AUBUSSON AND TOLKIEN
As the first of 13 tapestries that depict scenes from Tolkien’s celebrated literary works is cut from the loom, Deborah Nash travels to Aubusson – the home of France’s international tapestry museum – to find out more.
Find out about the new tapestry being made in the ancient way in Creuse.
H “e was always doodling,” said Baillie Tolkien of her author father-in-law, J. R. R, known to millions as the creator of the fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. “He did the crossword puzzles in The Times and made very beautiful doodles on the newspapers. We kept some of them. For him it was very natural to draw.”
I’ve just cut the last of the warp threads of a 3.2-metre tapestry, attached to a horizontal loom in the weaving atelier of the Cité Internationale de la Tapisserie in Aubusson, Creuse. The threads swing heavily across, slapping the wooden warp beam and the tapestry tumbles to the floor, caught just in time by the row of dignitaries who have come to witness the ‘ tombée de métier’ (the ceremonial cutting of the tapestry from the loom, that some liken to the severing of the umbilical cord).
The tapestry in question is an interpretation of one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s illustrations to The Hobbit (1937) titled ‘ Bilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves’ (chapter nine). There is a slight air of tension amid the theatre, as this is the first time anyone has seen the completed work from the front, and after three months hand-weaving on the reverse, head weaver Odile Crinière’s flustered look soon turns to one of relief. Baillie Tolkien was attending to make a speech about the unveiling of the first of 13 tapestries and one carpet, based on the author’s drawings for The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and The Father Christmas Letters. Baillie is married to Christopher Tolkien, the author’s third son who until last year managed the Tolkien estate, and they live quietly in HauteProvence.
“Tolkien didn’t travel very much,” said Baillie. “His landscapes were of places around the world, probably from photographs, but really it was all from his imagination.”
A professor of Anglo-saxon English at Oxford, Tolkien (1892-1973) sounds rather like his creation, the home-loving hobbit Bilbo, who lives in a sheltered hobbit hole, until adventure comes knocking at his door. ‘ Bilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves’ is a landscape of sinuous trees with clouds of foliage shading a lemony sky and roots snaking down to the banks of the forest river. Bobbing through its serpentine currents are six barrels floating towards the eastern edge of Mirkwood. From the story we know these barrels contain the dwarves escaping the Elvenking, while Bilbo is balancing on a barrel in the foreground, although in the novel he is invisible as he wears the ring.
“It’s a marriage between French handicraft and the work of my very English father-in-law,” Baillie enthuses proudly.
We stand and admire this limpid fantastical world of magic and danger that has been perfectly translated into pure flat colours, keyed up from the diminutive book illustration. The decorative border and graphic vocabulary of stripes and cross-hatching in the original make a neat transition to modern weave, using traditional techniques peculiar to Aubusson, that were recognised by Unesco as ‘Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ in 2009.
This heritage is a method of hand-weaving on a horizontal loom and cartoon making (a scaled-up design, painted in reverse, that weavers place beneath the warp threads as a guide).
“It is not just a case of enlarging the work,” explains Bruno Ythier, curator of the Cité. “You can start with a tiny rose on a picture and if you thoughtlessly enlarge it you end up with a cabbage. It needs to be reworked bit by bit to restore the spirit of the original.”
The Tolkien series was prompted by the curator’s desire to create modern wall hangings based on a celebrated literary work, as was the custom back in the 16th and 17th centuries. The series should be complete by 2021 then displayed in the Cité de
la Tapisserie, where the town’s tapestry tradition is eloquently explored.
A visit to Aubusson is like coming across world-class artworks from London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, in a rural backwater. On the surface, the town is much like any other. It has a castle, a clock tower, a church and a river that loops round the community like a watery fortification. This is crossed by an old stone bridge with small houses on either side. Not much remains today of the castle on Chapitre Hill that was built in the 12th-century to keep watch over the incoming roads. It was once inhabited by local vicomtes who welcomed famous troubadours from the Limousin region, but in 1632 Vicomte Richelieu had it dismantled and sold the stone to build Aubusson’s houses and the Pont de la Terrade, that crosses La Creuse.
As the castle was being torn down and the ramparts that connected the watch towers fell into ruin (the Tour de l’horloge is the only one of seven to survive), the large and rather ugly Église Sainte-croix was being expanded, stone by stone, in the castle’s failing shadow. Its size points to a much larger population during the 17th and 18th centuries (today, it is about 3,500).
So far, so French, but when I visited the church early one morning I was fascinated to see two tapestries in the unremitting gloom at opposite ends of the nave; The Return of Tobias and The Miraculous Catch of Fish. Both seem to be decaying and forgotten but a story proves me wrong; in 1989 The Miraculous Catch of Fish was stolen. It had been donated to the church by Clémence Tabard, the descendant of a local tapestry family, and it went missing for eight years. It was eventually discovered in 1996 in a sale in Chicago and was swiftly returned to the church where its miraculous catch now melts into the stone walls.
