bayeux Tapestry is displayed at a dedicated museum in Bayeux, seventy metes long although only fifty centimetres high.

Medieval Tapestries were enriched with metal and silk threads producing ostentatious displays for both the Church and the aristocracy. Early in the fourteenth century, a substantial industry evolved for the production of high quality tapestries. This new surge of tapestry production was assisted by the abundance of skilled weavers and the support of many local guilds who actively encouraged large scale tapestry production. This was especially true in Northern France and the southern regions of the Netherlands. During the Hundred Year War from 1337 to 1453, Paris was considered the most influential producer of tapestries in Europe although many weavers left France for Holland and Belgium during the unrest.

The 1400’s marked the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe, a period which would 14th century tapestries - the historical context in artbegin and end at different times for different countries. It marked a renewed interest in learning and brought about a definitive change in the design of tapestries, especially notable in the first half of the fifteenth century. More emphasis was placed upon the line and pattern of the tapestry narrative, rather than its volume. This can be seen in the difference between the Apocalypse Tapestries at Angers woven in about 1380 and the Lady with the Unicorn series, now at the Cluny Museum, woven over one hundred years later. Incidentally, the Musée de Cluny in Paris, now called the Musée national du Moyen Âge, is the best place to view medieval art spanning the centuries.

Mille fleur tapestries (thousand flowers) often featured local nobility who had commissioned these pieces, such as grapes harvest scenes and La tenture de la Vie Seigneuriale series including The Promenade tapestry. By the middle of the fifteenth century, a significant number of tapestry workshops, mainly based in Northern France, were exporting tapestries throughout the European countries. Today, we can step back in time and enjoy medieval wall art in our own homes, including excerpts from the famous Bayeux Tapestry. The medieval period was an epic time of knights, gallantry, myths and legends – beautifully complex, colourful scenes which reflect the period’s rich history, and thus today reproductions of these medieval wall tapestries make a wonderful addition to any home.

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Tapestry weaving and the Jacquard loom

How tapestry weaving and the Jacquard loom combined to revolutionize this ancient art.

All of the tapestries available on our website are Jacquard woven. What does this signify? A trip back to the thoroughly revolutionary times in France takes us to the life of Joseph-Marie Jacquard.

During the French Revolution large numbers of tapestries were burnt to retrieve the precious gold and silver threads they contained. Further, the literal death of the aristocracy removed the market for these luxury goods. The future for tapestry weaving looked bleak until an unsuccessful weaver opened up new options with mass production.

Joseph-Marie Jacquard

Jacquard was born at Lyon, France on July 7th 1752. He learnt to weave from his father when only ten years old. After the death of his father he inherited two looms but his business fared poorly and he was forced to move to Bresse taking work as a lime burner, while his wife stayed at Lyon. In 1793 he returned to part in the defense of Lyon, after which he was employed in a factory, and used his spare time to construct an improved loom based on ideas he had developed over the years.

At that time the slow high warp loom used since medieval times was still in use. (Some later purist like William Morris would still favour it – his first tapestry, Acanthus and Vine, was woven on such a loom installed in his bedroom.)

His revolutionary loom was shown at the industrial exhibition at Paris in 1801, and in 1803 he traveled to Paris to work for the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers. The many improvements in weaving offered by the loom ensured its general adoption by weavers and by 1812 there were 11,000 Jacquard looms in use in France. The loom was declared public property in 1806 and Jacquard was rewarded with a pension as well as a royalty on each machine. He died at Oullins (Rhóne) on August 7 1834, and in 1840 a statue was erected to him at his birthplace in Lyon.

The Jacquard loom

A Jacquard loom is a mechanical loom which uses a series of punch cards to control the weaving of patterns. Prior to its invention weaving was a labour-intensive process that relied on experienced professionals to produce even straightforward textile designs. The introduction of the Jacquard loom allowed weavers to concentrate more on the quality of designs produced, and to standardize the quality of the weaving itself. This effectively mechanized the production of tapestries and textiles.

Tapestry weaving and the Jacquard loomThe process uses punch cards that control a sequence of movements that would ordinarily be accomplished by hand. Although tapestry weaving is a complex process, there is a great deal of repetition in terms of looping threads. The threads taken together make up a weft, with individual threads lying above or below the weft, making a discernible pattern. The Jacquard loom automated this process of positioning individual threads thus removing much of the time-consuming repetition.

The punch cards have holes through which a hook can pass, determining whether the thread lies above or below the weft. Therefore the cards themselves are used to control the pattern. Most importantly the cards can be reused, allowing a degree of standardization in designs and patterns.

