Flanders Tapestries

Flanders Tapestries – their historical development from art influences in Europe.

In the early 16th century in Brussels, an increasing number of tapestries were produced to satisfy the ever-increasing commissions. Since the old medieval high-warp technique had been too slow it was supplanted by the horizontal  low warp loom. This accelerated the process by having pedals to work the threads of the warp and it simplified access to the cartoons placed below the loom. These cartoons, ie the working drawings, belonged to the weaver who could alter them as he wished, lend them to colleagues or sell them. Two, three or four copies were usually woven of each tapestry.

Among the well-established workshops were those of Pieter van Aelst and Pieter Pannemaker. Van Aelst was accredited to Pope Leo X and three generations of reigning princes: Maximilian of Austria, Philip the Handsome, and Emperor Charles V. He produced a number of famous series – The Passion (1507) in Trento Cathedral and in the Spanish national collection, the History of David in Sigmaringen Castle and, most famous of all, The Acts of the Apostles from the Raphael cartoons. Pieter Pannemaker’s workshop is credited with the History of David now in the Musee de Cluny, with a tapestry thought to have been made for the throne of the Emperor Charles V, and with the admirable 1516 Last Supper in the Museo d’Arte Sacra at Camaiore.

The great success of the Brussels tapestries throughout Europe was partly due to contemporary conditions. In 1519 the Emperor Charles V inherited the lands of Burgundy, Austria, Castille and Aragon becoming thereby ruler of the greatest empire in the world. Vast riches flowed into a court which dominated Europe and set new social standards of luxury for the western world. Princes, dignitaries of the church and the aristocracy all vied with one another to own the precious narrative Flanders tapestries. Faced with this demand, designs in the style of Jan van Roome’s Hortus Conclusus, charming and delightful as they were, became out of date.

A new style came from Italy, powerfully influenced by Raphael’s cartoons for the Acts of the Apostles. Italy at this time was not yet an important centre for weaving. Itinerant weavers passed through Siena, Venice, Rome, Correggio, and Ferrara but their output had been small, no more than a few local commissions. There were a few outstanding exceptions – The Passion in the Museo di S. Marco in Venice which is attributed to the designs of Zanino di Pietro or Nicolo di Pietro (1420-1430), a powerful and expressive work, unique of its kind. Then there is the descent from the Cross in the Lenbach Collection and in the Cleveland Museum of Art which was undoubtedly woven in Ferrara from cartoons by Cosimo Tura, and the elegant classical Annunciation bearing the Gonzaga arms now in the Art Institute of Chicago. These are all fine examples of 15th century weaving.

A particularly valuable series is The Months in the Castello Sforzesco at Milan, woven from designs attributed to Bramantino. This is the first series in which the Renaissance discovery of space and perspective were methodically incorporated in tapestries. When Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to design the tapestries for the Sistine chapel, he knew that the cartoons should be sent for weaving to van Aelst’s workshop in Brussels.

Raphael’s influence on the art of tapestry has been exhaustively discussed. It is important to realise that Raphael did not intend merely to transfer his pictorial art on to the loom. His aim was different – to introduce both spiritual and figurative symbols in a balanced and rational composition.

The influence his cartoons had on the Brussels craftsmen was overwhelming. He gave the death blow to the concept of the ‘woven wall’, although the monumental function of the tapestry was preserved. Henceforth decoration had to conform to architectural structure and narrative to the intellectual demands of cartoon.

The arrival in Italy of these Flanders tapestries provoked astonishment at the technical quality of the weaving and also the exactness with which the tapestry followed the original painting. This appreciation each region had for the other did not necessarily involve a full understanding: the weaving of the Acts (1515-1519) marked the beginning of a long series of exchanges between the northern weavers and the Italian painters.

The next works were the lost Putti at Play commissioned at Brussels by Leo X after cartoons by Giovanni da Udine, the Grottesche also designed by Giovanni da Udine for Leo X (also lost), the Life of Christ by van Aelst from cartoons by the school of Raphael (Vatican), and the execution in Brussels of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci and offered by Francis 1 to Pope Clement VII of the Vatican.

