Apollo Magazine (UK)
Emma Crichton-Miller on medieval and Renaissance tapestries
In January, Covid regulations permitting, comes the long-awaited reopening of the Raphael Court in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Here hang the seven surviving cartoons for a series of (possibly) 16 tapestries commissioned by Pope Leo X to line the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Ten of these original tapestries survive, woven in silk, gold and wool thread in the workshop of Pieter van Aelst (c. 1495–c. 1560) in Brussels between 1516 and 1521; they were themselves rehung in the Sistine Chapel for a week last February to mark 500 years since Raphael’s death. For several centuries in Europe, tapestry was the most revered and highly valued artform. Ambitiously scaled and designed by some of Europe’s leading artists, whole collections were commissioned for Europe’s grandest buildings: series like the Apocalypse Tapestry (1377–82), now in the museum at Angers, the Unicorn Tapestries (1495–1505) held at the Cloisters in
New York, the Lady and the Unicorn series at the Musée de Cluny in Paris and the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries (1425–30), now in the V&A. Henry VIII owned perhaps two to three hundred paintings, but as many as 2,500 tapestries. After Charles I’s execution in 1649, as the royal art collection was sold off, Oliver Cromwell reserved the 10 tapestry panels known as The Story of Abraham series (1540– 43); they had been made for Henry VII in the workshop of Willem de Pannemaker, perhaps after designs by Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502– 50), and in 1649 were valued at the huge sum of £8,260. For Renaissance princes tapestries provided mobile cocooning and a fantastical, theatrical backdrop, and with their silver and gold threads and thousands of man hours, they were top currency in the competition for magnificence.
In terms of scholarship, tapestries have been well served lately. Thomas Campbell, who co-founded the Franses Tapestry Archive in 1987 with the London-based dealer Simon Franses, went on to become a curator at and director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, mounting exhibitions such as ‘Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence’ in 2002; its sequel, ‘Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor’in 2007–08; and ‘Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry’, curated by Elizabeth Cleland, in 2014–15. In 2017 Cleland co-authored, with Lorraine Karafel, the authoritative catalogue of the outstanding medieval and early Renaissance tapestries in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow (due to reopen after refurbishment in 2021). In 2019, Bozar in Brussels held an exhibition devoted to the versatile Flemish artist Bernard van Orley (c. 1488–1541), renowned above all for his tapestry design.
The market tells a more complex story. In April 2018, a sale of the contents of the
stately home North Mymms Park at the auctioneers Sworders included monumental tapestries from northern Europe, dating from the mid th to mid th centuries. The total of , included , for an th-century Brussels tapestry of a village festival, once owned by J.P. Morgan – far less than the , it made at Christie’s in . But the sale also included a partial set of five mid th-century Brussels tapestries of the Labours of Hercules (after Van Orley), which sold for , : in that set had made
, , the equivalent of around , in , suggesting their value had held. Two early th-century Florentine allegorical tapestries after Alessandro Allori also did well, achieving , (Spring) and , (Winter) – both estimated at , – , .
‘Medieval and Renaissance tapestries, especially pre- , will attract interest from collectors and curators alike,’ says Stephanie Douglas, tapestry and textile consultant at Sotheby’s. ‘Unicorns always attract interest… landscapes are popular, as they extend your horizon within a room, and most people like trees; and “millefleurs” tapestries also have enduring appeal.’ She cites the auction at Sotheby’s London in of two medieval millefleurs falconry tapestry panels from the southern Netherlands, dating to the first half of the th century. The larger one, estimated at , – , , sold for . m, an auction record for a medieval tapestry (Fig. ); the slightly smaller one, same estimate, achieved
. m. Different weaving centres were prominent at different times, but Flanders was for so long a centre of excellence, reaching its zenith in the mid s, that its brand still holds value. The sale in May at Sotheby’s Paris of the Collection Schickler-Pourtalès, titled ‘Art and Power in the XIXth Century’, reflected this. Tapestries were among the highest achieving lots: a th-century New Testament tapestry from Brussels depicting Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane fetched
, (estimate , – , ; see Contents, p. ); a unicorn and millefleurs tapestry from Bruges or Tournai sold for , (estimate , – , ). Douglas stresses that with tapestries, condition is paramount ‘because they are so vulnerable to light, atmospheric dust and movement’. In the same sale, a rare tapestry from the Condamnation de Banquet series, probably Tournai, early th century, failed to rise above , owing to ‘oxidised browns’.
Amjad Rauf, Christie’s international head of Masterpiece and Private Sales, Decorative Arts, remarks, ‘The market has become highly polarised. There is great demand for early gothic tapestries as well as, at the opposite end of the timescale, for the very decorative, brightly coloured exotic scenes from thcentury Beauvais.’ Christie’s had a triumph on October in its Old Masters sale in New York, where a Franco-Flemish millefleurs tapestry with a unicorn and a stag, c. , achieved , on a , – , estimate. Rauf says that buyers used to go for size and quantity: ‘Now it is about preciousness and rarity.’ He points to The Lady and the Unicorn, an appealing allegorical pastoral millefleurs tapestry from the southern Netherlands, c. – , which sold for
, (five times the high estimate) in the Sotheby’s Paris sale of Bacri Frères Antiquaires – Collection Jacques Bacri, in March
(Fig. ). In October it was the top lot in the Oliver Hoare sale at Christie’s London, fetching , .
Another distinctive genre, inspired by European voyages to exotic lands and dating from the end of the th century to , is that of the so-called Giant Leaf tapestry. In November Simon Franses mounted a focused exhibition, with , the highest price. Fragments are also popular – great works tend to be too large for most domestic interiors. The Sotheby’s Bacri Frères sale included a rare medieval fragment (third quarter th century) featuring a crowded battle-scene from the southern Netherlands, which sold for
, (estimate , – , ). ‘Even a tiny piece,’ Douglas comments, ‘brings to life a whole world.’ Joseph Sullivan, at London-based Peta Smyth Antique Textiles, who has handled a number of mid th-century fragments priced around , – , , concurs: ‘Tapestries of that time have an abstract design quality, a remnant of tapestry being considered a medium to itself, a language of its own.’ The dealership has available a pair of early th-century border fragments from Brussels for , .
Yvan Maes De Wit, of the Mechelen-based tapestry conservators and dealers De Wit, says: ‘We have noticed a strong resurgence of interest in tapestries for several years, as more and more art-lovers realise that highquality tapestries fit well in contemporary interiors.’ De Wit will be bringing to BRAFA an entire th-century Giant Leaf Verdure tapestry (Fig. ) from Flanders, with a price tag of , .