In many respects the Jacquard loom was a precursor to later machines that were more adept than humans at repetitive tasks, ultimately leading to the computer. The loom itself does not compute since the human controlled punch cards provide the information to make a given tapestry. This information is “stored” in the punch cards, allowing the same loom, and the same human weaver, the opportunity to weave any tapestry.

The Jacquard Loom was the first to rely on ‘controlled sequencing’. As well as having a huge impact on the mass production of tapestries it was the concept behind the ability to alter the weave pattern by swapping the cards, which acted as a catalyst for the creation of computer programming. The mathematician Charles Babbage intended to use the ‘controlled sequencing’ principle of the Jacquard Loom punch cards to store programs in what Babbage referred to as his ‘Analytical Engine’. The Babbage Engine is considered to be the first ever computer and was developed from 1837 until his death in 1871.

It is important to stress that the punch card system used in a Jacquard loom controls the tapestry weaving process, not the design. In addition the natural variations in all textiles mean that no two tapestries are ever the same. This is one of the many reasons tapestry wall-hangings are valued as much as they are – even today, using modern weaving techniques, each is a unique piece of art distinct from all others.

This loom took weaving from the domain of expensive experts to the world of mass production, at least by the standards of the 19th century. Since then, tapestry weaving and the Jacquard loom remained largely unchanged until the introduction of modern looms where computers store the information for a tapestry design, removing the need for punch cards. However the principle is identical to Jacquard’s own tapestry weaving loom from over 200 years ago. We have many reasons to be grateful to him.

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Sistine Chapel tapestries – Raphael cartoons

The Sistine Chapel Tapestries were produced from cartoons by Raphael and hung for special occasions.

Only seven of the ten original cartoons, ie the working drawings, produced by Raphael for the Sistine Chapel tapestries survive today. The Raphael Tapestries, as they have since become known, were created during the High Renaissance, and were commissioned around 1515 by Pope Leo X. It is believed that they were completed one year later because a final payment was made to Raphael on December 20th of that year. They were first displayed in the Sistine Chapel during the Christmas celebrations of 1519. It should be remembered, even though Raphael had completed the cartoons for the tapestries, they still had to be woven!

The Sistine Chapel tapestries depicted the Life of Saint Peter and Saint Paul as described in the Acts of the Apostles. Four of the ten original Raphael tapestries were dedicated to the life of St Peter: “The Death of Ananias”, “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes”, “The Handing Over of the Keys” and “The Healing of the Lame Man”. The six remaining tapestries were dedicated to the life of St Paul: “The Conversion of Saint Paul”, “Saint Paul in Prison”, “Saint Paul Preaching in Athens”, “The Blinding of Elymas the Sorcerer”, “The Sacrifices in Lystra” and “The Stoning of Saint Peter”.

Since both St Peter and St Paul were martyred for their faith, Pope Leo X, who commissioned the series of tapestries, was probably using the tapestries as propaganda. The Sistine Chapel was originally restored by Pope Sixtus IV Della Rovere during the late fifteenth century and Pope Leo X decided to replace the old tapestries of Pope Sixtus IV, showing Christ’s Passion, which were showing the strains of time. As was customary for the period, Pope Leo X also ensured his own coat of arms was included within the borders of the new tapestries. The Brussels workshop of Pieter Van Aelst made the Raphael tapestries, as they did all the tapestries produced for the Vatican. This weaving workshop was thought to be the finest in Europe. The very first set of ten tapestries were always hung in the Sistine Chapel. It is believed that these original Raphael tapestries were burned to retrieve the precious metals woven into them. Later, several other sets of the same tapestries would be woven including a set for Francois I, King of France, and for the English King, Henry VIII. The most recent new sert was created during the eighteenth century. In 1983, the complete set was again displayed at the Sistine Chapel.


The Raphael Cartoons are as famous as the tapestries for which they were made. (They were, in effect, the prototypes for the tapestries, paintings from which the tapestries were woven.) There were ten tapestry cartoons commissioned by Pope Leo X although, originally, the Sistine Chapel tapestries were to be a sixteen piece set.

As Raphael knew, the Sistine Chapel tapestries would be directly compared to the famous Sistine Chapel ceiling thought by many to be the greatest masterpiece by Michelangelo. The ceiling had only been completed around two years beforehand. Also, there must have been the added pressure of knowing that Michelangelo actually disliked Raphael. However, regardless of how famous and revered the Sistine Chapel ceiling has become, the admiration for the Sistine Chapel tapestries and the cartoons from which these were made has earned them acclaim worldwide.

