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.

France - - Contents -

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.

World-class art­works

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

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