Blog of Chrissie Freeth tapestry weaver, features writer for UK Handmade, weaving features editor for the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, Artist in Residence National Trust and trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association
I am on the train to Angers (pronounced more like an-jay). I am desperately sad to be leaving Paris, not least because I am heading off a few days earlier than expected. But now I know how long it is possible for me to stand in front of a tapestry, I knew I needed longer in Angers, the home of medieval tapestries. But I am ahead of myself.
I knew from research that the Les Arts Decoratif had a few tapestries, as did the Louvre, but I was completely unprepared for the vast numbers on display. Obviously tapestries are delicate, and are generally displayed in rotation and it quickly became clear that there was some disparity in what the catalogue claimed was on display and what was on the walls, but all to my favour.
There were some spectacular tapestries, including the Woodcutters, woven in Tournai around 1460-1475. The detail, characters and vitality was simply wonderful, as was the quality of weaving.
This was also of note for the faded colours which left the most fascinating skeleton of slits and gaps, ghosts of hatchure and colour changes, no longer visible. I don’t know why I became so fascinated by these, perhaps it is the archaeologist on me, always fascinated by what is gone, rather than what survives.
I was not expecting the number of tapestries at the Louvre either, and ended up having to spend two days there. As well as the medieval tapestries they have a vast collection of Baroque and Neo-classical pieces on display, which alas I had to ignore. Many of the medieval tapestries were hung high and in near darkness, making access difficult, but seeing such a collection covering such a time span left me with an amazing picture of the development in the styles of tapestry, including those seeming infested with needless heads and shoulders, and many more millefleurs tapestries including the well known Noble Pastorale series.
It is always odd seeing things so familiar in books, in the flesh. Again one tapestry in particular stood out, and for the same reasons as the Woodcutters – the vitality and quality of weavings. The Repas de la Chasseurs was also possibly woven in Tournai at the end of the fifteenth century and had a plumpness to the figures and economy of colour and it put its faith in hatchure to do its job rather than bury them in the depiction of luxurious fabrics. It was a stark contrast to those tapestries where a more realistic depiction was attempted.
I am gong to be diplomatic and skip over the adventure that was getting into the Gobelins, because despite the tears, the self recrimination, the development of an alcohol and drug dependancy problem, the counselling, and for a brief period, turning to God, I did get in and the staff and guides were utterly marvellous. I will only add that I have worn many hats in my life, but in the community of weavers I have never come across such mutual support, friendliness and acceptance – you know who you are, thank you. Photography was not allowed so I have little to share, but over a couple of days I got to see the carpet, basse lisse and haute lisse workrooms. I have a bit of a crush on basse lisse looms at the moment, just before this trip I had been experimenting weaving on a low warp and the back ache has not yet deterred me. But seeing their magnificent haute lisse looms rekindled my love of my upright looms. With the low warp I wove from the back and I think I am going to try to do this with my upright looms when I get home, as they do at Gobelins, I can see the sense of it. Such a great experience to see these workshops, and how professional they were, it gave me a great deal to think about and bring back with me.
The visit to Gobelins also instilled a much greater appreciation for the role of weaver as interpreter of designs, something I had not fully considered before as I weave my own. This trip had been, in part, inspired by Jean Lurcat’s book on tapestries; he had not been terribly polite about Gobelins criticising what he viewed as rather wasteful ways. It was incredibly enlightening to hear their take on it, and I feel I have a much more balanced view, and can see his instance on weavers working solely from a coded cartoon without an original art work for them to interpret themselves, was to the detriment of their skills.
The plan was then to go to the workrooms at Beauvais and the National Tapestry Gallery there. This too had taken an extraordinary amount of phone calls made on my behalf, resulting in a ‘you shall not pass’ that would have made Gandalf proud. What anyone had failed to say, despite their website being so to the contrary, was the National Tapestry Gallery was no more, and a comment on trip advisor triggered my spider-senses and I was able to confirm this was the case, just in time before I set off. It meant a day unexpectedly free, I instead explored the narrow streets full of independent art galleries that surrounded my lovely apartment in St Germain.
As I said, it became clear as the week progressed that I would need more time in Angers that I had previously thought. This was also sparked by the fact that it was to Gobelins and Beauvias I was looking to to see some twentieth century tapestries, but that instead I hope to see in Angers.
When I set off from Yorkshire I set nine separate alarms, just in case, as you do. This morning, just the one. I feel I am growing as a person. I even managed to brave the Paris metro during rush hour and with a suitcase. I know many Churchill Fellows get to have great adventures in exotic places, but I now feel I can hold my head high amongst them.
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.
