Tapestries

Southern Accents September - October 2004

Written by Logan Ward

Images courtesy of Beauvais Carpets

Press Photo

Woven by many hands long ago to warm the walls of palaces and chateaux, decorative wall hangings combine painterly detail and exquisite craftsmanship

Originally, tapestries served a purpose—to block drafts, divide large spaces into more intimate rooms, and soften the cold stone walls of ancestral piles. But they also represented a pinnacle of artistry, technical skill, and grandeur. They first adorned the walls of royal residences 600 years ago. Back then, the most ardent collectors hung them in layers on their walls. Woven from wool, silk, and threads of gold and silver, tapestries connoted the wealth and good taste of those who displayed them.

Today, they have the same associations—maybe even more so because of their rarity. “Tapestries are works of art and technical marvels,” explains Stan Olshefski, director of the antiques division of Beauvais Carpets in New York, which deals in tapestries. “They have a natural luminosity and dimensionality. Looking at a tapestry, you sort of enter the scene.”

For centuries, tapestries were made in Holland, but during the 17th and 18th centuries, some of Europe’s finest examples were produced in France, where workshops sponsored by the crown filled the great demand. “The technicians who knew how to make textiles were partnered with the artists who knew how to create designs,” says Jeanette Toohey, chief curator of Jacksonville, Florida’s Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, which has eight tapestries and a group of tapestry-covered chairs in its collection.

One of the most famous production facilities was the Beauvais Royal Manufactory located in Beauvais, France. Begun in 1664 by two Flemish weavers and under the patronage of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s enterprising finance minister, the Beauvais Manufactory was a state-subsidized but privately run counterpart to the royal factory at Gobelins. While Gobelins produced tapestries solely on royal order, Beauvais textiles were available to the wealthy. They typically came in series of six or more and were comparable in quality to the textiles of Gobelins.

By the mid-18th century, the workshop at Beauvais had hit its stride, producing brightly colored, exquisitely crafted textiles based on designs by famous artists of the day in a variety of styles, such as verdures (landscapes), as well as depictions of figures and architecture. One of the best-known artists to design at Beauvais was Francois Boucher, a chief arbiter of the rococo style. Boucher’s looping, fanciful cartoons—full-size preparatory drawings (from the Italian word cartone, a type of artists’ paper)—were used as the basis for 45 Beauvais tapestries. Among them were scenes from mythology and idyllic depictions of the countryside, such as The Fountain of Love, in which rosy-cheeked maidens gaze longingly at male suitors against a backdrop of leafy trees, blue sky, and swirling clouds.

One of the most popular series produced by the Beauvais Manufactory was inspired by tales brought back from the Far East by Jesuit missionaries. Known as “Histoire de l’empereur de Chine” (The story of the emperor of China), the 10-part set was first commissioned by Louis-Auguste de Bourbon, Duke of Maine (son of Louis XIV), and his half-brother, Louis-Alexandre de Bourbon. Its depictions of the lavish costumes and strange architecture of the Chinese royalty fed the European infatuation with chinoiserie.

“By the time of Beauvais, tapestries had become finer and more painterly,” says Olshefski. He points to ornate borders, such as those in the “Histoire de l’empereur de Chine” series, which were intended to resemble molding. “They were judged on how closely they resembled the cartoons, right down to the borders that look like frames,” he says. The painters supervised the weavers, and to achieve technical near-perfection, different weavers worked on different sections, according to their talents. “Some worked only on faces and hands, and other did flowers well,” says Olshefski. Thanks to an 18th-century explosion in the number of available dyes, the color range of tapestries grew to include reds, blues, greens, golds, and purples.

Production at the Beauvais Manufactory slowed dramatically during the French Revolution. Tapestries were for members of the aristocracy, who were out of favor at the time. Later efforts to revive the French tapestry industry, including those by Napoleon, were unsuccessful.

Today, Beauvais tapestries can cost a few hundred thousand dollars. Fragments from less pedigreed factories, as well as examples from the 19th century, are less expensive.

In the 19th century, social structures shifted, as did trends in architecture, resulting in smaller (and better insulated) rooms and a growing interest in wallpaper. However, the fact that early wallpaper patterns mimicked tapestry designs demonstrates how influential tapestries once were.

Tapestries today: a designer’s perspective

“Tapestries are wonderful and textural,” says Palm Beach-based designer Bill Eubanks, who is constantly on the lookout for antique tapestries. “They add terrific depth to a space, whether you want a contemporary look or a period room.” Eubanks particularly likes the way the rich, woven wall hangings add warmth and dimension to the clean lines and stark whiteness of modern architecture.

But given the large size of most antique tapestries—few Beauvais tapestries are smaller than 10 by 12 feet—a room has to be designed to accommodate them. “When you hang something that massive on a wall,” he says, “you have to balance everything else in the room, whether the tapestry acts as a subtle background or is the absolute focal point. It’s like buying a painting. When you find a tapestry that truly tugs at the heartstrings, you design around it.”