Tapestry Art
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Contemporary Tapestry (1960s)
Designed by Hans Jurgen Schobel.

Short Guide to Tapestry Art (c.800-2000)

Contents

Introduction
Chronology of Tapestry Art
History of Tapestry
Tapestry-Making



"Death" from the Apocalypse Tapestry
(1375-81) Musee des Tapisseries,
Angers, France.


Histoire du Roi (1667-72)
Designed by Charles Le Brun.
Commemorating King Louis XIV's visit
to the Gobelins factory in 1667.

Introduction

Tapestry is an ancient form of textile art which has been practised all over the world for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians and the Incas used woven tapestries as shrouds in which to bury their dead. The Greeks and Romans used them as wall-coverings for civic buildings and temples like the Parthenon. The Chinese rarely used them as wall-hangings - preferring instead to use them mainly to decorate garments and for wrapping gifts.

One of the most expensive and time-consuming crafts, tapestry-making only truly flourished in Europe from the Middle Ages onwards, at the hands of French and (later) Flemish weavers. This growth of tapestry art coincided with the era of Romanesque and Gothic art - both part of a religious revival, when architecture, sculpture and stained glass were also harnessed by the Church to illustrate Biblical stories to illiterate congregations.

By the mid-15th century as many as 15,000 weavers and other artisans were working in the tapestry centres of the french Loire Valley alone. Using either a vertical loom (high-warp) or a horizontal loom (low-warp), and a range of no more than 20 colours, medieval weavers produced images of religious stories from the Old and New Testaments, and - from 1500 onwards - secular scenes of battle, Kings and noblemen. For instance, The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was typically joined on his military campaigns by his official painter, who made drawings for later conversion into preliminary designs (cartoons) for tapestries.

The finest European tapestries are considered to have been made by the Gobelins Tapestry Royal Factory in Paris, while major tapestry-making centres existed at Arras, Tournai, Brussels, Aubusson, Fellitin and in the Beauvais factory in Paris.


The Attainment (1891-94)
One of several Holy Grail tapestries
woven by the arts and crafts firm
Morris & Co, for Stanmore Hall.
Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.

MEANING OF ART
See: Meaning/Definition of Art

ART OR CRAFT?
The traditional visual art of tapestry
has been classified as a textile art,
a handicraft, one of the decorative
arts, and one of the design crafts.
Today it is sometimes called fiber art
and even described as belonging to
the world of fine art, due to the
computerisation of the Jacquard
loom process.

TEXTILE ARTS
Note that the word "textile" stems
from the Latin word texere, meaning
"to weave or braid". Textile art
embraces embroidery, needlework;
lace-making, tablet weaving, sewing,
knitting, crochet, upholstering, carpet
weaving, along with associated skills
and techniques.

TAPESTRY IN IRELAND
The leading Irish designer of
tapestries is Louis le Brocquy.
Another artist active in this form
of textile art is Pauline Bewick.

VISUAL ARTS CATEGORIES
Definitions, forms, styles, genres,
periods, see: Types of Art.

Chronology of European Tapestry Art

12th Century
Tapestry is quite primitive, lacks proportion, perspective and detail.

13th Century
Tapestry commissioned for its functional rather than decorative value.

14th Century
Paris is the most important tapestry centre. Woven textile hangings show great advance on 12th century forms but still lack credible movement, perspective and composition. After the 100 Years War (1337-1453) Parisian weavers seek refuge in Arras.

15th Century
The 1447 plundering of Arras by Louis XI triggers an exodus of tapestry makers to Flanders, that henceforth becomes the centre of European woven textiles. Favourite materials employed in tapestry weaving include Picardy wool, Italian silk, Cypriot silver and gold threads. Subjects featured are mainly Biblical or mythological stories. Perspective and landscape remains clumsy. In France, the Loire Valley - the rural playground of the French nobility and the location of many of their chateaux - became an important centre of tapestry production. The "mille fleur" style becomes high fashion.

HISTORY OF VISUAL ARTS
For important dates, see:
History of Art Timeline.
For details of art movements,
see: History of Art.

QUESTIONS ABOUT ART
Art Questions
Methods, Genres, Forms.
Questions About History of Art
Movements, periods, styles.

 

16th Century
Subjects now include heroic exploits of Kings, hunting scenes. Wide range of colours and highly ornate borders used. The Italian High Renaissance stimulates significant improvements in perspective and composition, but also causes tapestry to become subordinate to fine art painting. Tapestry masterpieces emerge. French King Francis I (reigned 1515-47) opens first Royal tapestry workshop at his court in Fontainebleau. For more details of this mini-Renaissance in France, see: Fontainebleau School (c.1530-1610).

17th Century
Around 1660, Louis XIV's finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-83) sets up the Royal Factory at the Gobelins, which employs more than 1,000 artisans. Over 2,100 tapestries are made for the French King Louis XIV (1638-1715). See also: French Decorative Art (1640-1792).