The cartoons for these tapestries do not have the same intricate detail for which Raphael is famous within his paintings. This is because Raphael understood that preparatory cartoons for tapestry wall-hangings need bold composition, not fine detail. A tapestry is always worked on from the reverse side so therefore the Sistine Chapel tapestries are also a reverse image of Raphael’s cartoons. The cartoons are just over three metres high, and between three and five metres wide.

Raphael’s cartoons for the tapestries were painted, with glue distemper, onto many layers of paper which were also glued together. Today, the cartoons have been mounted onto canvas and are permanently displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Records show that Raphael was paid one thousand ducats for these cartoons. The tapestries themselves cost much more to produce, fifteen thousand ducats. Therefore, the Sistine Chapel tapestries cost five times more than the ceiling, a huge sum of money for the day.

Raphael seemed to understand many aspects of tapestry production: reducing detail, emphasising structure and composition. Even so, the tapestries were subtle with regards to colour, like his paintings. It must be remembered, Raphael was not a tapestry artist but was commissioned to produce cartoons for a set of tapestries. Simply because tapestry weavers were capable of producing more colour tones does not mean that he would use them just for the sake of it. Raphael had his own sensitivity and it was this acute perceptiveness that made him one of the great masters.

Charles I bought the cartoons when still the Prince of Wales, not yet King. He was rather flighty about the purchase and used an agent to secure the cartoons for the low price of three hundred pounds. The resulting tapestries were woven for Charles in Mortlake by the River Thames on a low warp loom for five hundred pounds. Afterwards, the cartoons were placed in storage at the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall. Somewhat curiously, and thankfully, Oliver Cromwell did not sell off the Raphael cartoons. However, three of them did go amiss at this time. The cartoons Raphael produced for the Sistine Chapel tapestries have been studied by many artists over time and played a role in the development of English art, especially during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when they were described as “the Parthenon sculptures of modern art”.

Flemish tapestry art

Flemish tapestry art – an historical background study of Flanders tapestries.

Flemish tapestry art at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries meant primarily Brussels tapestry; the city had become the principal centre for tapestry weaving, with a character and technique quite unlike that in other workshops. Novel characteristics there were recognisable in a bias towards painting. Today the design of a tapestry is often traced to a famous painting this Old Masters selection represents these.

Such sources of inspiration can usually be adduced; for instance, the Annunciation and the Adoration in the Musee des Gobelins in Paris have similarities with Vrancke van der Stocken, while the tender yet regal Virgin in Glory (dated 1489) in the Louvre recalls the work of the Maitre des Feuillages en Broderie.

The cornice and subdivisions into triptychs framing the various episodes alone indicate an inspiration taken from pictorial works which were not intended to have any connection with weaving. This method of narration was employed commonly even in cartoons, as can be seen in the famous ‘tapis d’or’ (Cloth of Gold) at the end of the century; so called on the account of the abundant use of gold thread. The narrative tension which is so characteristic of the Tournai tapestries is suddenly relaxed and replaced by an ordered rhythmical composition calculated to reveal the quality of the woven material as well as the subtle imagery.

The stories of the Virgin in the Spanish collections and the Apotheosis of Charles VIII – recently restored to its original vast size in the Metropolitan Museum in New York – are true ‘woven’ altar pieces. The scenes are materially divided by small arches and columns in imitation of the wooden engraved and gilded cornices of church altar pieces. Later, in the 16th century, these visible divisions disappeared and tapestries were framed in figured borders of flowers and fruit, while the composition retained the earlier clear rhythm with its balance and feelings of space.

Society was always changing; and Flemish tapestry art reflected the new tastes, beginning a transformation from being ‘a woven wall’ into a fabric which, according to the prevailing fashion, was more decorative than utilitarian.

The creator of the Brussels style of weaving in the first quarter of the 16th century – a period dubbed the ‘Belle Époque’ – is generally thought to be Jan van Roome, who did the rough sketch for the Communion of Herkenbauld in the Musee Royaux d’ Art et d’ Histoire in Brussels. He was court painter to Margaret of Austria, sister of the Emperor Charles V.

We know of Knoest, who signed the Finding of the Cross, now in the Musee Royaux d’ Art et d’ Histoire at Brussels, and the variously identified ‘Philiep’ whose name is woven in to the Descent from the Cross in the same collection, a work closely related to the other Descent in the Pallazzo Reale, Naples. In both works Italian knowledge and influence is superimposed on the Flemish tradition, revealing generally the extent of contemporary civilisation across Europe.

