Raison d'etre

I am enthusiastic about home design and love French antique and vintage treasures.

This blog is about the things I find and use.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

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Tapestry - Woolwork - Needlepoint

These terms have become synonymous with one another in modern usage but they are very different techniques for producing a textile.

Tapestry can be defined as ' a textile art traditionally woven on a loom', and as a 'picture woven in cloth'.  Used for centuries in the West to decorate and insulate draughty castles and chateaux, tapestries were expensive to produce and thus afforded only by the wealthy.  Handwoven on a vertical or horizontal loom the design is gradually built up using coloured wools and silks - some of the most sumptuous also employed gold and silver thread.

The great centres of weaving in the Europe were mainly in the Netherlands and France.  However, due to the religious persecution of the 16th century in the Spanish Netherlands many Flemish weavers, persecuted because of their Protestantism, dispersed throughout Europe - to Germany, Italy, France, England and elsewhere.  The skills of these masters of their craft were highly sought after. Charles I in England brought in Flemish weavers to start up a new tapestry workshop at Mortlake in the early 17th century - and other important centres of production sprang up in Germany, Italy etc.

The production of a tapestry took many months of work by several weavers working on a loom.

The Hunt of the Unicorn  - one in a series of tapestries produced between 1495 and 1505 probably in Brussels and incorporating silver and gold threads - now in the The Cloisters in New York

Also see blogpost at:  http://treasuresfromafrenchattic.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=hardwick  for a wonderful display of tapestries

In contrast 'woolwork' and 'needlepoint' are not woven but embroidered.  The Bayeaux Tapestry is not, of course, a tapestry but an embroidery.

This latter skill is mostly of a domestic nature.  Certainly in the 19th century 'Berlin Woolwork' rose to prominence for the home embroiderer when an enterprising manufacturer produced printed canvasses with pictures to be worked in wools and silks.  A practice which, of course, is common today with 'tapestry' kits readily available.

a fine 19th century French needlepoint picture

Tapestries themselves can now mainly been seen in stately homes and chateaux and in museums and art galleries the world over as well as appearing at auctions and in private sales.

Due to their age and somewhat rough handling in some places over the years (tapestries were often cut by their owners to make a doorway accessible when hung on a wall - or to frame a window)  as well as general wear and tear it is possible to find fragments - from long tapestry borders to panels - which are more affordable than the large wall coverings.

These are the pieces I seek out to make into cushions.  Thus these wonderful textiles go on into the future in people's homes.

A group of cushions made with 17th - 18th century Flemish & French tapestry

Sunday, 13 December 2015

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Tapestry...Cartoons...La Fontaine

I have always been interested in Aubusson cartoons (see earlier post), the resulting tapestry and their inspiration.  To illustrate a case in point I recently bought a nineteenth century cartoon for a chair back or seat which features the fable of the Wolf and the Lamb from la Fontaine - the seventeenth century French poet renowned as a fabulist .  

Many of his fables tell moral tales or reflect on aspects of human nature.  In this case the message is quite dark and was seen as commenting, not only on the inhumanity of man, but also on the political landscape he - la Fontaine - inhabited:

That innocence is not a shield,
A story teaches, not the longest.
The strongest reasons always yield
To reasons of the strongest.

A lamb her thirst was slaking,
Once, at a mountain rill.
A hungry wolf was taking
His hunt for sheep to kill,
When, spying on the streamlet's brink
This sheep of tender age,
He howl'd in tones of rage,
'How dare you roil my drink?
Your impudence I shall chastise!'
'Let not your majesty,' the lamb replies,
'Decide in haste or passion!
For sure 'tis difficult to think
In what respect or fashion
My drinking here could roil your drink,
Since on the stream your majesty now faces
I'm lower down, full twenty paces.'
'You roil it,' said the wolf; 'and, more, I know
You cursed and slander'd me a year ago.'
'O no! how could I such a thing have done!
A lamb that has not seen a year,
A suckling of its mother dear?'
'Your brother then.' 'But brother I have none.'
'Well, well, what's all the same,
'Twas some one of your name.
Sheep, men, and dogs of every nation,
Are wont to stab my reputation,
As I have truly heard.'
Without another word,
He made his vengeance good--
Bore off the lambkin to the wood,
And there, without a jury,
Judged, slew, and ate her in his fury.

The image for the cartoon was probably derived from a painting by Jean-Baptiste Oudry:

It was common for cartoon painters to use paintings and other visual media to create their designs.

In the nineteenth century the firm of Braquenie based in Aubusson produced hand woven tapestries for seat furniture (among other things) and I believe this,  now a cushion, is an example.  it was fashionable at the time to produce tapestries for suites of furniture in these muted monochromatic colours.

I haven't yet found an example in the vivid shades of the cartoon but it will be out there somewhere!

Friday, 14 August 2015

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Badly Damaged but Worth Saving

This is the bottom section of an eighteenth century tapestry fragment.  It is very badly worn and damaged but I wanted to save and preserve what was possible.  There are many birds and animals among the verdure landscape:

The colours are vibrant and little faded but there are tears and losses leaving it in a fragile state.

I selected a major section and supported it from the back with woven fusible interlining - see below:

I shall line the whole and bind the edges.  It is a good size at 52 x 26 ins so will take its place on a wall when finished.

Further progress in a later post!

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

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Tapestry Border with Historical Record

Recently I was able to buy a wonderful long and wide 18th century tapestry border with a rare document showing it had been repaired and restored in 1902

Measuring 364 cm wide and 50 cm deep it is the top border  of the tapestry and composed of a central cartouche with a countryside scene flanked by flowers and architectural elements.

On the back is this label:

Worked in cross stitch on canvas the label has remained in good condition because it would have been between the tapestry and the original lining and therefore not subject to wear or light degradation.