18th Century
During the reign of Louis XV tapestry subjects include scenic landscapes combined with erotic nudes set in classical contexts (Rococo). In 1757 Jacques de Vaucanson invents a faster low warp loom, subsequently enhanced by Joseph Maree Jacquard (1752-1834). During the French Revolution many tapestries are destroyed. In 1795, the Beauvais works in Paris are reopened, followed by the provincial tapestry centres at Aubusson and Fellitin. See also: French Furniture (1640-1792) and French Designers.

19th & 20th Centuries
New styles, like the oriental, proliferate during the 19th century. The 1880s Arts and Crafts movement in England, the 1920s Bauhaus design school and certain French designers all contribute to a renaissance in 20th century tapestry art, which revisits its medieval roots.

 

History of Tapestry Art

Carolingian/Ottonian Tapestries

The use of tapestries in Western Europe - mainly for the decoration of churches and monasteries - was a feature of Carolingian art (750-900) and subsequent Ottonian art (900-1050), although no examples of these early wall-hangings remain. One of the oldest surviving specimens is the famous Bayeux Tapestry (c.1080, Bayeux Museum, Normandy), made during the era of Romanesque art (1000-1200). It depicted the Norman Conquest of England, although it is not a woven tapestry but is a crewel-embroidered hanging, probably made in Canterbury. Fragments of an even earlier tapestry featuring human figures and trees, reminiscent of hangings recorded in Norse sagas, were discovered in an early 9th-century burial ship unearthed at Oseborg in Norway.

Gothic Tapestries

It was during the era of Gothic art (c.1150-1375) that Western tapestry art - like stained glass - properly emerged and flourished. One of the oldest preserved wall tapestries woven in medieval Europe is the "Cloth of Saint Gereon", a seven-colour wool tapestry made for the church of St. Gereon at Cologne in Germany, and dating to around 1020. The featured medallions with fighting bulls and griffons derived from Syrian or Byzantine silks. Other early examples of woven Christian art include the set of three narrative tapestries woven in the Rhineland for the Halberstadt Cathedral, during the late 12th and early 13th century. The "Tapestry of the Angels," contains scenes taken from the life of Abraham and St. Michael the Archangel, while the "Tapestry of the Apostles," features Christ with his 12 disciples; both were made to be hung over the cathedral's choir stalls and therefore are narrow and long. The third specimen, known as the "Tapestry of Charlemagne Among the Four Philosophers of Antiquity," is a vertical tapestry related to similar works woven at the convent at Quedlinburg in the German Rhineland during the Romanesque era of the 12th and early 13th century.

14th Century Tapestries

It was in the 14th century that the western European tradition became firmly established. At that time the most highly developed centres of tapestry production were located in Paris and Flanders. Preserved 14th century examples are rare, however, and the most important of these were created by Parisian weavers.

The most famous 14th century tapestry made in Paris is the "Angers Apocalypse" (Musee des Tapisseries, Angers, France), which was made by Nicolas Bataille (active c.1363-1400) for the Duke of Anjou. This work originally comprised seven tapestries, each about 16.5 feet in height and 80 feet in length. It was based on design cartoons drawn up by Jean de Bandol of Bruges (active 1368-81) - court painter to Charles V, king of France - but sadly only about 65 of the original 100 or so scenes still exist. A slightly later set of tapestries (c.1385) woven in the same craft workshop in Paris is the "Nine Heroes" (Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters, New York). This series does not feature religious imagery but illustrations of the tale Histoire des Neuf Preux ("Story of the Nine Heroes") composed by the early 14th-century minstrel, Jacques de Longuyon.

Flanders, especially the Pas-de-Calais city of Arras, was the other great centre of tapestry production. A long-established medieval centre of textile weaving, Arras' tapestries were so highly regarded abroad that the word for tapestry in Italian (arrazzo), English (arras), and Spanish (drap de raz) came from the name of this city.

15th Century Tapestries

The finest tapestry art of the 15th century was created in the Flemish cities of Arras, Tournai, and Brussels.

Arras

During the first half of the century it was Arras that gained the upper hand due to the patronage of the Dukes of Burgundy. Duke Philip the Good (1396-1467) had a building specially made to house and preserve his tapestry collection. During the period 1423-1467 as many as 60 master-weavers were working in Arras, but after the French siege of the city in 1477, the city declined. Surviving examples of Arras tapestry include: "The Annunciation" (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), probably created from a cartoon drawn by Melchior Broederlam (1350-1411); "Court Scenes" (Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris), derived from the Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry illuminated by the brothers Limburg (active early 15th century); the 14th century fragment from the Geste of Jourdain de Blaye, based on a medieval adaptation of the Greco-Roman romance Apollonius of Tyre (Museo Civico at Padua, Italy); and large fragments featuring scenes from the lives of St. Piat and St. Eleutherius (Cathedral of Tournai).

