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Things That Have Interested Me

Life's Rich Tapestries

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
27 October 2007

Five years ago, there was an amazing Renaissance tapestry exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Now the museum is staging an equally amazing sequel, Tapestry in the Baroque (at the Met until January 6, then on to Madrid in March). Many people might doubt that there could be such a thing as an amazing tapestry exhibition. We are accustomed to seeing old tapestries, if we notice them at all, as backgrounds to a decor. Most of the examples we see tend to be of inferior quality, faded, often dirty (it is very expensive to get tapestries cleaned and restored) and fragmentary.

As if in anticipation of this, the philosophy behind both Met shows has been to choose nothing but the best, and to make sure, somehow, that everything chosen is in comparably good condition. It is not possible to avoid faded tapestries altogether, because certain of the dye-stuffs are simply not permanent. But it has proved possible to bring together a large selection of tapestries of very high quality indeed, so that they all sing.

They mostly come from very grand state collections in Europe. There are very few American loans. There are no private lenders, unless you count the Duke of Marlborough as private, and one gets the impression - since this is clearly a show for which no expense was spared - that wealthy Americans, although they liked incorporating tapestries into the decor, didn't succeed in buying much of the very best quality. (For an earlier period, of course, they did: the Unicorn series in the Met's Cloisters Museum being a case in point.)

Tapestries are by nature both bulky and vulnerable. When properly cared for they were displayed in winter, stored in summer, covered with cloths when the establishment was not in use, protected (I suppose) from moths, kept out of the way of candles, and otherwise kept clean. They cost vast sums - much more than paintings - and they went on being valued in the centuries after their manufacture. The grandest monarchs (Henry VIII included) had enormous collections of them, and right through to the 18th century, when a really important public event such as a coronation or state funeral was being staged, tapestries were brought out to adorn a cathedral and to line the streets and squares where a procession was going to pass.

The most valuable tapestries had gold or silver thread, and some were burnt in the French revolution for their value as scrap metal. (Or that was the pretext given - one can hardly imagine it was worth the effort involved.) When cities were sacked, they were looted. During the Reformation, they were removed from churches. When silk was used in a mixture with wool, it was prone to deteriorate over the years. A common practice (going back at least to the 16th century) of hanging paintings on tapestry backgrounds can't have helped the tapestries very much.

The worst modern indignity inflicted on fragmentary tapestries is to turn them into tasselled cushions, but their use as upholstery fabrics must also be quite old. In one of those "time capsule" properties taken over by the National Trust, Canons Ashby, tapestries were found lining the dogs' baskets. Presumably they were also cut up for a rich variety of household uses: jerkins, winter warmers, oven gloves, lagging for pipes.

The Bodleian recently bought a fragment of a 16th-century tapestry map, showing villages and estates in Gloucestershire. What surprised me about this object was its place of manufacture: a village near Shipston-on-Stour. Tapestry-weaving was extremely labour-intensive. One weaver, according to the Met catalogue, could produce about one square yard of medium-quality tapestry in a month, but the rate would be slower for the really fine work. It follows that, for any large-scale commission, a considerable number of people would have to be employed. It seemed odd to find this scale of activity in rural Warwickshire.

Part of the answer can be found in the Met catalogue. In the wake of Spanish King Philip II's repressive measures in the Low Countries at the end of the 1560s, many Protestants and many weavers fled persecution. Among the places where Flemish weavers eventually turned up were Barcheston and Weston in Warwickshire, where they made a series of tapestry maps for a certain Ralph Sheldon. Some of the surviving parts of the series are now being reunited.

Naturally, it is a long way from such maps to the most sophisticated pieces in the New York show, although topography plays a part there as well, in the tapestries illustrating sieges and military campaigns. The most vivid designs in the period were produced by Rubens (just as, in the Renaissance, Raphael had painted his series of cartoons, now in the V&A), first as small oil sketches and then as full-sized cartoons.

Thomas Campbell, who put the show together and wrote much of the catalogue, emphasises the high esteem in which tapestries were held. From the point of view of monarchs and members of ruling households, tapestry offered a form of magnificence, a proof of wealth, on a scale with jewels and plate, perhaps, but far exceeding the monetary value of what we think of as great works of art - paintings and sculpture predominantly.

Yet it does not follow (nor is it argued) that the master-weaver or cartoonist was respected or revered in the way that Raphael and Rubens were respected and revered. A distinction must have operated between the monetary value of an object (or the cost price) and its value as a work of art.

Clearly we are less aware of the order of values of the baroque era than we ought to be, when we fail to be staggered by some exquisite display of tapestries. We need something to remind us. And it is a good principle that the best way to attain that sense is to look at the very best examples available.

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