Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Musee du Moyen Age

Between two Unicorns.

From Stirling to Paris we were literally between two Unicorn suites, the re woven Hunt pageant and the sublimely beautiful Lady.

On a beautiful morning we caught the train to Chatelet and then walked across the wide Pont au Change to our destination, the Musee du Moyen Age on the Boulevard St. Michel. Why is it that the sky seems so much higher in Paris? And why do you always see that perfect, spirit lifting bank of puff ball clouds scattered across the blue as you cross the Seine to the Left Bank?

 View from the Pont au Change towards the Conciergerie

The Musee is structurally the most fascinating accretion of history, from the original Gallo Roman baths dating from 200 AD to the 15th century Hotel de Cluny, its flamboyant Gothic features preserved and restored in the 19th century. It was home to Alexandre du Sommerand from 1833 to 1842, and here he assembled a Mediaeval collection that was purchased upon his death by the State along with the building itself. The treasures that we see today sprang from this embryo, and have been added to over the years through donations and legacies as well as important acquisitions such as the La Dame a la Licorne tapestries in 1882.

Views of the Musee from the courtyard

Evoking the five senses, Sight, Hearing, Taste, Smell, Touch and a sixth entitled A mon Seul Desir, bearing the Coat of Arms of Jean le Viste, the La Dame la Licorne suite originally graced the walls of the castle at Boussac. It was discovered there in a deteriorated state by Prosper Merimee and Georges Sand in the 1840s, and their efforts played a part in the recovery and subsequent recognition and repatriation of the tapestries as major works of art. Believed to be woven as a wedding gift for the family of Jean le Viste in the 1500s, we are still charmed by the enchanting animals and flowers, the spaciousness and balance of the composition, and the supreme labour manifest in this extraordinary expression of love.


Entering the low light of the oval room that houses the famous suite is magical, the magnificence of their glowing presence permeating all. We studied at length the details of superbly refined and exquisite weaving, surely the high point of expression in this medium. Within the sensuality of the flowering garden and the "millefleurs" background the five senses are represented as -

Sight - the lady gazes at the unicorn and holds a mirror in which he observes his own reflection.

Hearing - the lady plays a small portable organ while the maidservant works the bellows.

Taste - the lady picks a sweet out of a golden dish to feed to the parrot perched on her left hand.

Smell - the lady makes a crown of carnations, inhaling their scent while the monkey sniffs a rose from her basket.

Touch - the lady holds an emblazoned banner in her right hand and caresses the unicorn's horn with her left.

A Mon Seul Desir - the lady is either taking or replacing a necklace from a box of jewels. The "sixth sense" illustrated the tapestry could be interpreted as intelligence, wisdom or the "spiritual heart" that governs the five others.

One of the interesting things we discovered on this visit concerned the state of the re woven borders added as restoration in the late 19th century. I had always wondered why these ostensibly newer additions were more faded than the originals. And the answer? The yarn was dyed with chemical dyes as opposed to the natural ones used in the 15th century that have retained their vibrant colour. 

After taking our fill of these wonderful works we moved slowly on through the wealth of small rooms richly decorated with contemporaneous suites of tapestries including The story of St. Stephen, The story of St. Peter, The Offering of the Heart and Aristocratic Life. As well as the tapestries the Musee houses an abundance of Mediaeval craftsmanship - enamel and metalwork, ivories, stained glass, embroidery and sculpture dating from the fifth century.

Manorial Life

Ceiling of the Chapel

We lunched in a brasserie across the road and then made our way back to view the garden, bounded by the boulevards St. Germain and St.Michel.  Opened in 2000, the garden is designed to resonate with the Musee collection and provide respite from the busy contemporary world that surrounds it. Drawing inspiration from the treasures within, it includes medicinal plants, a celestial garden where flowers such as lilies and irises symbolise the Virgin Mary, and a garden of love reflecting courtly pastimes. A "millefleurs" flowerbed directly references the wonderfully complex floral background motifs of the tapestries.


Views of the garden and back of the Musee

Monday, 22 October 2012

To Paris with love

On Sunday we coped with a very crowded Edinburgh airport and flew Air France to Paris, a short smooth journey that took less time than the waiting at either end. We arrived on a hot afternoon and the ride to the hotel was comfortably efficient in a luxury minivan.

The Moliere monument on the corner of Rue Moliere and Rue de Richelieu

 Rooftops along the Rue Moliere

The Hotel Moliere was a delight, well situated in the Rue Moliere which is just off the Avenue de L'Opera and very close to to the Rue de Rivoli and the Louvre complex. Charming old style rooms decorated in chintzes and toiles awaited us and it was easy to shake off the wearying aspects of travel and freshen up for an evening walk around the Palais Royal. Its cool arcades were welcome respite from the heat of the day and its boutiques offered up a range of fashionable distractions as we ambled around the quadrangle.

