End of week one of my Churchill Fellowship. I am sorry for not blogging throughout as planned, the truth is my time at the institutions I am visiting is pretty focused and my evenings are spent sorting photographs and writing up my notes. WordPress has also proved frustratingly uncooperative to use through my Ipad.
A week ago I was heading from Yorkshire towards my Eurostar train, the journey entirely easy and uneventful. My hotel in Brussels was easy to find and perfectly located near the Grand Place.
My first stop was the Cinquantenaire Museum. Obviously Brussels was a major place for the manufacture of tapestries, and the museum’s collection is one of the most prominent that exists. But last week I saw that the textiles were included in their list of galleries closed for renovation. Did it include the tapestries too? An email to clarify went unanswered, but in truth it was too late to change my plans either way, so I had to just go for it and hope for the best. Fortunately when I arrived and stated why I was there, the guide pointed me to the gallery circuit of medieval galleries. Phew!
I am quite glad I had an empty bladder, because what was waiting for me was utterly beyond any expectation. I had not expected so much of the collection to be on display, room after room was filled with gigantic tapestries. And this was only one circuit, there were others, although of much later works. I am hoping this video works, it has taken about twenty attempts to link it in WordPress, but it gives an idea of how overwhelming it was; my access to tapestries was so limited before, and now I was literally wallowing in them. I spent most of the day in the first two rooms, it was quite hard to focus initially and I was glad of my reference sheet to guide me. Access to the tapestries was much freer that I had expected and I was able to get very close up.
I went home when the museum closed with my brain rather overwhelmed and stalled and it was a good job it was closed the following day as I was able to use the time to make sense of what I saw the day before, to collate it all, assess if my approach was the right one, look at my notes and images and to try to see the best way to go forward (thank you Starbucks for the office overlooking the Grand Place). I had always thought about this adventure in terms of ‘the project’, the bigger picture was what was important, I hadn’t taken the time to think what I myself wanted to get from the experience. I also realised this was a marathon, not a sprint, and I had to act accordingly, I had to pick my battles, I wouldn’t be able to do everything.
I returned to the museum the following day, much more organised, much more able to focus and not let myself get overwhelmed. Whilst lots struck me in terms of how the tapestries were woven, what came to the fore was the ubiquity and technical excellence in the use of hatchure. Of course one is familiar with the technique, although I have never really used it much myself, but seeing it in tapestry after tapestry after tapestry, has installed a huge admiration in me for its versatility and what could be achieved with a line.
On Wednesday I went to the Brussels City Museum in the Grand Place. I knew they had some tapestries although I was rather unsure of what exactly. I also knew they were undergoing the restoration of a 16th century tapestry cartoon, the Martyrdom of Saint Paul.
As they were often made of paper and roughly treated, they are incredibly rare so I was keen to make use of the opportunity to see it and although the restorers were not at work that day, the staff very kindly allowed me in nonetheless.
The restoration was supported by an excellent and informative exhibition which included the history of the cartoon, the findings uncovered during the restoration, and wider topics around tapestry weaving and its creator. As well as windows into the workshop, there was a facsimile of the cartoon, a later tapestry woven from it, and very useful digital information panels. This was all a huge unexpected delight.
Of the five or so tapestries on display elsewhere in the museum, two in particular were of note, one being part of the series I had seen the day before at the Cinquantenaire, and another, Tristam and Morgain’s Shield woven around 1600 in Brussels which, although later than the period of my study, was noteworthy for the wonderful textures created using floating wefts.
I then left for Paris. I seem to have landed myself the most spectacular AirBnB possible, just off the Boulevard Saint Germain, right in the heart of the city, and with a wonderful host. On Thursday I headed off for Gobelins exhibition and workshop. I knew they would be the least straight forward place I wanted to visit, their website is a mine of misinformation, and absence of contact details. My host kindly tried to call on my behalf, but things were none the clearer due to the recorded message. I decided to go anyway and see what was what. What, was a handwritten note on the gate saying they were closed until the end of April. Disappointing for sure, but there is hope the cause is not lost. Watch this space, as they say……. I decided to take the opportunity to rest for the afternoon. I am struggling somewhat with fatigue and am trying to be sensible in managing it. I woke from a snooze, just in time to catch the last of the sunlight and walked along the Seine to have a nosey at Notre Dame. As you do.
The following day, a little worried about how tired I was, I decided to stay close to the apartment, and went to the Musee de Moyen Age, (or the Cluny as was) it is only a couple of minutes down the road. I have a meeting with one of the curators there next week, but I wanted an easy goal after Gobelins.
I must confess millefleur tapestries aren’t my thing, I don’t really do twee, but of course the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries had to be included in my trip. I cannot express how utterly magnificent they were. I wonder if they suffer from overexposure, we think we know them, they are so familiar to us, but in truth I was not prepared for walking in and seeing those beautiful and majestic images. Their new presentation was first class. I spent several hours with them, again access was surprisingly easy and I am collecting a huge photographic resource, thousands of images a day. They are of course the epitome of the tapestry weaver’s skill. In fact I was so in awe of them, last night I finally cracked open Tracy Chevalier’s book, a gift from my AirBnB host. Of course the Lady and Unicorn tapestries are not the only works at the museum. There were three or four early pieces in just about every room, much of them millefleur tapestries, but not all.
Seeing so many tapestries in so concentrated a period and with such a focus does mean I feel like I am ‘plugging in’ to the vocabulary of these tapestries (if that makes sense), and tapestries woven at the height of technical skill. I need to think about how this is going to affect my own work, but even after a day it was clear to me that this experience will change me as a weaver for ever.
Today I head off to the Musee les Arts Decoratifs. It doesn’t open til 11 so it seemed a good chance to catch up with this here blog. Tomorrow I brave the crowds at the Louvre – wish me luck! In the mean time do follow me on Instagram and Facebook, I am going to try to be more organised with it this week.