Wardour Street, Soho, London was home to many antiques and curio dealers at the end of the nineteenth century  and, interestingly, in the late 1700s, Thomas Sheraton had his furniture showroom there. They were superseded by film and theatre companies in the early part of the twentieth century.

Soho was also, of course, the location of the Soho tapestry works of the early 18th century.

I have had some difficulty in finding evidence of Georges Herpin & Co. except for one or two vague references but, it would seem that tapestries bearing a similar label have been found in America.

As for the work itself it is now very evident which parts were repaired - notably around the brown border:

The repairs, using a somewhat gingery brown wool, stand out in contrast with the original darker wool.  The original would have been dyed with natural pigments whereas, from the middle of the nineteenth century, synthetic dyes became possible and commonly used.  One assumes that M. Herpin chose a wool which approximated the original colour, so it is startlingly evident how much the original natural dyes have faded and mellowed in the more than a century since he carried out the work and, even when he was working on the tapestry, it was already more than a hundred years old.

Looking at the reverse it can be seen that the colour of the border is much closer to that of M. Herpin's repairs.  It is always startling to see how vibrant some of the colours are when they have not been exposed to light.

As for the source of the tapestry it is, as always, very difficult to ascertain without detailed provenance.  I incline to it being produced in the Marche - the area around Aubusson and Felletin (Felletin was supposed to use brown borders and Aubusson blue but these rules were not always kept).  However, it could equally well have been produced elsewhere in France, or even be Flemish.  As the weavers moved so frequently between different tapisseries, and even different countries, and designs and ideas were exchanged or copied - it is difficult to be certain.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

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Antique Tapestry Fragments & Cushions

It is becoming more and more difficult to find good tapestry fragments with which to make cushions - well, affordable ones anyway!  However - New Year - New Determination - I shall have to be more assiduous in searching out these lovely remnants and plan more frequent visits to France in the ensuing months.

The difficulty in sourcing good original tapestry also serves to remind me of the preciousness of each piece and the fact that it is surely unrepeatable.  Fortunately I can sometimes find a good long tapestry border which will yield several cushions - some motifs repeated, of course - but once used up it is highly unlikely I shall come across another the same so they are all unique.

The greatest rarities are those with figural elements - animals, birds, people and chateaux.  Here are a few I have, or have had, and they are always among the most expensive pieces to buy.

Firstly birds - all eighteenth century:

Chateaux - 18th century


Figure and Angels  - 18th century

Creatures - 17th century

Now the winter solstice is well and truly behind us the lengthening days engender renewed excitement for the hunt!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

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Hardwick Hall Tapestries

Because of my interest in tapestries - I use fragments to make cushions - I like to visit as many places where they are preserved as I can and a few weeks ago this was Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.Built by Elizabeth Cavendish, Bess of Hardwick, in the 1590s it was an astounding building for its time incorporating so many windows it was described as having 'more glass than wall'.  

Tapestries were used extensively to cover the walls.  Some came from that other great house of the Cavendish family - Chatsworth - and others were bought by Bess for Hardwick.  In fact the series of thirteen enormous Brussels tapestries illustrating the Story of Gideon which hang in the Long Gallery were acquired 'second hand' from the then Lord Chancellor who had run up enormous debts.  Elizabeth bought them at a knock down price of £326.15.9d which she then had reduced because it was necessary to superimpose her own arms over those of Sir Christopher.

Long Gallery with the Story of Gideon tapestries
In the Green Velvet Room the walls are lined with four tapestries telling the story of Abraham 

Green Velvet Room with Abraham tapestries

In the High Great Chamber, as well as a superb plaster frieze, hang the Ulysses tapestries

On a more human scale are four tapestries depicting putti playing games found on one of the staircases. These were made, not in Flanders, but in the short lived Hatton Garden workshop - albeit using Flemish weavers,  They date from 1678 and were acquired by a subsequent generation after Bess's death.  They are known as the 'Polidoros' - it is believed the designs were taken from a series of paintings by Polidoro di Carravagio acquired by Charles 1.

Hatton Garden late 17th century
Hatton Garden Playing Boys c. 1678

My interest in tapestry - and in the preserving of fragments by making them into cushions - gained immeasurably from looking closely at the Hardwick hangings.  Details of borders I find especially interesting for it is fragments from these which I am most able to find and use.  The motifs and subjects used at different periods and from different locations cast a light onto the origins of pieces.

The Trust has been undertaking conservation of the Gideon tapestries from Hardwick and is now on the eleventh in the series: 


The subject of conserving tapestry came up recently when chatting with a fellow blogger in the United States.  Ann was fortunate to take part in the restoration of a tapestry from a church in Milwaukee which she describes here: http://annquiltsblog.blogspot.com/2012/02/and-now-for-something-completely.html

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

More Cushions - Pillows

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Toile de Nantes Valance fragment - Les Lois de Lycurgue

Antique French toiles - whether it be Toile de Jouy,  de Nantes,  de Bordeaux - de Rouen etc are a wonderful source for creating unique cushions.  While perfect lengths of toile are fabulous as upholstery, curtains or bed drapes, often enough can be recovered from a piece of damaged fabric to make cushions.  Frequently pieces are hand quilted, having originally come from old drapes, and, when cleaned, can be used with a cotton or linen vintage fabric to create cushions.  If not quilted a fragment will probably need to be strengthened by attaching it to a robust linen or cotton backing before being made up.

There are many books devoted to these delightful scenic toiles and I try my best to identify those I use, although this not always possible.

Cushions made from quilted toile de Nantes  and linen Vichy-type check

La Danse Savoyarde
Toile de Nantes - l'Art d'Amour
Toile with imagined scenes from Walter Scott
Toile de Nantes - Telemarque & Calypso