Thursday, 27 December 2012

A rainy afternoon at the Gobelins

One of my challenges when setting up the itinerary was to try to get an English language tour of the Gobelins Tapestry Workshop. After months of emailing to all web listed email addresses, responses were not forthcoming. So with a resigned air I herded my group by Metro to the very grand entrance, knowing that a long tour in French would probably be a bit wearisome for them.

The Gobelins Tapestry Workshop was set up under royal patronage in 1662, and is the longest running workshop in the world. The Manufacture des Gobelins was founded as a dye works in the mid-15th century by Jean Gobelin. In 1662, Louis XIV purchased the manufactory and there minister Colbert united all the artisans, creating a royal tapestry and furniture works. Charles Le Brun was director and chief designer from 1663 to 1690. The Gobelins was temporarily closed from 1694 to 1697, after which the works specialised in tapestry. I had first visited there in 1979, a few short years after the establishment of the Victorian Tapestry Workshop (now ATW) in 1976 where I was a production weaver. I was amazed to see the working conditions of the Gobelins weavers, still so governed by the past with apprenticeships that lasted seven years, bondage to the workshop with rules prohibiting their own self expression and studios that were dark and depressing.

A rainy visit 

As well as the workshop, the complex houses a vast, two storey exhibition hall with a changing exhibition program. Last year there was an enormous exhibition of Renaissance and Baroque tapestry that included some examples from The Acts of the Apostles which tied in beautifully with our viewing of the Raphael cartoons at the V & A. We were able to spend an hour taking these in as we waited for an official tour. This year we were treated to Classical tapestries designed by Poussin, an opportunity to view close up the incredibly detailed if somewhat turgid interpretations of figures in landscapes. This style is like a large, ornately prepared meal that in the final event proves to be quite indigestible, and one truly needs a strong stomach to be able to assimilate all the fine excesses of the weaver's craft. 

Statue of Colbert with the chapel behind

I voiced my disappointment over not being able to arrange an English language tour to the attentive young man at the desk, and he, in turn, relayed my request to the smart young woman, Diane Marnier, who was assigned to be our guide. He also furnished me with the details of the person to contact about setting up the tour for next year. Diane generously agreed to explain parts in English for us. The tour is very regimented with an embargo on taking photographs in the studios.


Because of the rain, we started in the chapel that I had not seen before. Plain white walls were draped with "contemporary" tapestries dating from the 1950s and 60s. It is interesting how in France these designs are repeatedly woven over the decades even though they look visually dated. Crossing the cobbled courtyard and the small street that used to be a river on which the initial dye works were established, we entered the newer area.

Vasarely carpet photographed last year outside the Savonnerie

A large, new, multi storey building sits behind a grassed area and is surrounded by a pleasant park full of mature conifers. The visit starts on the top level, outside a studio area known as the "Savonnerie", named after an original soap manufactory. Outside, in the foyer, was an example of a rug with tufted insignia woven in shades of deep royal blue. It was explained to us that Government patronage has taken over where Royal patronage left off, and the carpet had been woven for the President to stand on whilst he witnessed a Bastille day parade from an elevated dais. Inside, the studio is flooded with light and pile rugs of enormous size are being made in high warp technique. We could clearly see the weft being woven in and areas being shaved to the right depth with large shears balanced on a ruler. Diane demonstrated the complicated twining of the weft using her fingers. 

On a lower level the tapestry studio is a bit less rewarding as it is furnished with low warp looms that slope away from the viewer, and all that is really visible is the cartoon below the warps and the design that hangs above. Woven painfully slowly from the back of the work it appears a truly backbreaking exercise as the weavers pause constantly to shove a mirror between the warps to see what their weaving looks like from the right side. They boast that their production rate per weaver is one square metre a year, a rate that would have a production weaver anywhere else out of work! Usually the weavers don't engage with the public, but this time we met and spoke to a woman who had been working there for over thirty years. She was fascinated by the information that we weave from the front, a fact that always seems incomprehensible to French weavers. 

A sincere thanks to our guide, Diane

Diane proved to be a godsend, liberally translating her spiel into English and graciously answering all our questions. I will definitely seek her out next year. We left feeling happy and well informed due to her efforts. 

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