The story of the Brussels looms, however, has still not been fully traced. Some outstanding tapestries generally attributed to itinerant weavers in the Loire Valley, have now been related to Brussels. The origin, as well as the date, of some series of tapestries remained for a long time mysterious. The theory that they were done by itinerant weavers from central France has been widely held. Among these are the six celebrated tapestries of the Dame a la Licorne in the Musee de Cluny, with the arms of the la Viste family. This decorative work of exceptional quality reflects a heraldic and courtly ideal, more abstract than real, subscribed to more as a beautiful myth than history. There are obvious affinities with certain Flemish examples, as much in the weave as in the design. A credible parallel can be drawn connecting a particular figure in the Dame a la Licorne series with certain others in the story of Perseus (private collection), and with the Illustrious Women in a series woven in between 1480 and 1482 bearing the arms of the Cardinal Ferry de Clugny. However, the Dame a la Licorne tapestries were dated later (about 1509-1513) by most scholars and incidentally seemed somewhat archaic. Recently a comparison of the background of the Dame a la Licorne tapestries with the tapestry in Berne bearing the coat of arms of Philip the Good of Burgundy, which was certainly woven in Brussels, has revealed striking similarities. Historical research has shown that the set in the Musee de Cluny in Paris was woven for Jean la Viste before 1500, probably in 1480-1490. Indeed the very existence of the itinerant weavers seems now to be questionable.

The Brussels origin of the Dame a la Licorne throws a new light on the origin of many other celebrated tapestries, for instance the Unicorn Hunt, which once belonged to Anne of Brittany and is now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. The same can be said of the Scenes from Pastoral Life in the Musee des Gobelins and the Metropolitan Museum, New York, of the Feudal Life in the Musee de Cluny, and of the Triumphs of Petrarch in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.

The geographic region we associate  with Flanders tapestries today has a hidden richness of Flemish tapestry art.

14th century tapestries

14th century tapestries – the first part of an article about their historical context.

There is a large gap in our knowledge of 14th century tapestries; we possess only examples from the last quarter of the century. At this date the art was largely diffused throughout Europe, each district with its own style and characteristics. Large studios flourished in Paris and Arras, more modest ones were active at Tournai, and small workshops blossomed sporadically in Brabant, Hainault and Flanders. In Switzerland and Germany, groups of artisans produced strips and small panels for the local clientele. However, within the space of a hundred and fifty years, the art of tapestry had changed almost out of recognition.

It is easy to explain how techniques of tapestry reached the Franco-Flemish countries. Never had travel been as extensive as in the Middle Ages. Emperors and popes, princes and knights, priests and pilgrims, merchants, strolling players and stone carvers were always on the move; and no doubt similarly were the tapestry weavers and their looms.

In early castle inventories ‘tappiz de haulte lisse’ are only cursorily mentioned, but later more frequently. Their vast halls were decorated with ever larger and more luxurious tapestry wall-hangings, and tapestries served as screens of insulation to keep out the cold and wind. They then invaded the bedroom as bed canopies, and were spread out on benches and draped over chair backs. So indispensable and valued were these wall hangings that they accompanied their owners on journeys, and were even taken to war. Wear and tear in these circumstances was considerable and they had to be renewed at considerable cost but this was worthwhile given their considerable prestige value. To own a tapestry was a sign of wealth, grandeur and power, so on public occasions they were displayed ostentatiously as evidence of their owner’s social importance. Nor were churches content with a few tapestry wall hangings; their walls were covered and naves were partitioned with them. Dimensions increased, the spinning mills poured out their ‘fins filz’, carpenters constructed their looms, the weavers their warps – in a significant boom which reached its peak at the end of the 15th century.

In the early years of the 14th century Mahaut, Countess of Artois, was buying tapestries as fast as she could. In Paris (where the ‘tapissiers de haulte lisse’ had formed a competitive corporation in 1302) she began her purchases in 1308. In 1313 she was buying in Arras, and in Paris in 1315 we know that she acquired a panel, ‘a bestelets’, consisting of animals woven probably on a decorated background.

Only towards the middle of the 14th century did tapestry wallhangings have more common complex designs; telling true stories in instalments, each panel comprising a chapter, each series a complete tale. Sometimes they were very long, like Les Enfans de Renaud de Montauban. In the third quarter of the 14th century this type of story became firmly established. Charles V of France, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, Louis of Anjou and Jean de Berry were great patrons of the Parisian weavers. These were principally Nicholas Bataille (active c.1368-1400), Pierre de Beaumetz (active c. 1382-1412) and Jacques Dourdin (active c. 1380-1407). Competition then started from Arras: Vincent Boursette (died 1376) Huart Walois, Colart d’ Auxcy, Michael Bernard and Jehan Cosset. They were known as weavers, but were in fact ‘employers of weavers’. The Boursettes and the Walois were prominent citizens of Arras, Nicolas Bataille was valet de chambre to the Duke of Anjou – so it would be hard to imagine them working at their looms.