I’ve discussed elsewhere what led me to apply for a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellowship but to recap, Jean Lurcat, the twentieth century French artist who instigated the modern revival of tapestry, argued that there were a number of elements that were intrinsic to the medium that became lost following the Renaissance when tapestry became a poor imitator of paintings. Reading his book Designing Tapestry, was a revelation to me. I had always favoured bold, large scale tapestries; at the time I was weaving Maides Coign at East Riddlesden Hall. I struggled to appreciate the small scale tapestries that are becoming the norm in the UK. Lurcat seemed to give me permission to weave the type of tapestries I wanted to weave, however unfashionable, impracticable and financially ridiculous they might be.
A visit to see the Devonshire hunting tapestries at the V&A hammered Lurcat’s points home, I saw in the flesh for the first time what tapestry could be. I also realised that in the absence of any formal training, I was a weaver sitting at my loom completely ignorant of an entire level of understanding. Yes one reads about a particular technique, one can do it at the loom, but I was missing that exposure to the centuries worth of how my predecessors had employed that technique, as well as the where and the why. I was a composer wanting to write a symphony having never heard music, I was a car engineer never having ridden in one.
To fully understand the techniques I had been using, to fully understand Lurcat’s intrinsic qualities associated with tapestry, I knew I needed to study tapestries, especially those that pre-dated the Renaissance. But this was immediately made difficult by photographic reproductions of tapestries online or in books. It is impossible to reduce several feet of intricate textile into a few inches and do it justice. Also, much of the literature about historic tapestries comes from an art historical approach, often focusing on subject matter, design context and patrons. As a weaver what I wanted to get at the hands of medieval weavers themselves, the choices they made when sat at the loom, and this I could only do by studying the tapestries themselves and close up. I also wanted to understand how those intrinsic elements identified by Lurcat were translated into his own work and those of his contemporaries, and I wanted to understand their relevance to weavers today, especially in the UK.
The most important part of this project, as with any Churchill Fellowship, is to share it. Most of that will be actively pursued once the travelling is done, but a lot will also be shared on the road both here in my blog, my Facebook page, Twitter and on Instagram. But as my own excitement builds, I wanted to share something of the preparations, and the where, and how, as well as the why.
Once I was awarded the Fellowship heaps of desk based research followed to track down where I could see tapestries that pre-dated the Renaissance. Obviously a lot of this work had been done for the application process, but now it was concrete and in earnest. I scoured the standard texts on the history of tapestry but also googled until my fingers bled, searching through the websites of museums and galleries, trying to identify who had what and where, often frustrated by an absence of online catalogues, but following whatever leads I could. Eventually lists began to form which had to be translated into an itinerary. Inevitably there was more I wanted to see than I could ever manage to do within the already generous time and resources of the grant. A rather ruthless selection process sought to produce an itinerary that was physically and practically possible from a travelling point of view, was public-transport friendly, kept destinations relatively clustered, but which would also enable me to study a broad range of work that spanned my time period of interest, the various geographical areas associated with tapestry, and which would also give an opportunity to see modern works as well.
Initially I planned to spend four weeks in Europe and a fortnight in the US; I wanted to use my time in the States in particular to engage with contemporary practitioners as well as studying tapestries, but it became apparent as my research continued that I needed more time in Europe and so I reduced my time to a week in the US. I had planned to do it all in one go, but came to realise after recent events I will need to break things up, have some time back in the UK to recuperate, but also useful as a time to reflect, and so will now be spreading my travelling across March, April and May.
The amount of juggling this has taken, the amount of virtual travelling, researching accommodation options, scouring of train and bus timetables has been legion and how anyone ever managed to organise their Fellowships before the rise of the internet is beyond me. I am a control freak and I have a Spreadsheet Of All Things, outlining my trip day by day almost. But I accept that in all likelihood it will be thrown out of the metaphoric window within days. The Churchill Trust encourages us to be flexible in our planning, and in fact only arrange our accommodation for the first few nights, we need to be ready and able to follow leads on the ground. The process has also involved engaging with museum curators, gallery owners and tapestry weavers and this is a process that is still ongoing. Folk have been very welcoming and having this dimension to the project is what makes the Churchill Fellowships so special.
I still have a phenomenal amount of reading to do, and a language to learn (!), as well as all the practical things any trip like this will involve, and to identify routes and accommodation options and to make sure everything is in place with my own practice, this is a busy time of the year for applying for events, for example. But my itinerary is now confirmed, my Eurostar tickets and flights are booked, and accommodation in Paris and New York secured. It is very hard when someone tells you they will pay for you to travel around Europe and the States to study medieval tapestries, and take them seriously. The nature of my profession means frugality is a prerequisite so I am also petrified of spending money, even worse when it is someone else’s. I suppose I should also confess I am a little unsure of myself following recent events, not entirely clear of what I am physically capable of. So actually clicking on buttons to commit to bookings, has proved itself to be the hardest part of this whole process, but it is done. I really am going. No more second-guessing, no more prevaricating. I. have. tickets.