Tournai

The craft of tapestry had been practised in Tournai since the 1290s. Famous examples of surviving Tournai tapestry include two sets created by the weaver and tapestry merchant Pasquier Grenier (d.1493) for the Burgundian Duke Philip the Good in the late 15th century. The first, "The Story of Alexander" (Galleria Doria-Pamphili, Rome), was finished and sold in 1459; the second work, "The Knight of the Swan" (St. Katherine's Church, Krakow, Poland, and Osterreichisches Museum, Vienna), was completed in 1462.

Another famous example of 15th-century Tournai tapestry is the series of four works known as "The Hunts of the Dukes of Devonshire" (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). In addition, exemplifying the late Gothic Tournai style, are "The Story of Strong King Clovis" (mid-15th century; Musee de l'Oeuvre Notre-Dame, Reims, France) and "The Story of Caesar" (c.1470; Historisches Museum, Bern, Switzerland). In comparison with the more fanciful style of Arras tapestry, Tournai weavings - with their huge size and dense imagery - tend to be more solemn with a greater monumentality.

Brussels

A centre of tapestry art since the 14th century, Brussels of the 15th century rivalled Arras and Tournai. By 1450, the city was noted for its outstanding reproductions of religious paintings by late Gothic Flemish masters, as exemplified by the altarpiece tapestry of "The Adoration of the Magi" (1466-88), made for the Cathedral of Sens. Such altarpiece tapestries were designed for churches or private chapels, where they were employed either as an altar cloth or antependium or were placed on the wall behind the altar. Generally speaking, these hangings were made to the same size as the painting they replicated. As a result, they tended to be much smaller than the mural-type tapestries of Arras and Tournai. Altarpiece tapestries often included silk, which was used to obtain the greatest possible naturalistic detail of the painting concerned.

Later in the 15th century, Brussels developed a reputation for its production of "tapis d'or", (golden carpets), named after their use of gold thread, as exemplified by "The Triumph of Christ," (the Mazarin Tapestry) (c.1500; National Gallery of Art, Washington DC).

Probably the best known late Gothic tapestries were the decorative hangings known as millefleurs (thousand flowers). Made by Flemish weavers in Brussels and Bruges, or by travelling weavers in the Loire Valley of France, noted examples include the late 15th-century chivalric tapestry made for Philip the Good (Historisches Museum, Bern, Switzerland), as well as "The Hunt of the Unicorn" (The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and "The Lady with the Unicorn" (Cluny Museum, Paris).

Up until the 16th century, most tapestries were bought and sold in Flanders or France, although small numbers of itinerant weavers were employed for brief periods in workshops belonging to Italian nobles in Siena, Mantua, Modena, Brescia, Ferrara, Perugia, Urbino and Genoa.

16th Century Tapestries

Two new trends emerged in the 16th century. The first was engendered by war and persecution in Flanders, which caused many Flemish weavers to flee and led to the scattering of the Flemish tapestry industry. Many Flemish craftsmen moved abroad to practise their craft (eg. Italy, England and elsewhere), and were welcomed with open arms. The second new trend stemmed from Italy and was exemplified by the commission given to Flemish master weaver Pieter van Aelst by Pope Leo X, to create tapestries to complement the Sistine Chapel frescoes based on cartoons painted by Raphael (1483-1520). Raphael's introduction of perspective and composition, along with the growing use of finer yarns - enabling hundreds of new tonal shades - led to the subservience of tapestry to painting for over 400 years. Henceforth, for several centuries, the highest form of tapestry was the replication of paintings.

Military sieges and other activities during this time caused Brussels to become the leading tapestry centre of Flanders - a status that remained unchanged until the 17th century, not least because of papal patronage, the support of the imperial courts of Spain and Austria, and the exemplary skill of its weavers. Run by a coterie of rich merchants, tapestry making in Brussels became so lucrative in the period 1510-1568 that protectionist laws were introduced to guard against forgeries.

Renaissance era Brussels tapestry is perhaps most eminently characterized by the designs of the Flemish painter Bernard van Orley (1492-1541). He endeavoured to combine the traditions of late Gothic realism and the idealism and monumentality of Renaissance art, with the forms and artistic potential of the tapestry medium. Earlier paintings by Van Orley, such as "The Legend of Our Lady of Le Sablon" (Musees Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Brussels) and "The Revelation of St. John" (Patrimonio Nacional, Spain), were still grounded in the traditions of medieval Flemish art. Later, under the influence of tapestry-cartoons created by Raphael (as mentioned above) and his follower, the Mannerist painter Giulio Romano (1499-1546), Van Orley introduced Italian monumentality and modelling in sets such as "The Battle of Pavia" (Capodimonte Museum, Naples), and "The Hunts of the Emperor Maximilian I" (Louvre, Paris). Other talented artists who produced designs for Brussels' tapestry industry included Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-50), Jan Vermeyen (c. 1500-59), and Michel Coxcie (1499-1592). The most famous Brussels weavers of the day were Pieter van Aelst, Pieter and Willem Pannemaker, and Frans and Jacob Geubels.

Other Tapestry Centres in Flanders and France

Other smaller tapestry producers of 16th-century Flanders included Alost, Antwerp, Bruges, Enghien, Grammont, Lille, Oudenaarde, and Tournai. The most unique type of tapestry made in these cities was the verdures of Enghien and Oudenaarde.