The relationships between weavers of Italian and Flanders tapestries were further advanced with the reforms inaugurated by Flemish painters who had worked in Italy – such well known artists as Bernard van Orley (who superintended the weaving of the Acts of the Apostles at Brussels), Michiel Coxcie, Pieter Coecke, van Aelst and Jan Vermeyen. This change in taste was gradual and many of the older features still appeared – as in the Hunts of Maximilian of Austria by Bernard van Orley. The adoption of the Renaissance perspective, of vision in depth, is counterbalanced by an artificial composition in the background of the tapestry. The aim was clearly to retain the old weaving practices, which appeared indigenous to the tapestry, whilst incorporating the fresh elements.

Contemporary and traditional tastes were combined in the work of Pieter Coecke, in the History of St Paul (Vienna), and in the Seven Deadly Sins (Madrid). The cartoons of Michiel Coxcie are more in the manner of Raphael. The first tapestry woven from his Story of Genesis is in the Wawel Museum, Krakow, although here the craftsman has striven too hard for an expression which he has not fully understood.

The full effects of the new manner were not immediately evident. Jan Vermeyen, who designed the formal Conquest of Tunis commissioned by the Emperor Charles V (1554) turned to Mannerist themes in his Vertumnus and Pomona. He used designs after the ‘pergola school’ that followed at Brussels in the studio of Wilhelm Pannemaker at the same time as Putti at Play (Madrid).

Willem Pannemaker, the son of Pieter, was one of the most important weavers of Flanders tapestries then working in Brussels. Supplying the courts of the Emperors Charles V and Philip II, he produced some well known series such as the Conquest of Tunis, the Seven Deadly Sins, a copy of van Orley’s History of Jacob, and the marvellous Verdure with Large Foliage bearing the arms of the Emperor Charles V of (Vienna).

After 1528 the attribution of the various series to different workshops became easier. This was the year in which the municipality of Brussels instructed the various workshops to use two trademarks, one for the city (a red shield between two Bs, the initials of Brussels and Brabant) and a personal one. These trademarks are not all identifiable although those of the major weavers of Flanders tapestries are known.

Royal Windsor Tapestry Works

The resurgence of the Arts and Crafts Movement and the designs by William Morris during the late Victorian period saw an interest re-emerge in tapestry and their designs. With most of the European workshops in decline following the French Revolution and an increasing awareness of the craft a British tapestry-weaving house was established in 1876 by two Frenchmen, Marcel Brignolas and Henri C. J. Henry. Royal Windsor was one of two tapestry houses to be established in nineteenth century England, the other was William Morris’s Merton Abbey.

Many of the workers in the Royal Windsor Tapestry Works originated from France and the Aubusson Works. Typically the women worked as tapestry repairers while their children attended a local school near the dyeing centre. Brignolas used the Aubusson influence in dyeing and colour schemes; however the exquisite and detailed work produced is probably the finest legacy of this French community. The first piece produced was a bust of Queen Victoria taken from the painting by Baron Heinrich von Angeli and adapted by Phoebus Levin. The youngest son of the Queen, Prince Leopold took a special interest in the factory and the designs, from whom it enjoyed significant royal patronage. The prince chaired the committee formed to oversee the factory and was joined by several other members of the royal family until his sudden death in 1884.

The Royal Windsor Tapestry Works are known for some very detailed and magnificent designs during their short lifetime. These include the famous Merry Wives of Windsor; a series of eight award-winning panels which in 1878 won gold medal in Paris. Telling the story of Falstaff these delicate but vibrant masterpieces possess an exquisite detail and are framed with an eye-catching border, very much in the French style and exuding cheerfulness and warmth to reflect the play. Flowers found in Elizabethan gardens such as eglantine decorate the panels and add to the detail in the picture itself. These tapestries disappeared for many years, emerging during the late 1970’s when seven panels appeared at auction.

As the Royal Windsor Tapestry Works grew in popularity Queen Victoria took an interest in the designs and encouraged other royals to commission pieces. The initial two low warp looms grew to a total of eight as the work grew in popularity and more commissions requested, with 16 in place at its closure in 1890. The Queen had several tapestry repairs completed at the factory including tapestries from Holyrood Palace.