So where am I going? As I said the aim is to be flexible, but will rotate around some meetings as fixed points but I will generally follow my nose from Brussels, through France and at some point either in this leg or another, head over to Switzerland. There will also be a trip to Germany and another over to New York. Loosely the plan is to visit:
Musees Royaux d’art et d’histoire, Brussels
City of Brussels Museum, Brussels
Manufacture De Wit, Mechelen
TAMAT/Museum of Tapestry. Tournai
(Would be great to get over to Oudenaarde if there’s time, but alas suspect not)
The Louvre, Paris
Musee d’Cluny, Paris
Musee des Arts decoratifs, Paris
Musee d’art modern, Paris
Galerie Chevalier, Paris
Manufacture des Gobelins, Paris
National Tapestry Gallery, Beauvais
Manufacture nationale de Beauvais, Beauvais
Palace de Tau and other museums, Reims
Angers Castle, Angers
Jean Lurcat Contemporary Tapestry Museum, Angers
Liciers Angevins, Angers
Church of Notre Dame, Saumur
Although the tapestries produced at Aubusson post-date the period I am interested in, it has strong links with Jean Lurcat, and houses a new tapestry centre as well as smaller galleries and museums, and contemporary weavers, and the Ateliers Pinton is at nearby Felletin, and so if there is time to visit here I will certainly try.
Jean Lurcat Museum, Saint-Laurent-les-Tours
Museum fur Geschichte, Basel
Thun Castle, Thun
Bernisches Historisches Museum, Berne
Quedlinburg Abbey, Quedlinburg
Cloisters, New York
Metropolitan Museum, New York
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Vojtech Blau, New York
Studio visits to Erin Riley, Archie Brennan and Susan Martin Maffei
Of course this project is not a whistle-stop tour to cram in as many medieval tapestries as I can. I won’t get to all the places on my list, that is not what is important. This project is to study first-hand the techniques of my predecessors, it is about taking the time to have the most constructive conversations I can with weavers who died five hundred plus years ago, and to learn from them. To that end a huge part of the preparation for this project has been working out the best way to get at those hands and minds, a systematic methodology I can employ when standing in front of their work, a guide for myself on how to study a medieval tapestry as a weaver within the restrictions of how they are curated.
I am not asking to see tapestries held in storage, it is wholly impractical and impossible for a project like this. But from the get-go I had to accept there would be limitations to studying tapestries on show. Tapestries during this period were woven from the back and ideally that is the side you want to read from – outrageously museum and galleries generally display tapestries showing the front. Tapestries were woven on the side, and again, museums tend to hang them the other way up. There will also be issues regarding how close I can get. I haven’t yet resorted to licking tapestries, but I suspect it is clearly only a matter of time. How tapestries are hung and their eye level will also be a restriction.
I am a scientist, I like forms, I like order, I like a nice strict methodology. But I realised this is a project that demands a more organic approach. Much of the recording process will be photography where permitted and practical, but this will not always be so. I will be taking a plethora of notebooks, to record sketches and thoughts. But at my side will be a reference sheet I’ve devised, something that will force me to really look and see what is in front of me, a visual excavation of the surface as it were. Not all points will be answerable, some information will only be available from printed sources, but it is at least a start, and I can adapt it as I go. Much of it is in shorthand for me, but I’ll explain more what it contains as the project progresses and publication looms (seewhatIdidthere).
So there we have it. How grateful am I to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust? I think you can imagine. The amount I have learned is legion, and I haven’t even got on the train yet.
I would like to say thank you for your good wishes after my last post, it is much appreciated. I think it was in preparation really, for trying to think how I might start slowing things down, something I am trying to put off until I come back, but this plan has now been scuppered by a rather lovely surprise. I was super pleased to take part in the Craft Open at the Platform Gallery in Clitheroe a few years back, it was my first event off my home turf. This year I was delighted to be selected again, it was a great chance to see several of my tapestries hanging together. In the end we couldn’t fit them all into the car and a smaller one had to be substituted, for which I am very grateful to the Platform Gallery for accepting. With much regret I wasn’t able to get to the opening, but learned the other week I had won the Selectors Prize for Innovation, which includes an exhibition next year running alongside Craft Open 2018. I feel terribly proud and honoured. To get enough new pieces designed and woven in time will take a phenomenal amount of work but I was quite shocked to find myself instantly up for it. I think it was just the kick up the bum I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself, to brush myself down and plan ahead more positively. Craft Open 2017 runs until 22nd April. After that I am pleased to say I have been accepted for the Saltaire Arts Trail Open Houses, always a great event and I’ll talk about that nearer the time. How I ever thought I would be taking things easier is starting to look really rather ridiculous!