The French tapestry weaving industry owed much of its eventual status and achievements to royal patronage. This arose in the 17th century by way of two state-run manufacturing concerns - the Gobelins and Beauvais factories. However the first royal tapestry works was the factory set up by Francis I in 1538 at Fontainebleau, to create tapestries for his palaces and royal residences. Here, Flemish weavers worked from design-cartoons painted by two Italian Mannerist artists, Francesco Primaticcio (1504-70) and Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540), who were official artists to the King. The workshop at Fontainebleau was active for some 12 years, until 1550.

In the early part of the 16th century, indigenous Italian tapestry weaving took place in Milan, Mantua, Genoa, Verona, and Venice. Probably the two most important Italian tapestry works were the Ferrara factory, founded in 1536 by Duke Ercole II of the House of Este, and the Florentine Arrazeria Medicea works, founded in 1546 by Cosimo I Medici (1519-74). The latter continued operating until the early 18th century, and was run initially by Flemish weavers Nicolas Karcher and Jan van der Roost. Cartoons were supplied by Mannerist artists such as Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1556), Bronzino (1503-72), Francesco Salviati (1510-63), and Bachiacca (1494-1557), the designer of the "Grotesques" (c. 1550; Uffizi Gallery, Florence), one of the most celebrated tapestry series made at the Arrazeria Medicea.

 

In England, the major textile art was embroidery. If and when tapestries were needed, they were imported from the Continent - usually Flanders. Although textile historians have discovered English references to Arras weavers dating back to the 13th century, it wasn't until the middle of the 16th century that tapestry works were first established in England. The first noteworthy workshops, manned by Flemish craftsmen and producing cushion covers and small tapestries featuring heraldic and ornamental subjects, were set up in Bercheston (Warwickshire) by William Sheldon (d.1570). A later speciality of these weaving workshops, from about 1580 onwards, was a series of topographical tapestries, based on maps of the Midland counties, which depicted views of hills, trees, and towns, bordered by Flemish-styled edges of architectural and figural ornament.

Germany was one of the first regions to benefit from the exodus of weavers from Flanders fleeing religious persecution in the Lowlands. Small workshops sprang up in cities like Cologne, Frankenthal, Hamburg, Kassel, Leipzig, Luneburg, Torgau, and Stuttgart, and produced mostly Flemish-style products. By contrast, the Swiss weaving industry - previously quite strong - had almost disappeared except for certain workshops operating in Basel and Lucerne.

17th and 18th Century Tapestries

It was the French King Henry IV, who took the decisive steps in establishing a French tapestry industry. In 1608, by way of official recognition, he installed the French high-warp workshop of Girard Laurent and Dubout in the Louvre Palace, and also began to encourage the immigration of Flemish weavers practicing the low-warp method to help Paris compete with the dominant tapestry centres in Flanders.

As it was, around 1600, two Flemish weavers - Francois De La Planche (1573-1627) and Marc de Comans (1563-1640) - had been invited to Paris by the French authorities to establish low-warp looms in the city. A workshop was duly established for them in the former Gobelins family dyeworks on the outskirts of Paris, thus beginning the Gobelins tapestry legend. One of its first commissions was an allegorical piece praising the French Queen Catherine de Medicis, based on cartoons by the French Mannerist painter Antoine Caron (c.1515-93). Later, outstanding designs were created for the Gobelins factory by the Flemish painter Rubens (1577-1640) and Simon Vouet (1590-1649).

On the death of De La Planche in 1627, he was succeeded by his son, who broke off the commercial relationship with the Comans family and relocated to Saint-German-des-Pres, leaving the Comans at the Gobelins premises. Bitter rivalry ensued, except that both firms continued to produce excellent work - at least until they were superseded in 1662 by the official royal firm, which purchased the Gobelins factory.

Royal Gobelins Tapestry Factory

It was at the Comans' works in 1667 that the famous Gobelins brand was officially founded in 1667, receiving the title Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne (Royal Factory of Furnishings to the Crown). To begin with, the factory included almost all the royal craftsmen and artisans (goldsmiths, silversmiths, tapestry weavers, cabinetmakers etc.) who made furnishings for the Palace of Versailles and other royal chateaux. Additional skilled staff were recruited from the de La Planche and Comans workshops and from the old Louvre enterprise, permitting the operation of both high-warp and low-warp looms. The first director of the Gobelins complex was the painter Charles Le Brun (1619-90), the former head of another earlier royal tapestry works set up in 1658 at a chateau at Vaux-le-Vicomte near Paris. Le Brun's major designs included "The Elements," "The Seasons," "The Story of Alexander," the "Life of Louis XIV" and the "Royal Residences" (Mobilier National, Paris).