Despite the general downturn of tapestry over the centuries, the craft continues to thrive in Aubusson, where most of the town is involved in some aspect of weaving. One of those residents is the dyer of yarns, Thierry Roger, who created the 65 colours for the Bilbo tapestry. His small shop is crammed with hanks of yarn of every conceivable hue that he has dipped into vats of dye.
At the 16th-century weaver’s cottage (which is also home to the tourist office), there is a small museum and workshop upstairs where artisans can use the loom. Near the stone bridge is Chantal Chirac’s Atelier-musée des Cartons de Tapisserie (Museum of Tapestry Cartoons), the only one to exist anywhere in the world, with displays of painted cartoons that she has bought and restored, which are works of art in their own right.
La Creuse is important for tapestry and especially useful to the wool dyer,” explains Madame Chirac, as
she looks out over the river. “We don’t know the origins of tapestry here [there are many theories] but it was important to the viscount and the château so they decided to encourage it. It’s believed Flemish weavers came here during the Hundred Years War when wool was not delivered there so the industry moved to France. We were already making fabric in the town; we have the river, we have wool from the sheep and labour is cheap. All this began in the 14th-century and by the 15th we knew how to weave.”
Her collection comprises painted cartoons from the heyday of tapestry weaving before the Revolution. The use of wallpaper and the loss of crafters practising the skills led to factory closures and decline. This would surely have continued to the present had it not been for the director of the local art school, Antoine Marius-martin (1869-1955) and Surrealist painter Jean Lurçat (1892-1966). They recognised that tapestry was a distinct medium that ought not be simply a copy of a painting as it had become during the Renaissance period; they called for a return to its medieval origins, using fewer colours, large-scale format and connection to architecture. In his book Designing Tapestry, Lurçat wrote:
“I want to remind you that tapestry knew its proudest moments in a time when a style of extremely grandiose architecture reigned supreme.”
There is an example of one of Lurçat’s painted cartoons in Madame Chirac’s museum and alongside it the resulting tapestry; the colours are very different.
“Lurçat was disappointed when he saw how the weaver had interpreted his painting and decided to make a line drawing with a number code for the colours,” Madame Chirac explains.
“Lurçat made the cartoon more like a musical score where the weaver is the musician; if the score is changed you have a different tapestry.”
Leaving Madame Chirac, I wander down Rue des Déportés where I buy a Creusois cake made from butter and hazelnuts and enjoy another speciality for dinner, a fondue of potatoes and Chapeau and Gouzon cheeses at my hotel.
The next day I visit La Cité, with the complex housed in the former Ecole des Arts Decoratives to the south of La Creuse. It stands out, not simply because of its brutalist architecture but because its exterior wall is covered by what looks like a multi-coloured bar code, the signifier of the tapestry arts in the town. It’s difficult to translate what La Cité means in English, being part-museum, restoration atelier, weaving workshop, library and research centre - an immersive experience that offers hands-on practice opportunities alongside a wonderful collection of tapestries hung in theatrical settings, suggesting the architecture of the period.
The oldest tapestries date from 1480 and 1530. The first shows a spotted unicorn standing on its hind legs holding a plumed blue helmet and a red shield emblazoned with a lion in a similar pose. The background is a stratification of bands of geometric flowers, an early rendering of a space-filling technique called millefleurs.
The second, an exquisite example of Verdures à feuilles d’aristoloche, links rather beautifully to the Tolkien tapestry.
“These [aristolochia] tapestries almost never feature human characters,” explains the museum’s informative website. “They remain illustrations of an impenetrable universe of vegetation and animals on the edge of civilisation.”
There are points of connection with ‘ Bilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves’ with a fantasy of trees and water and the single figure of a hobbit, whose significance is immense in the narrative but who plays a small part in the sweep of the landscape.
La Cité has displays of ‘ La Narration Continue’ (different scenes combined in a single tapestry) and ‘La Tenture’ (where a story is split between several wall hangings). One such example is the suite of five weavings from the 17th-century, that tell the tale of Armide and Renaud, with its concluding moral that true love wins the day. It is a narrative taken from a Renaissance poem by the Italian Torcato Tasso, and in the same way, Tolkien’s work, which drew on epic poems of Anglo-saxon literature ( Beowulf) and the Icelandic sagas, has inspired the current weaving project.
La Cité proudly asserts: “It is now the illustrative universe of J. R. R. Tolkien that will live on through the ages alongside his books.”
Through this project, a whole new aspect of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings has been discovered through the scale, colour and beauty of tapestry.
A major biopic of the life of J.R.R Tolkien, Tolkien, directed by Dome Karukoski, is currently in post-production, for release later in 2018.
MAIN: The town of Aubusson is beautiful in its own right;
INSET: The intricacies of weaving a tapestry
LEFT: Ruins of the castle on Chapitre hill, Aubusson
ABOVE: Bilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves 2018; INSET: Les Verdures à Feuilles de Choux Aubusson region 16th century;
ABOVE: Mon Seul Désir - one of the six tapestries of La Dame à la Licorne
ABOVE: La Cité de la Tapisserie nestled in the heart of the town