Another famous design emerging from Royal Windsor and commissioned by the Marchioness of Lorne was a tapestry celebrating, “Much Ado About Nothing. “ It is thought this is the piece that now hangs in Buckingham Palace. The Queen’s Sofa which has two cartoons of detailed and delicate wild roses worked into the design and Queen Victoria’s monogram is a well known Royal Windsor piece and is now part of the Royal Collection.  The artists have created a unique collection which captures the British tradition and culture entwined with nature and with a French based design. Significantly these tapestries were designed for royalty and the wealthy and were not mass-produced for the emerging middle classes. E. A. Ward designed many of the pieces to come out of Royal Windsor including its largest tapestry, the Battle of Aylesford. It is believed that very few of the original designs and cartoons have survived. The pieces designed for the Mansion House in London were destroyed during the Blitz whilst others are thought to have been disposed of by Edward VII in executing the estate of Queen Victoria.

The sudden death of Prince Leopold in 1884 spelled out demise for Royal Windsor and the factory began to decline after a short life producing highly detailed and unique designs. Events coincided with a slump in the general economy and growing nationalism in Europe and further commissions could not be found. Rather than associate royalty with a bankrupt factory the decision was taken to close the works in 1890. Many of the French workers including the Foussadier family left England for America taking with the Aubusson way of working into an emerging new market and developing their expertise in the new world. Detailed tapestries remain popular today and with new manufacturing techniques, a well-made and detailed tapestry is an affordable and popular way of decorating a home.

William Morris Tapestry Art

William Morris was an English designer, poet, artist and craftsman whose designs for textiles, stained glass, furniture, wallpaper and many other decorative arts helped create the Arts and Crafts Movement during the Victorian era. The talents of Morris knew no bounds. He had an innate curiosity and an appreciation of all things beautiful and he tried his hands at almost everything in the applied arts.

Morris was born in March 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex and had a comfortable childhood before attending Marlborough and Exeter College, Oxford. Whilst studying for Holy Orders at Oxford in 1853 he met Edward Burne-Jones who would later become his business partner and lifelong friend. He abandoned his studies after reading the social criticisms of Carlyle, Kingsley and Ruskin and decided instead to become an architect. The young novice became an apprentice to G.E. Street, an architect involved in the Gothic revival. But impulsively creative he soon tired of this and began, like his friend Burne-Jones, to paint. Finding art his forte he embraced it fully, writing poetry, printing, learning how to weave and dye and work a loom. It was the latter pursuit that would come to demonstrate William Morris tapestry art at its most impressive. His beautiful tapestries became among his most famous creations.

In 1879, Morris set up a loom in his house (in his bedroom!) and taught himself to weave with only an old French crafts manual for guidance. William Morris tapestry art was born! Within a matter of months he had completed his first tapestry design, Acanthus and Vine. He founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company along with friends Peter Paul Marshall and Charles Faulkner. Together with Edward Burne-Jones and fellow artists Ford Maddox Brown and Dante Gabriel Rosetti the group produced some of the most creative paintings and tapestries Britain had seen.

One of William Morris’s most enduring legacies was his revitalization of tapestry weaving. By the mid-19th century tapestries had become just another mass-produced item, generally from Les Gobelins factory in Paris of which Morris was scathing. Driven by the need to demonstrate the importance of the individual over the means of production Morris used tapestry and textile design to revitalize the central importance of creativity in art. It was his ambition to breathe new life into the art and he achieved it: his tapestries still remain an important influence on design today. His most famous works generally featured figures drawn by Burne-Jones. Morris would design the background and the tapestry would be woven by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, which became simply Morris & Co in 1874 when Morris took sole control.

The Quest for the Holy Grail, currently exhibited at the Birmingham Museum, is one of the best known works of Morris & Co. Like many of the others, the tapestry, which depicts the fascinating story of the search for the Holy Grail, was designed by Edward Burne-Jones. Six wall hangings illustrate the story, woven in 1895-96.

A further example, one of the most intricate and beautiful creations from the company is the Tree of Life tapestry. Designed by Morris it demonstrates his talent with patterns and his awareness and appreciation of the use of colour. Symbolising growth and continuous life, the Tree of Life wall tapestry is still one Morris’s most recognisable works; one of the most popular French tapestries available today.

William Morris Tree of Life tapestryThe works of Morris are proof that real beauty can be timeless. As popular today as they were over a century ago, William Morris tapestry art, has continued to inspire new generations of artists and craftsmen to reach beyond convention and to genuinely create.