On his death, Le Brun was succeeded as director of the Gobelins by the French painter Pierre Mignard (1612-95). After he died, a lighter type of design cartoon, signalling the coming Rococo style, was introduced into tapestry design by the decorative creations, notably the grotesques, of Claude Audran III (1658-1734), who designed such pieces as "The Grotesque Months" and "The Portieres of the Gods." A little later, the new French King Louis XV (1710-74), was lauded in a series of "Hunts" by the Rococo painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755). Oudry became director of the Gobelins from 1733 until his death in 1755, when he was succeeded by the great Rococo painter Francois Boucher (1703-70), the most talented artist-director of the 18th century. Boucher along with Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694-1752), a painter, produced the designs for many of the popular alentours tapestries, in which the main subject - depicted as a painting bordered by a frame simulating gilded wood - is overshadowed by the surrounding embellishment. Boucher's "Loves of the Gods" were also alentours and proved to be extremely popular, especially with English customers. Another important tapestry cartoon, "The Story of Don Quixote" (Mobilier National, Paris), was designed by Coypel and woven nine separate times between 1714 and 1794.

To give best to these new designs, thousands of new dyes were produced at the Gobelins for both wool and silk tapestries, until weavers had some 10,000 different hues available to create the most subtle of tonal modulations.

The Gobelins factory managed to survive the French Revolution, after which Emperor Napoleon commissioned a set of tapestries (1809-15; Mobilier National, Paris) to commemorate his reign. Also, during the early years of the 19th century, paintings by notable French Neoclassicist artists like Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), Carle Vernet (1758-1836), and Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson (1767-1824) were woven into tapestries to express the heroic mood of the time.

Beauvais Tapestry Factory

A second major state-subsidized tapestry factory, established in 1664 at Beauvais, was managed by Flemish directors, Louis Hinart and then Philippe Behagle. Unlike the Gobelins workshops that produced hangings only for the King, the Beauvais factory created tapestries for the King, the aristocracy and the rich bourgeoisie. Two types of decorative panels became Beauvais specialities during the late 17th century: the architectural composition and the grotesque. The former type of tapestry, exemplified by the series of "Marine Triumphs" (1690; Banque de France, Paris), typically features fantasy architecture suggestive of Baroque stage sets. Grotesques were a pastiche of masks, tracery, festoons, vases, musical instruments, putti, and comedy actors, as exemplified by "The Rope Dancer and the Dromedary" (c.1689; Mobilier National, Paris).

Both Jean-Baptiste Oudry and Francois Boucher designed cartoons for the Beauvais factory. The "Fables of La Fontaine," by Oudry, were among the most successful and popular tapestries of the 18th century. In 1736 Boucher painted Italian genre scenes for the set "Village Festivities" and later in the "Second Chinese Set" completed a number of oriental fantasies. He also created various pastoral scenes with his signature sensual overtones. The Beauvais factory was also famous for tapestry designed to upholster furniture, and panels for use as screens. Typically these incorporated floral designs and, in some 19th century designs, finely woven silk.

Meanwhile, traditional French tapestries continued to be woven in the communities of Aubusson and Felletin (north east of Limoges), which were permitted - from 1665 onwards - to use the royal Aubusson mark. This was essentially a small cottage industry, in which weavers independently produced inexpensive tapestries on their own low-warp looms for well-to-do customers. In due course, tapestry led to upholstery fabrics, and later carpets. The most popular type of 18th century tapestry produced at Aubusson was the chinoiserie, or genre fantasy set in China and the Orient, as exemplified in designs by Jean Pillement (1728-1808). Aubusson architectural-style tapestry panels tend to imitate those of the Gobelins and Beauvais factories, sometimes with the addition of more complex elements and animals.

Brussels Tapestries

The dominant 17th century design influence on the Brussels tapestry industry was the great Antwerp painter Peter Paul Rubens, whose most famous cartoon set was the "Triumph of the Eucharist" (1627-28). Imitations of Rubens' style were everywhere. Another much copied painter was the Dutch Realist painter David Teniers the Younger (1610-90) whose genre paintings proved to be highly popular designs.

Germany

The first significant German tapestry factory was founded in Munich in 1604 by Duke Maximilian of Bavaria. Its designers and weavers were all Flemish. Although it remained in operation for less than a dozen years, the quality of its workmanship was exceptional. After the loss of religious freedom in France when the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685, many French weavers, particularly from the Aubusson factory, sought sanctuary in Germany as had their 16th century predecessors. Another workshop in Berlin, founded in 1686 by the Elector Frederick William of Brandenburg (1620-88) employed a large number of these refugee Aubusson weavers. Its tapestries were produced mainly for the Elector's son, King Frederick I of Prussia (1657-1713), after whose death the factory closed. In the 18th century, tapestry centres were established by French weavers in numerous towns and cities across Germany, including Berlin, Dresden, Munich, Wurzburg, Schwabach, and Erlangen.

Scandinavia

Scandinavian tapestries were woven in both Copenhagen and Stockholm for the Danish and Swedish royal families. Nearly all were designed and woven by French or Flemish artisans. In addition, Norway and Sweden produced numerous types of folk tapestries - coarse and highly coloured - usually in small rural communities.

