Tapestries at the V&A

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Detail from The Otter and Swan Hunt

I’m really proud to be one of the trustees of the Heritage Crafts Association and yesterday I had to go to London for a committee meeting. I soon realised I’d have half an hour free to nip into the V&A, somewhere I’d never been before. It was quite hard keeping focused as I strode through the galleries, shielding my eyes from potential distraction, but my time was short and my goal was on level three, the gallery of tapestries.

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The largest part of the exhibition were the early fifteenth century Flemish made Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, named as such because each of the four tapestries depict different forms of hunting. I’d read about them in detail so thought I knew what to expect, but as I stepped through the high glass doors and into the darkened climate controlled room I must confess I welled up quite a bit. Fortunately although the museum was busy, the gallery was deserted and I had it to myself.

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Detail from The Bear Hunt

The first thing that grabs you about the tapestries is inevitably their size and their detail. I had baulked once when someone compared tapestry to the cinema entertainment of the day, but now I kinda get it. These aren’t passive pretty pictures up on a wall to be walked past, they were vast, something to sit before and stare at and engage with and drink in one inch at a time.

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Detail from The Beer Hunt

The other thing I didn’t properly anticipate were their colours and vibrancy, this was especially so with a tapestry called The Three Fates. Again it was familiar to me from the text books but I had rather shamefully flicked over it as I never liked the composition of the disembodied figures against the milliefleur background.

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The Three Fates, 1510-1520

But in the flesh it became apparent that no photograph could ever do it justice; it was mesmerizing, and the vibrancy of it was jewel-like, the dresses lifted off the surface and shone like sapphire, pearl and garnet. I could not take my eyes of it and it was the one I spent most time with. That the creation of such a thing be possible with thread astounds me.

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Detail from The Three Fates

Quite rightly the room was kept dark to protect the tapestries and barriers stopped folk from getting too close. But it was quite frustrating for me as a weaver not to be able to get close enough to work out the sett, to mentally unpick what was before me, and to look at and understand how the shapes had been formed, how the shading was achieved, what decisions the weavers made.

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Detail from The Deer Hunt

As I left I did give a bid of a nod to the weavers but as I write this and look over the photographs I realise it is so easy to overlook that all the thread used was handspun – presumably on a spindle if not a great-wheel, and the time that would have taken is monumental and the skill it would have taken to get the thread so universally fine and even, is unimaginable.

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Detail from The Falconry Tapestry

Because my time was so limited, my visit could only ever be a reccie  and I will certainly be back armed with bags of time and a sketchbook. I left the gallery quite literally overwhelmed. I could have done with a sit down and a coffee, but instead it was back into the underground and then into a meeting. There was little time to digest what I had experienced, and that is a process that is still on going. But for now I can say that the seriousness, the life, the vibrancy, the sumptuousness, the comedy, which I saw yesterday was what tapestry could and should be. I think seeing these tapestries has made me grow up a bit as a weaver and they will always be the foundation I’ll go back to as I move forward. It’s not about imitating them of course, but about remembering what there is to live up to.

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Detail from Pastoral tapestry

Also in the museum were the Raphael cartoons for a series of tapestries; they are of course stunning paintings, but the tapestries that came from them could only ever be an imitation of them. They mark, as Dirk Holger has said in a comment on an earlier post, the decline of tapestry as an autonomous art form.

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Raphael cartoon

The tapestries on the third floor could only ever have been tapestries. Tapestry is so much more than an imitation of painting, something that has cursed it for centuries. Here in he UK there will be few of us who haven’t seen a tapestry in a stately home or castle, but many will have been post-Renaissance designs and the natural dyes faded into homogeneous blues and tans. My pics taken with an iPad in a darkened room cannot do them justice and I urge anyone who can, to visit them and see what tapestry really can be.

Detail from Pastoral tapestry, but kinda think you can make up your own caption!
Detail from Pastoral tapestry, but kinda think you can make up your own caption!

I managed to scoot across town and make my meeting in good time. It was held at Cockpits Arts in Holburn. I was familiar with the organisation through some writing I had done, and have met, albeit virtually, one of the artists based there. It was a warren of shared studios and it had a great atmosphere, such an amazing facility and I am really envious we don’t have something similar near me. The issue of studio space is particularly pertinent at the mo – my new loom arrived on Thursday, and next week I hope to be able to tell you all about it. I’ll be refitting what was once my bedroom into a studio, so I shall love you and leave you, I’ve got to start emptying out the wardrobe x

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4 thoughts on “Tapestries at the V&A

  1. How beautiful they are – I have often too been reduced to a dither by the greatness of artists past when standing in front of work, and it certainly makes you reflect on your own efforts – but the ‘growth spurts’ that result are invigorating and exciting aren’t they?

  2. I went to see these on your recommendation while I was in London this week. At first, walking in to the gallery, I was a bit underwhelmed, but then when I sat and was able to drink them in properly, I began to appreciate how incredible they are. I loved all the detail, the colours, the floral motifs, the way every space is filled with something, and the way they are at the same time full of depth yet work so well on a flat plane. And that’s without considering what an unbelievable technical achievement they represent. Thanks for the recommendation – also, I’m prepared to bet it was about the only quiet gallery in any museum during half term!

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