Evening at the Palais Royal

The central garden basked in the late golden light, offering up a full flush of summer roses, untidy against the pillar straight avenues of trees. We sat on the edge of the fountain and enjoyed the stray drops caught by the breeze, the whole place alive with the sounds of families delighting in the warmth of the evening. How can you not love Paris, especially at moments like these?

Gardens of the Palais Royal

We found an interesting restaurant tucked behind the Palais in the Rue de Beaujolais, quite empty except for our party. The French come out to eat and play much later, it seems. With a fixed price menu and boasting "Cuisine a base de produits biologiques" we felt in safe hands. The handsome young waiter was delighted to tell us that he had been in Melbourne for the Australian Open and that he was a keen tennis player. He certainly looked after us with a great deal of athletic panache!

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

A birthday at Stirling Castle

Saturday September 8th was my birthday and we had a particularly active schedule, up early to catch the 10 o'clock train from the Edinburgh Waverley station to the pretty town of Stirling, a forty minute train ride, then by bus to the top of the hill that is crested with the imposing castle, home to Scottish royalty for hundreds of years.

Our group at Stirling

The reason for the visit was to see the re woven Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, a project that has been undertaken by the West Dean tapestry studio over a period of twelve years. Originally woven in Brussels between 1495 and 1505, this famed suite of six tapestries hangs in the Cloisters in New York, part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the theme of this allegorical hunt, the fabled Unicorn is associated with purity and inaccessible love, and the hunt is a mission to capture the animal for its healing powers.

Funded by Historic Scotland and the Quinque Foundation of the United States, the new tapestries have been woven on a horizontal or low warp loom at West Dean and also on a vertical, high warp loom at a purpose built studio at Stirling. They are one tenth smaller and warped at ten ends to the inch as opposed to the 18 -20 ends of the originals.

Past and present collide in this endeavour as contemporary artist weavers inhabit the skin of the mediaeval artisan and create a repetition of their thoughts and movements in a fascinating exercise. Enormous research has gone into the making, from careful examination of the 15thC. Hunts, to the establishment of the colour palette, the dyeing of the range of yarn and the sampling of the elements that make up these incredibly complex panoramas. Conforming to ancient techniques, tonal gradations are achieved through areas of “hatching” in singular colours rather than mixing strands of wool together.  There are enchanting vignettes of botanically accurate bunches of “millefleurs”, dainty animals, prancing hunters clothed in a variety of fabrics, jewelled ladies, sleek baying hounds, animated mediaeval faces and the calm purity of the hunted mythical Unicorn in their midst.

Five of the tapestries are complete, and the last one will be ready in next year.  Senior weaver Katherine Swailes has imaginatively re - created the final and sixth tapestry in the suite as in actuality it only exists in two incoherent strips of weaving. The missing areas of the tapestry have been re - imagined through referencing other work of the period, including the contemporaneous La Dame a la Licorne from the Musee du Moyen Age in Paris.

 Tapestry studio with artwork in the background

Tapestry detail

Our first stop was the studio where the final tapestry sits dormant, as the weavers have been co opted into an urgent project at the West Dean studio in Sussex. A sprightly guide gave us a very full explanation of the weaving technique and the history of the project that somewhat made up for the lack of actual demonstration. Seeing the quality of this work up close is a revelation and the amount of skill employed to render the detail is quite awe inspiring.

The Palace

Built by Scotland's James V for his French bride Marie de Guise, the palace has recently undergone a 12 million dollar refurbishment that sets it authentically in the mid sixteenth century. Completed originally in 1545, at the height of the Renaissance, its flamboyant decorative past has been painstakingly captured in carved and brightly stencilled panels and gilded columns. This is where 
Mary Queen of Scots spent her childhood with her mother, Marie.

After lunch we entered the newly renovated Queen's apartments in the Palace to view the completed Hunt tapestries that grace the freshly painted rooms. Although displayed in an authentic manner, they are hung up so high that it is impossible to appreciate the amount of work that has gone into the weaving. It is also very disappointing that an embroidered velvet throne canopy has been installed in a way that blocks out considerable sections of two tapestries.

Tapestry installation in the Queen's bedroom

A treatise on the mythology of the Unicorn by a costumed guide dressed as an attendant of the Royal Court. 

He holds a replica of the horn of a Narwhal, thought to be related to the Unicorn.

And what of the birthday? I had a very special day because my dear friend Carol Dunbar, an artist weaver who has lived in Orkney for twenty five years, came down to Edinburgh to spend the day with me. We met at the Edinburgh College of Art in 1980 and have maintained our friendship through all the ups and downs of the intervening years, bridging continents and hemispheres. It was so exciting to meet her at the station and talk non stop all the way to Stirling and back, and continue the conversation later over cups of tea and dinner. Carol's work has recently been featured in Tapestry - a Woven Narrative, a comprehensive survey of tapestry from the past to the present day, compiled by Fiona Mathison, Caron Penney and Timothy Wilcox.