England

In 1619, James I founded a tapestry factory at Mortlake on the Thames near London. Staffed by Flemish designers and weavers, and run by Philip de Maecht, the former master-weaver of the de La Planche-Comans factory in Paris. The Mortlake factory flourished under the patronage of the Stuart Kings James I and Charles I; many of its early tapestries were based on Flemish models woven in Brussels. Some new cartoons were also submitted by Rubens who also suggested to Charles I, in 1623, that the King purchase seven of the Raphael Sistine Chapel cartoons. Despite surviving the austere Puritan regime of the Commonwealth period, the factory deteriorated under Charles II and finally closed in 1703. Another noteworthy English workshop was run in Soho, from about 1650 onwards, by Francis Poyntz (d.1685) and his brothers. Among other patterns, it specialized in tapestry based on Indian and Chinese lacquerware designs.

Italy

In 1633, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, the nephew of Pope Urban VIII, founded a tapestry factory in Rome. Enjoying papal patronage, it operated for nearly 50 years, until 1679. Later, Pope Clement XI attempted to start another tapestry workshop in 1710, but this also failed. During the 18th century other small factories, staffed by weavers made redundant from the Medici factory (Arrazeria Medicea) in Florence, flourished briefly in Turin and Naples.

Spain

In the 15th and 16th centuries, large numbers of Franco-Flemish tapestries were imported into Spain, and Flemish weavers were later summoned in order to repair and restore them. In the 17th century, a Spanish tapestry factory, opened by King Philip IV (1605-65), operated for a short time at Pastrana outside Madrid. However, it was only in 1720 when King Philip V (1683-1746) founded the Real Fabrica de Tapices y Alfombras de Santa Barbara (Royal Factory of Tapestries and Rugs of St. Barbara) in Madrid, that important tapestry started to be produced in Spain. To begin with, the weavers and director were Flemings, while the first tapestries produced were woven from the cartoons of Flemish Baroque painters such as David Teniers the Younger and Philips Wouwerman (1619-68), or derived from famous paintings by artists like Raphael and Guido Reni (1575-1642). Then the great Neoclassical painter Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-79) became director of the factory, which then entered its most brilliant period of production. The Spanish artist Francisco Bayeu (1734-95) and his painter son-in-law Francisco Goya (1746-1828) were commissioned to make cartoons, and Goya subsequently made 43 cartoons illustrating Spanish daily life. Although the factory was burned down by the French army in 1808, production was resumed about 1812 until 1835.

Russia

A Russian tapestry factory was founded at St. Petersburg in 1716 by Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725). Employing numerous ex-Gobelins weavers it continued in operation until 1859. Its most arresting designs were a set of grotesques (1733-38) and a set of portraits, of which those of Catherine the Great (1729-96) are the most noteworthy.

 

19th and 20th Century Tapestries

England: Arts & Crafts Movement

Most 19th-century tapestries were reproductions of paintings or previously woven designs. The influence of the Industrial Revolution was significant of course, not just in tools, materials and dyes but also in the emergence of a new middle-class market and its demands. The arrival of tapestry-making machines and mechanical weaving became an obvious threat to the survival of the original craft, prompting much debate by artists belonging to the Arts and Crafts Movement of late 19th-century England, who recognized the need for a renaissance of decorative art in general, and tapestry art in particular. Highly critical of the loss of individual creativity, these artists revived the traditions of medieval craftsmanship in order to counter the effects of industrialization on the decorative and applied arts. The movement was led by the artist William Morris (1834-96), who set up a tapestry factory at Merton Abbey in Surrey near London. Morris himself, together with the painter-illustrator Walter Crane (1845-1915) contributed cartoons, but most of the tapestries woven at Merton were designed by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98). Other, bolder tapestry designs were created in the 1880s by the artist Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (1851-1942), who in 1882 founded the Century Guild, the first of many groups of craft-designers and artists to follow the teachings of William Morris. The latter also influenced a number of progressive artists in late 19th century France. For instance, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Emile Bernard (1868-1941) were among several painters who took an interest in tapestry weaving, though they did not actually do tapestry cartoons as did Aristide Maillol (1861-1944). Arguably the most adventurous British-designed tapestry of the 20th-century is the enormous "Christ of the Apocalypse" (1962), which was designed for Coventry Cathedral by Graham Sutherland (1903-80), and woven in France on Aubusson looms.

Scandinavia and Central Europe

During the late 19th century there was a resurgence of tapestry in Europe based on folk traditions. This trend, already evident in Norway when great efforts were made to base a modern tapestry art on native medieval weaving traditions, was led by Gerhard Munthe (1849-1929), a well-known painter, and Frida Hansen (1855-1931), a traditional weaver. More recent 20th century developments have occurred in Sweden and Finland, thanks to the work of Marta Maas-Fjetterstrom (1873-1941), one of the best known Swedish tapestry artists, and the freer, more colourful tapestry art of Finland exemplified by Martta Taipale, Laila Karttunen, and Dora Jung. The religious authorities in Scandinavia have been unusually receptive to this art. Traditional folk weaving has also sparked a revival of tapestry making in central European countries like Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and especially Poland where mid-20th-century designer-weavers like Magdalena Abakanowicz and Wojciech Sadley have employed unconventional materials such as sisal, jute, horsehair, and raffia, to emphasize the nature of the material, and its tactile plasticity.

