The Art Of Weaving

20th April 2018

For centuries, tapestries have depicted epic tales and grand events in textile form. Now contemporary artists are embracing this ancient craft to tell their own, very modern, stories

Words by Oliver Bennett

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A fully rounded trip to Goodwood House should take in its artistic treasures, including masterpieces by Stubbs and Canaletto. But whatever you do, don’t forget the Tapestry Drawing Room. This neoclassical chamber is home to a remarkable set of Gobelins tapestries, commissioned by Louis XV, depicting Don Quixote. “They’re so important,” says James Peill, curator of Goodwood House. “They were part of a series of 30 made for the French king and given to the 3rd Duke when he was French ambassador.”

They're like pixels, with 3000 threads making up the image

These textile treasures are undeniably glorious, but as an art form, hasn’t tapestry had its day? Not a bit of it. The ultimate “slow art”, painstakingly woven and often recounting an epic tale, tapestry has made an enthusiastic return among today’s creative luminaries. “Artists’ and designers’ contemporary rugs have become very collectable in recent years,” confirms Christopher Sharp, CEO and co-founder of The Rug Company, which has made one-off tapestries designed by a number of high-profile names, including Kara Walker, Sir Peter Blake and Sir Paul Smith.

One of the leading exponents of this newfound passion is Grayson Perry, whose four tapestries about fictional Essex everywoman Julie Cope’s Grand Tour were recently on show at Colchester’s Firstsite gallery. Perry is not alone in his love of warp and weft. Last year, Chris Ofili showed his tapestry The Caged Bird’s Song at National Gallery show Weaving Magic – a transposition of a tropical watercolour into tapestry form. And the tapestry trend continues elsewhere. Pae White’s Pomona, comprising three huge tapestries, decorates Bloomberg’s new City of London HQ, while celebrated South African artist William Kentridge’s tapestry Dare/Avere has just been unveiled at Ermenegildo Zegna’s London store. Gavin Turk, Tracey Emin and Martin Creed are among the other art-world stars who have recently embraced the woven medium.


View our very own collection of tapestries with a guided tour of Goodwood House

Why tapestry, and why now? One reason is the revival of interest in time-honoured craft techniques – what Matthew Bourne of Chelsea-based rug-master Christopher Farr attributes to “a search for new and durable art forms that are useful as well as beautiful”. Whatever, tapestry-making is back in the ascendant. The fabled Edinburgh tapestry workshop Dovecot reopened in 2001 after a period in the doldrums and is now riding high; it made Ofili’s tapestry and is currently showing Garry Fabian Miller’s Voyage into the deepest, darkest blue – a grand return for a company that commissioned David Hockney, Graham Sutherland and Frank Stella in the 20th century.

Tapestries are also making waves in the saleroom. In 2012, Bonhams achieved £540,000 for Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s New World Map, a tapestry made from flattened bottle tops and wire. A return, perhaps, to the art form’s Tudor heyday. “Tapestries back then were judged as a higher art than paintings and were more expensive,” says Bourne. “Henry VIII had a lot of his wealth wrapped up in them.” 

For some, tapestry’s resurgence isn’t just about the revival of old skills; it has a new relevance in the digital era. Garry Fabian Miller’s work draws an explicit link between digital photography and tapestry, as does William Kentridge, who likens tapestries to film projections. “You can fill a wall with a 3m x 4m tapestry,” he says. “They’re strangely contemporary, like a primitive digital form. On one hand they refer back to Gobelins; on another they’re like pixels, with 3,000 threads making up the image.”

Tapestries back then were judged as a higher art than paintings and were more expensive

Woven artworks are regaining their old prestige. As art historian Thomas P Campbell has said, in the Middle Ages they were more expensive than paintings (Henry VIII owned 300 paintings but 2,500 tapestries) and were used as “portable propaganda” – diplomatic gifts par excellence – which loops us back to the Tapestry Drawing Room, host to many Royal Privy Council meetings overlooked by the Gobelins tapestries.

Intriguingly, Campbell has also likened this historic “gamesmanship” to television hit Game of Thrones. Surely Henry VIII would enjoy the fact that a GoT tapestry has, since last autumn, adorned the Ulster Museum in Belfast. Full of fights, romances, valour and victories, it’s not that far removed from the Bayeux Tapestry, now set to visit the UK as part of a new entente cordiale between the UK and France, indicating tapestry’s enduring merit as an epic storytelling format – not to mention, as Peill puts it, “a very grand way of decorating a room”.

This article is taken from the Goodwood magazine, Spring 2018 issue

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