14th century tapestries - the historical context in artThe few surviving 14th century tapestries are among the largest in the history of tapestry. Of the Apocalypse of St John only two thirds remain (it was begun for Louis of Anjou between 1375 and 1377 in the workshops of Bataille). The preparation was long and detailed. The designer, Jehan de Bondolpf or de Bandol, known as Hennequin de Bruges (hence a Fleming), consulted illuminated manuscripts of the Apocalypse before undertaking the work. Several portions of the Apocalypse Tapestry are woven today. To this rightly belongs the series of the Nine Heroes with the arms of Jean de Berry (fragments are in the Metropolitan Museum, New York). Woven about 1390, a little later than the Apocalypse, but probably by the same hand, it is not by the same designer and reveals a different inspiration – the search for a chivalrous and romantic ideal. In the Nine Heroes the heroes of the ancient and modern history and of the mythology live together on an Olympus of Gothic splendour, from which the hardness of the contemporary life cannot be entirely excluded. They are surrounded by the international language of cathedral spires, with backgrounds having the appearance of stained glass and weapons chiselled like reliquaries. Such elegant subjects were addressed to the powerful and wealthy of that world.

Les Tres Riches Heures (now at Chantilly) contains a miniature painted by the Limbourgs showing Jean de Berry at a banquet wearing an elaborate velvet costume trimmed with beaver, against a background borrowed from a wall tapestry showing the feats of Begue de Belin – an undulating line of lances, helmets horses, and warriors set in a landscape of gently rolling green hills. These subjects may have accounted for the popularity of tapestry wall-hangings; purchasers may have identified themselves unconsciously and somewhat inaptly, with these heroes, their adventures and their conquests.

Philip the Bold immediately commemorated the Battle of Roosebeke where Charles VI of France and Louis de Maele suppressed the Flemish revolt, with a tapestry which was woven in Arras by Michel Bernard. This exquisite work of art in wool, silk and gold thread was more than three hundred yards square. Charles VI did likewise when he commemorated the accolade bestowed on his brother the Duke of Orleans and his cousin Louis II of Anjou in a tapestry by Jacques Dourdin and Nicolas Bataille. This work ‘toute de imagerye d’or’, was known as the Joutes St Denis. In these tapestries that have not survived the present must have seemed to join hands with an idealised past. We know that when the English won the battle of Agincourt and took Paris, the beautiful tapestries of Charles VI were looted.

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14th century tapestries article – part two

14th century tapestries article – part two, describing their history and variety within Europe.

Continued from the first part

Although the English victory at Agincourt was a blow to dreams and illusions, the myth of chivalry persisted in Burgundy, whose Dukes commissioned their wall tapestries from Arras. The only documented tapestries from Arras that have survived are the ‘History of St Piat’ and ‘St Eleuthere’ in the cathedral of Tournai (1402). Their designs recount traditional tales of chivalry but the stories are told with an everyday realism which is almost middle class. In any case these tapestries were commissioned not by princes, but by the chaplain of the cathedral, Toussaint Prier. The weaver was Pierrot Fere, who was not in the front rank of great middlemen of Arras.

The exquisite early 15th century tapestry, The Meeting of Fromon and Girart in the Museo Civico at Padua, is attributed to Arras as are some of the ‘Scenes from Feudal Life’ in the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, and the ‘Annunciation’ in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, recalling something of the profundity as well as the tenderness of Broederlam. The same can be said for the superb ‘Crucifixion’ in La Seo cathedral at Saragossa. On a more solemn and monumental scale than in the ‘History of St Piat and St Eleuthere’, the Saragossa tapestry has the same realism; it deals with similar human emotions without concession to the age of chivalry. These are to be found however in the Devonshire Hunting scenes (Victoria and Albert Museum, London), believed to be from Arras, founded on miniatures of hunting scenes, with subtle half-tints of pink, violet and green. These belong to the second quarter of the 15th century.

Artistic and commercial relations between the Arras and Tournai were close; an Arras painter, Baudoin du Bailleul, furnishing them both with designs. And in both cities the same family of weavers had workshops. But the origin of the most important tapestries remains uncertain. The ‘History of Clovis’ in the cathedral of Rheims is an example; woven probably about 1450, it adorned the banqueting hall for the festivities celebrating the marriage of Charles the Bold with Margaret of York. The same can be said for the History of St Peter (now shared between Beauvais cathedral, the Musee de Cluny and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston) which was commissioned by Guillaume de Hellande, Bishop of Beauvais, to celebrate the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453.