Germany

Germany also experienced something of a revival of tapestry weaving around the turn of the century. At Scherrebek, in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, a small tapestry industry was established during the period 1896 to 1904. This was followed by similar ventures at nearby Kiel and Meldorf. However, the most significant development in German textile art (as well as in most other applied art), took place at the Bauhaus design school, where tapestry was produced during the period 1919-1933. Abstract in composition, Bauhaus designs were rooted in the idea that the technology of the craft should be revealed in the work and in the nature of the materials used. Anni Albers (1899-1994), wife of the abstract painter, stained glass artist, and Bauhaus instructor Josef Albers (1888-1976), was the leading Bauhaus tapestry weaver. Following World War Two, tapestry workshops were opened in Munich and Nuremberg, while individual weavers worked throughout Germany and in Vienna. But unlike in France, German artisans turned more towards stained glass, rather than tapestry.

America

Although there are a small number of individual designers working on their own looms in the United States and Canada, most large-scale American tapestries are European imports. In Latin America the revival of indigenous folk crafts has aroused interest in tapestry making in Mexico and Panama, while other centres of tapestry design have emerged in Brazil, Chile, and Colombia.

20th Century Tapestry Revival

Following World War I, coinciding with the avant-garde ideas emerging from Germany's Bauhaus, France instigated and then led the 20th-century revitalization of tapestry as an art. Many of the great modern artists - Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Georges Braque (1882-1962), Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Fernand Leger (1881-1955), Georges Rouault (1871-1958), and Joan Miro (1893-1983), to name but a few - gave permission for their works to be reproduced in 1932. These reproductions were executed with exceptional fidelity under the direction of Marie Cuttoli. The Aubusson tapestry factory, which was chosen for this important weaving, once again became a great centre of activity. At about the same time the French painter and tapestry designer Jean Lurcat (1892-1966) - under the influence of Gothic tapestry, especially the 14th-century "Angers Apocalypse," and in conjunction with Francois Tabard, master weaver at Aubusson - formulated the basic principles that were to make tapestry a collaborative art in its own right. Under Lurcat, tapestry rediscovered the coarser texture and bolder if more limited colour palette that characterized original medieval tapestries.

Somewhat later, in 1947, Lurcat established the important Association des Peintures Cartonniers de Tapisserie (Association of Cartoon Painters of Tapestry), in which a number of Lucat's disciples like the French tapestry designers Marc Saint-Saens and Jean Picart Le Doux were also active. Dom Robert, a Benedictine monk whose fantastic tapestries were mainly inspired by Persian and medieval European manuscript illumination, was another follower of Lurcat. Other important French designers included the artists Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Marcel Gromaire (1892-1971), as well as the architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965).

By the 1950s, tapestry designs were becoming increasingly abstract. Among the most distinguished sets were the monochromatic tonal abstractions designed by the sculptor and engraver Henri-Georges Adam (1904-67). Other abstract textile designers of post-war hangings included the sculptor Jean Arp (1887-1966) and the painter, later Op-artist, Victor Vasarely (1908-97).

Post-war Belgium witnessed its own mini-revival of tapestry art. In 1945 the Forces Murales movement was set up in Tournai by cartoon painters such as Louis Deltour, Edmond Dubrunfaut, and Roger Somville, who became the foremost designers in the Belgian tapestry industry. Then in 1947 a Tournai collective tapestry workshop known as the Centre de Renovation de la Tapisserie, appeared and flourished until 1951. Small workshops continued in operation across Belgium, particularly in the cities of Brussels, Tournai, and Malines.

This renaissance in European tapestry may be associated with the austerity of modern architecture. Not unlike medieval castles, the often vast expanses of bare wall surface in contemporary buildings provides highly suitable settings for large-scale wall hangings. The modernist Swiss-born architect Charles Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965), known as Le Corbusier, often described tapestries as "nomadic murals", highlighting their importance as movable decorations.

In 1962, the first international tapestry exhibition was staged at Lausanne in Switzerland, which after 1965 became a major biennial event. This showcase of contemporary textile art is clear evidence of the enormous worldwide interest in the medium generated in the middle 20th century as well as the immense variety of associated designs, materials, and techniques.

Computerised Jacquard Looms

Since the 1990s, tapestry has confirmed its status as a form of fine art, following the computerisation of the Jacquard process by artists such as the innovative portraitist Chuck Close.

Tapestry-Making

Tapestry is different from all other forms of patterned weaving in that no weft threads are taken the full width of the fabric web. Each unit of the pattern is woven with a weft, or thread, of the required colour, that is carried back and forth only over the section where that particular colour appears in the design or cartoon. Like in the weaving of ordinary cloth, the weft threads pass over and under the warp threads alternately, and on the return go under where before it was over and vice versa. Each passage is called a pick, and when finished the wefts are pushed tightly together by a variety of methods or devices (all, read, batten, comb, serated finger nails).