With Carol at Stirling

We ate our lunch outdoors, the grey skies belying the mildness of the weather and the lack of a customary stiff breeze. As we finished my lovely tour participants sauntered up the hill singing Happy Birthday and presented me with a card and little package wrapped in gift paper from the V&A. To my great delight it contained a delicate muslin scarf that I had admired a few days before in the V&A shop. It is from a design by Cecil Collins for "Avon" furnishing fabric, originally woven by the Edinburgh Weavers in 1960 and featured in the recent British Design exhibition at the V&A. I felt quite emotional when I realised how truly thoughtful they had been.

Birthday presentation with Stephnie and Marie

More images from the visit

My thanks to Eleanor Muir, visitor experience manager at Stirling Castle, for hosting us and making us feel most welcome. 

Monday, 1 October 2012

Dovecot's century

On Friday morning we walked the charming cobbles of the Grassmarket and up through the winding steps to North Bridge and then to Infirmary Street to the historic Dovecot Studios, now successfully housed in a complex that used to be the Edinburgh Baths. This beautiful new incarnation of the studio was financed by a private benefactor, Alastair Salveson. With a huge timbered floor space and generously proportioned mezzanine area that surrounds it, it has found a home that compares very well with the gracious interior of our own Australian Tapestry Workshop. Clever management of the surrounding spaces that include exhibition areas, a coffee shop and even apartments mean that income from the whole building subsidises the survival of the tapestry studio.

The main attraction at the moment is the 100th anniversary exhibition, Weaving the Century, which is presented in three large downstairs spaces and also along the upstairs mezzanine that runs above the studio space. I was eager to see how many of the older tapestries would be there as I had experienced first hand knowledge of many of the works from the previous large retrospective in 1980, Master Weavers. At that time I was living in Edinburgh and studying at the Edinburgh College of Art, and my ex - husband photographed the catalogue, an exercise that took us to stately homes and castles including Mt. Stuart on the Isle of Bute, the ancestral home of the Marquess, the Dovecot's first patron, to photograph the magnificent Lord of the Hunt tapestry. An enormous work measuring over 32 feet, it was commenced in 1912 and finished after the first world war in 1924, the two original weavers having lost their lives during the war. Sadly this tapestry was not part of the current exhibition.

We had a very well informed guide, Francesca, who is doing a PhD on the history of the studios. Curated by art historian, Dr Elizabeth Cumming, there are over sixty tapestries in the show. The oldest work is the very impressive The Admirable Crichton that dates from 1930 and was woven over a period of three years. An expansive tableau, it looks like a still from a film and honours James Crichton, a forebear of the Bute family. Its rich design demonstrates the enormous skills of the weavers and the quality of their production. A large, framed sampler also emphasises the rigorous training of apprentices at this time.

Photography was not permitted in the exhibition area, but it was exciting to see the artistic evolution of the Studio as it worked through the design fashions of the 1940s, to the 1950s under the aesthetic guidance of Sax Shaw, and towards what must be seen as its hey day under the directorship of Archie Brennan from the early 1960s. Starting as an apprentice and soon becoming a distinguished artist and designer in his own right he brought a new vitality to the process through his informed insight into the medium and his intelligent collaboration with leading artists of the time including Eduardo Paolozzi, Harold Cohen, David Hockney and Louise Nevelson. These works still have the ability to take your breath away, and as a former production weaver I once again had the opportunity to appreciate how thoroughly the designs had been assessed and explored and how far away they are from mere reproductions of the artists' work.

The newest tapestries are hung out of the main exhibition rooms, around the wide mezzanine that surrounds the actual workspace. Colourful, experimental, textural, and sometimes three dimensional, they display a variety of approach and a desire to engage with contemporary art in all its eclectic forms.

Studio views

After seeing the exhibition we went down onto the studio floor and weaver, Jon Cleaver, demonstrated the basic technique of tapestry weaving to the group. This was particularly useful to four of my participants who had not woven before. We were then able to view work in progress and rugs that were being tufted with a gun at the rear of the studio. There is a large tapestry entitled Large Tree Group on the loom designed by Victoria Crowe as a mark of the centenary of tapestry at Dovecot. The yarn has been sourced from fleece all around the UK to form a palette of natural colour in undyed wool. A snowy scene is emerging as a bleak figure trudges towards a stand of bare trees.

 Jon demonstrates tapestry technique

Victoria Crowe tapestry in progress

At the conclusion of the viewing we were able to have a sandwich lunch in the meeting room - a lovely, light filled space with sleek, modern furniture - during which the Director, David Weir, popped in to greet us. I first met him when I visited in 2009, and it was very good to see that the whole complex is thriving under his leadership. My thanks to Kirsty Sumerling for arranging a very well planned and enjoyable visit.