There is no definite means of distinguishing between the tapestries of Arras and Tournai. This might have been possible had the ‘Story of Gideon’ been preserved; it was commissioned by Philip the Good to commemorate the installation of the Order of the Golden Fleece and was completed in 1453 by two weavers of Tournai, Jacques Dary and Jehan de L’Ortye from cartoons of Baudoin du Bailleul. This series had been described in the ancient chronicles as the ‘richest tapestry ever to adorn a royal court’, a supreme testimonial to the luxury and pride of the Burgundian dynasty. As a memorial to their grandeur the Story of Alexander the Great still survives; flanked by the story of Gideon it adorned the Hotel d’Artois at the time of the ‘joyeuse entree’ of Louis XI in to Paris (1461). These are now identified as the two tapestries in the Dora Pamphili Gallery in Rome. Then there is the Story of the Swan Knight, inspired by a performance of the Voeu du Faisan at Lille in 1454; here the Burgundian Knights, recalling the deeds of the mythical hero, the ancestor of the dynasty, vowed to repeat them in combat with the enemies of the faith. This series of tapestries was woven at Tournai, perhaps in the great workshops of Pasquier Grenier.

The style of these tapestries enables them to be attributed to Tournai (the Battle of Roncesvalles in the Bargello, Florence, and the Musees Royaux d ‘Art et d’Histoire, Brussels; the Passion in the Vatican and the Musees Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels; the History of Julius Caesar in the Historiches Museum, Berne; the Story of Tideo, in the town hall of Madrid). The figures depicted are all prominently placed in the foreground, clearly outlined as if in the frame of a window. Even though the various episodes recounted took place at different times and in different places they are placed contiguously one next to the other in vertical disarray without visible division. Bearing in mind that the tapestry was then regarded as a high ‘woven wall’ having little connection with the rules of perspective taught in the renaissance, the presentation is perfectly logical.

It is difficult to say who invented this monumental treatment of serried figures. On account of their stylistic and historical elements, they have been attributed to the school of Robert Campin. Other comparisons with miniatures, stained glass, sculpture and goldsmiths work can be made. Some definite attributions can be made: The Legend of Herkenbauld in the Historiches Museum at Berne was a copy of the lost paintings of Roger van der Weyden which used to hang in the Hotel de Ville in Brussels.

The literary sources are relatively easier to determine thanks to the inscriptions which accompany each tapestry, commenting on and explaining the action. The whole literature of the late Middle Ages (including the theatre) was used. The themes vary from the miracles of Christ and the saints to exploits of valiant Carolingian Knights; they deal with even more remote and fabulous feats of Hercules and the Trojans, as well as those from the classical story of Julius Caesar and Trajan, down to the relatively recent Portuguese Conquests of 1471 (in the collegiate church of Pastrana). The 15th century tapestries comprise a kind of illustrated encyclopaedia of the knowledge, ideals, daring deeds and productions of an aristocratic society which was proud of its achievements and privileges. The Court of Charles the Bold displayed in the Burgundian decline all its pomp and riches – ironically, in view of the political and military weaknesses of his dying regime. Although threatened by powerful enemies, the ambitious Louis XI of France and the hostile Swiss, Charles set out confidently on his campaign, taking with him his finest tapestries. Nemesis overtook him on the fields of Morat, Granson and Nancy. He fell in to battle and among the vast booty captured by his conquerors was the Millefiori (Thousand Flowers) bearing the Burgundian arms. This work, now in the Historiches Museum at Berne, was woven in Brussels for his father Philip the Good.

It is not strictly accurate to say that the tapestry centre of Arras, which gave its name to the art, disappeared with the Burgundian dynasty after its destruction (for the production continued to flourish at Tournai), the art itself was henceforth transformed. The live tradition of a knightly society was no longer represented in the work of the weavers. It is suitable therefore, at this point to examine what was happening in the same field in Germany and Switzerland.

The weaving of small tapestries for altar frontals and dossal, pew covers and cushions continued in Germany and Switzerland throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. Sacred objects were selected for churches, scenes of everyday life, fables and popular allegories for private houses. The colours are vivid and fresh, intended more for decoration than fidelity to nature. The design is stylized, again for decoration purposes, although even here the influence of pictorial art cannot be excluded.