The thickness of the warp determines the thickness of the tapestry fabric. In Medieval Europe, the thickness of the wool tapestry fabric in works like the 14th century 'Angers Apocalypse' tapestry was roughly 10 to 12 threads to the inch (5 to the cm). By the 16th century the tapestry grain had become finer as tapestry began to imitate painting. In the 17th century, the Royal Gobelins Tapestry factory in Paris used 15 to 18 threads per inch and 18 to 20 in the 18th century. The other royal tapestry workshop at Beauvais had as many as 25 or even 40 threads per inch in the 19th century. These exceptionally fine grains make the fabric very flat, like the surface of a painting. In comparison, the grain of 20th century tapestry approximates to that used in 14th and 15th century tapestry. The Gobelins factory for instance now uses 12 or 15 threads per inch. The grain of silk, of course, is much finer than those made of wool. Some Chinese silk tapestries have as many as 60 warp threads per inch.

European tapestry is woven on either a vertical loom (high-warp, or haute-lisse) or a horizontal loom (low-warp, or basse-lisse). Of the two methods, low warp is more commonly used. Among the great European tapestry factories, only the Gobelins has traditionally used high warp looms. Several weavers can weave simultaneously on either kind of loom. According to the complexity of the design and the grain or thickness of the tapestry, a weaver at the Gobelins can produce 32 to 75 square feet of woven textile a year.

Tapestry Designs & Cartoons

In European tapestry-making the Medieval cartoon, or prepartory drawing, was usually traced and coloured by a painter on a canvas roughly the size of the tapestry to be woven. By 1500, the weaver usually wove directly from a model, such as a painting, and therefore copied not a diagramatic pattern but the original finished work of the painter. By the start of the 17th century there was a clear distinction between the model and the cartoon: the model was the original reference on which the cartoon was based. Cartoons were freely used and often copied.

More than one tapestry can be woven from a cartoon. At the Parisian Gobelins factory, for example, the famous 17th century 'Indies Tapestry' set was woven 8 times, re-made, and slightly changed by the baroque painter Francois Desportes (1661-1743).

The border of a cartoon was frequently redesigned each time it was commissioned, as each customer would have a different personal preference for ornamental motifs. Often, borders were designed by a different artist from the one who designed the cartoon. As an element of design, however, borders or frames were important only from the 16th to the 19th century. Tapestries from the Middle Ages and the 20th century rarely used a border, as the latter merely serves to make the tapestry resemble a painting.

Because a fully painted cartoon is very time-consuming, 20th century designers have adopted a range of alternative methods. The cartoon is sometimes a photographic enlargement of a fully painted model, or merely a numbered drawing. The latter type, conceived by the famous French tapestry designer Jean Lurcat (1892-1966) during the Second World War, is a numbered system where each number corresponds to a precise colour and each cartoonist has his own range of colours. The weaver refers to a small colour model provided by the painter, and then makes a selection of wool samples.

Where a high warp is used, the weaver has the full size cartoon hanging beside or behind him. While the low warp weaver places the cartoon under the warps, so he can follow it from above. In both cases, the main outlines of the design are laid out with ink on the warps after they have been attached, to the loom.

Materials

Wool is the most widely used material for making the warp, or the parallel series of threads that run length-wise in the fabric of the tapestry. The width-running weft, or filling threads, are also most commonly made of wool. The advantages of wool are wide-ranging. It is more available, more workable and more durable than other materials, and in addition can be easily dyed. Wool has often been used in combination with linen, silk or cotton threads for the weft. This mixture of material is ideal for detail weaving and for the creation of delicate effects. Light coloured silks were often employed to create pictorial effects of tonal gradation and spacial recession. The glow of silk thread was often useful for highlights or to create a luminous effect when contrasted to the duller woollen threads. Silk was increasingly used during the 18th century, especially at the Beavais factory in France, in order to achieve subtle tonal effects. The majority of Chinese and Japanese tapestries have both warp and weft threads of silk. Pure silk tapestries were also made during medieval times at Byzantium (Constantinople) and in parts of the Middle East. Pure linen tapestries were woven in ancient Egypt, while Egyptian Christians and Medieval Europeans sometimes used linen for the warp. Both cotton and wool were used in Pre-Columbian art to make Peruvian tapestries as well as some Islamic tapestries during the Middle Ages. Since the 14th century, along with wool and silk, European weavers have also used gold and silver weft threads to produce a sumptuous effect.

Tapestry Dyes

Dyes commonly used in Europe included: (1) Woad, a plant similar to indigo, which yields a good range of blues. (2) Madder, a root from which reds, oranges and pinks could be obtained. (3) Weld, an English plant whose leaves produce yellow. (4) A mixture of weld (yellow) and indigo (blue) was used to concoct green. For more about colour, see: Colour Pigments.

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