These common characteristics vary considerably from district to district. In the 14th century, the most important group of tapestries came from Constance. The Morgan Crucifixion in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and the Saints in the German National Museum, Nuremburg, have a definite similarity of line and are set against a monochrome background dotted with stars. Tapestries with medallions are common; the frontal wall-hanging in Thun Museum being a good example in the first half of the 14th century. Towards the end of the 14th century, the Wilde Leute make their appearances – wild-looking, hirsute men engaged in hunting and struggles with fantastic beasts, of holding placards inscribed with proverbs, maxims or moral texts. In the 15th century, especially in Basle, they dominate the scene. In Basle the scenes are mostly profane – hunting, gardens of love, monstrous animals.

Around Freiburg and in northern Switzerland the subjects are more sacred. The exquisite Gothic theme of the Hortus Conclusus occurs several times, sometimes combined with the Mystical Chase; both are interpreted in heraldic fashion, usually in fable form.

In Nuremburg the subjects were usually sacred. The strips of the Life of St Sebaldus (1410), the Life of St Catherine (1445) and the Life of the Virgin (1480) are inspired by the local school of painting. All these are in the National Museum, Nuremburg, and all were certainly woven in convents. The Passion of Schongauer was also woven in a convent; it is on a smaller scale, non-monumental, each of the nine episodes being in its own individual square. These are entirely different from the Flemish tapestry composition, whose influence began to be felt at the end of the century in Germany, an example being the Crucifixion dated 1490 in the Wurzburg Museum.

Back to … Part One of this 14th century tapestries article

Renaissance tapestries

Renaissance tapestries or medieval tapestries? This can be a matter of terminology though it is more historical, with the medieval period generally pre-dating the Renaissance. Throughout this overlapping period tapestry weaving enjoyed significant prestige producing memorable art.

It is generally accepted that the Renaissance began in the 15th century, ending in the 17th century. It was a time when the passion for learning was rekindled, especially in the arts, and tapestries were not excluded. Tapestries from the Middle Ages were huge narratives. However, early in the fifteenth century these medieval tapestries took on a new concept within their design. Emphasis was no longer placed solely on the sheer size of the tapestry and the complexity of the narrative.

Some of the most remarkable early Renaissance tapestries were produced Apocalypse Tapestries - Tapisseries de l’Apocalypsedue to the patronage of the court of King Charles V and those of his three brothers: the Dukes of Anjou, Berry and Burgundy. The Duke of Anjou commissioned the famous Apocalypse Tapestries (Tapisseries de l’Apocalypse) which were created by Nicolas Bataille and Robert Poinçon at Angers between 1375 and 1382. Originally, a hundred tapestries were woven for this series, of which seventy managed to survive the French Revolution. The remarkable illuminated manuscripts Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry commissioned by one of those brothers have now been reproduced as wall tapestries in three of their parts. (The one above is intriguingly photographed at the buffet table of a ship.)

When the English invaded the Loire valley region from 1418 to 1436, many weavers moved north to Arras and Tournai. These towns consequently became famous for tapestry weaving to such an extent that ‘arras’ was used to describe tapestries in various European languages and used by Shakespeare in this context.

An example of this emerging style can be seen in a series of tapestries known as ‘The Story of the Trojan War’. These were based on a composite cartoon which illustrated stories from the Trojan War. They were woven in the southern Netherlands, probably created by Pasquier Grenier of Tournai. These highly ambitious tapestries were a gift for Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and presented to him in 1472. The Trojan legends were highly appealing to the Burgundy Dukes, as they maintained that Troy’s last King, Priam, was their ancestor.

By the middle of the fifteenth century a significant number of tapestry workshops were exporting tapestries throughout the European countries, mainly based in northern France and the southern Netherlands regions.

Mille Fleurs tapestries - medieval wall tapestryFrom around 1480 to 1520 the French Renaissance tapestries known as the ‘Mille Fleurs’ (above) were produced. Mille Fleurs tapestries were highly symbolic, depicting myths and legends in exquisite courtly detail and characterized by their background which always contain a collection of small flower motifs. Hence their name, which translates as ‘a thousand flowers’. Originating in the Loire Valley, these include the magnificent set of six tapestries celebrating the senses, The Lady with the Unicorn, now on display in the Musée de Cluny, Paris.

Towards the end of the fifteenth century, the tapestries of the Netherlands became more dominated by the Brussels workshops. Tapestry production in Arras and Tournai began to decline, whereas the Brussels weavers exacted their techniques, becoming the accepted centre for tapestry design. Here, the Pannemaker family dominated the tapestry industry during the sixteenth century. The sheer scale by which the Netherlands’ industry managed to produce tapestries has never been exceeded although war later led to an exodus of weavers to other countries throughout Europe. Tapestry weaving did continue although their quality was to become only a reflection of previous times. During the years of the late 1600’s, new tapestry centres would evolve, primarily in Paris once again.

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Contemporary Fine Art tapestries

Contemporary fine art tapestries – wall tapestry designs benefit from modern yarns and dyes: in landscapes, town scenes, botanical watercolours and more…

Since ancient times tapestries have been used to adorn homes and important buildings. Historians believe tapestries even covered the walls of the Parthenon in Greece. They have been a favored by kings and queens, noblemen and women and by the Church throughout the ages gracing the walls of cathedrals, castles and the fine homes of the aristocracy. Once status symbols reserved for the rich and noble, today we can hang these wonderful decorative accessories in our own homes. Modern techniques have made art tapestries affordable.

In times past, tapestries provided insulation and would be transported from one residence to another. Being practical as well as beautiful has ensured these wonderful artistic creations have stood the test of time. Textile art has moved beyond functionality over the centuries and today art tapestries provide a beautiful focal point to a room.

For many of us, the historical aspect of fine art tapestries adds to their appeal. Lovers of art history will opt for tapestry reproductions of famous Old Masters such as Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, or Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers. Medieval tapestries also capture the imagination, created at a time when kings, knights, great battles and mythology ruled the hearts of the people throughout the western world. The marvellous detailing of these tapestries and their narratives draws us to this timeless art.

For others, a more modern touch is desired for their wall decor. Contemporary Contemporary Fine Art tapestries - landscape tapestryfine art tapestries offer homeowners a pleasing combination of the past and present. There is a good selection available including contemporary floral tapestries and modern landscapes woven in Belgium. New computer techniques recreate artists’ original work faster and more accurately. This makes the production of wall tapestries appealing to today’s artists who can license their work to be reproduced in this manner, examples being Bob Pejman and Simon Bull.

Miles of yarn are used to create just one single such tapestry. It is remarkable to imagine, all those years ago, that this would have been carried out by hand. Further, contemporary fine art tapestries use a broad range of colours with artists no longer being restricted by the limited palettes of times past. This is in stark contrast to medieval tapestries whose colours were dictated by dyes obtained only from vegetation and insects.

Despite the fact that today we can afford such luxuries thanks to today’s techniques, tapestries do continue to be regarded as works of art regardless of whether they be the reproduction of ancient masterpieces or of modern works. Undoubtedly, the bold colours and sharp design of today’s tapestries successfully deliver this ancient art form into the modern home.

They add a unique ambience to a room, creating a mood which is not so easily achieved with paint and canvas. Some of this is due to the tactile quality of tapestries which cannot be found within other art forms.

The most popular contemporary fine art tapestries themes today are:
Landscapes such as Mediterranean views and the Tuscan countryside,
– Town scenes such as Venice and Lake Como towns,
Botanical watercolours.

All art is a matter of personal preference but there has never been such a varied selection of these wall tapestry designs available.

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Information about wall tapestries

Background information about wall tapestries for sale by The Tapestry House – a summary about the weaving of fine European tapestry wall-hangings.

All of our tapestries and wall hangings are Jacquard woven using modern looms based on the original Jacquard looms from the early 19th century. The tapestries are not screen printed – they are individually woven using centuries-old techniques on modern looms. Some of our pieces are licensed from the originals in private collections and museums, not poor quality imitations.

Although modern methods of manufacture speed up the process our wall tapestries still retain the individuality found in all tapestry art. Each piece is individually woven so each tapestry is unique. The techniques used to make our tapestries for sale are the same as craftsmen have used for centuries. Modern equipment has helped speed up the process but the end result is still a unique work of art. They are woven in mills across Europe – from Belgium, France and Italy; many being reproductions of old masters and famous works of art. We do not sell the inferior tapestries woven in China, USA, Egypt or India – no knock-offs or sweatshops!

The designs are machine woven using a combination of yarns usually including cotton, wool and/or viscose. Historically wall hangings were made using natural fibres, generally wool, however today’s combination of yarns adds texture, depth and fine detail to the tapestries whilst retaining their historical look. For example, a tapestry woven in wool and cotton benefits from the fullness provided by the wool and the fine detailing of the cotton. Each weaver has several different qualities of weaves with the simplest way to discern this being directly related to the price.

The unfinished tapestry off-the-loom is then imported to our workroom in Canada where it is individually hand-finished. Finishing involves adding a poly/cotton backing as a lining, with a rod pocket for easy hanging of the tapestry. At the end of this process each piece is individually checked for quality before being prepared for shipping. We enclose instructions to assist you with the easy hanging and care of your tapestry.