Saturday, 16 February 2013


On Tuesday morning our minibus picked us up for our first visit to Aubusson, a forty five minute journey through the town of Bourganeuf and pretty country vistas interspersed with a couple of tiny roadside villages. Susanne Bouret was waiting at the old train station car park.  The train service stopped many years ago but the Gare Routier sign is still there as though waiting to be reawakened. It was wonderful to see her again, a moment I had really been looking forward to. After the many introductions we set off on our excursion over the Pont Neuf bridge, crossing a little arm of the Creuse River that winds through the town.

Aubusson views
Although this picturesque town has survived on the weaving industry since the 14th C. and its many individual ateliers have been open to public view for decades, Susanne explained that in the last twenty years production has declined due to the poor economic climate and the fact that many weavers have reached retirement age without a generation of younger people to follow them into the craft. However, in 2009 Aubusson and Felletin tapestry received the title of "Intangible Cultural Heritage" from UNESCO to try to save and regenerate the art form and inject some new energy into its practice.

Our first visit was to Atelier 2, run by France - Odile Perrin-Criniere and Martine Stamm. Their studio is behind a well designed shopfront exhibition area which displays many of their tapestries in a great variety of form, colour and sizes. They also run classes in this bright, airy space. What interested us most was their practice, tucked away behind the shop. And so began our conversations, with Susanne's expert translations that interpreted every nuance of our questions and their answers, building a bridge of understanding and camaraderie between weavers, establishing and reinforcing the "common language" of our chosen craft. Everyone, without exception, was generous with their time and tremendously patient with the process. Because it was my second visit to them, our communication was a lot more "chatty". We agreed about the nature of contemporary architecture's propensity to discourage  tapestry commissions as these days the buildings are considered sculptural works of art in their own right with feature walls that are curved and shaped or incorporate decorative elements into their design. As hardworking artist/weavers they were also amused at the slow rate of production expected of the weavers at the Gobelins, and had read that that it took them three months to dye a single colour!

Shop and studio at Atelier A2

France-Odile was working on a large, commissioned tapestry in low warp technique (as do all the Aubusson weavers). It was a many hued abstract design that she had first painted in gouache, then manipulated through a computer program and finally printed as her cartoon that lay beneath the finely warped loom. We were always amazed at the rigours of the low warp technique - the fineness of the warp settings, the proliferation of bobbins used and the back breaking technique of weaving complex imagery from the back of the tapestry, using mirrors poked between the warp threads to examine the front. 
France - Odile at work
Martine was also at work in the studio on a photoshopped version of Monet's bridge at Giverny. The colours were quite bizarre and she found it a difficult exercise capturing the fluid nature of the artwork in woven form. She often works on vibrant pieces in collaboration with her husband, a sculptor in granite. In these works the hardness of the etched and polished stone sets off the soft, colour saturated wool. 
Martine at the loom
We walked across the cobbled streets to meet master dyer, Thierry Roger, the only one left in Aubusson. It was the craft of dyeing that had brought tapestry to Aubusson all those centuries ago, aided by the chemical composition of the Creuse. He inhabited a small, open dwelling which had seen a lifetime of use, every surface testament to accretions of colour. It was hot work on a warm day as he raised and lowered the steaming hanks into a dye bath, checked them and infused them again. He had everyone in thrall as he guesstimated the smidgeons of colour to be added to the heated baths and dipped the the hanks into their boiling recesses. When he raised them they had turned from  pale yellow to a luminescent acid green.

Open pots of tincture lay on a table and Mr Roger would add the merest shred, by eye, to change a tone. He showed us a painting that he had been sent to match, his visual repertoire so acute that he could reproduce the colours exactly in wool. We bought some yarn from his tiny shop with its enticing rainbow shelves, and were surprised to learn that it is spun from Australian and New Zealand merino.  

 The dye bath
Dye pots
Visual colour matching

Our next visit was to the garden of a property high above the town where Susanne had her conservation studio. The building was most interesting - it had been a famous 19th C. tapestry and carpet weaving manufactory and sits in a delightful, walled garden full of old roses. The tapestry workshop was last owned by Suzanne Goubely, who worked with a famous tapestry designer of Aubusson, Dom Robert, who was also a monk. 

 Old dyeshop in the garden
We unpacked our lunch and sat in a circle on pieces of garden furniture, a good opportunity for everyone to get to know Susanne. Upstairs, her textile conservation studio is housed in a large room that still has old looms and hanks of wool left over from its previous life. Susanne showed us her latest tasks in hand, a tapestry dating from the 1950s that was an abstraction of Uccello's The Rout of San Romano that needed extensive cleaning, and a quite crudely woven 17th C. tapestry that had been badly stitched together. 
Susanne in her studio
Our final destination that day was the former Musee Departmental de la Tapisserie that has been absorbed by the Cite Internationale de la Tapisserie et de l'Art tisse. Established as the heart of the project to oversee the revival of Aubusson tapestry, it will be relocated in 2015 to the Ecole Nationale Superieur des Arts building once it is renovated. We were shown around a special exhibition by the curator, Bruno Ythier. Entitled Tapisserie Art Deco, a L' Exposition Internationale, Paris, 1925, it occupied most of the gallery space. Concentrating on the tapestry exhibits at the Grand Palais in that year, the settings of chairs, carpets and wall decorations had been faithfully reassembled with the help of the Mobilier Nationale in Paris. All the work had been woven in Beauvais, Aubusson and at the Gobelins. Highly figurative, it bore more relation visually to Art Nouveau and the Pre - Raphaelite aesthetic rather than the clean, decorative lines to which we accord the name Art Deco. Romantic trysts in enchanted forests and anthropomorphised animals abounded.
Large wall rug at the Tapisserie Art Deco exhibition
Mr. Ythier gave us an animated description, Susanne translating all the way. The exhibition culminated in a room of Aubusson student work of the era. An innovative teacher at the time, Antoine Marius - Martin had insisted on dispensing with highly detailed, painted colour cartoons and had gone back to using simple, black and white line drawings to encourage the students to find weaving solutions to their interpretations. A course of action that Archie Brennan would definitely have approved of! Unfortunately a difference in the results were not altogether apparent.

Each year the Cite runs an International design competition to foster innovation in tapestry and we were able to view the design proposals and the tapestry samples of the winners in the past two years. In 2011 I was also fortunate to visit the studio of master weaver Benard Battu as he worked on one of the winning designs by Olivier Nottellet, a graphic work in three colours with allusions to a mysterious landscape, and Patrick Guillot as he wove Peau de Licorne by Nicolas Buffe. These works will form the core contemporary collection of the Cite and act as a drawcard to encourage further International commissions from Aubusson weavers.

We returned to the Manoir quite sated, and looking forward to the lovely meal that Valerie would prepare for us that evening.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

"Manorial Life"

This post takes its name from a suite of six "millefleur" tapestries in the Musee du Moyen Age, relating to aristocratic daily life and woven in the Southern Netherlands in 1510. A totally appropriate description of a gorgeous week in the country, ensconced in the gracious Demeure du Bost. 

We were picked up from the Hotel du Mail by an enthusiastic young man, Nicolas, who turned out not to be our driver for the five hour journey to Bourganeuf. I felt a bit sorry that we wouldn't benefit from his extrovert style, but he was only to drive us to the bus station in Saumur (home to the most beautiful, fairytale castle of all), where he was traded for the elegant and diminutive Anne Marie who drove us impeccably all the way in shiny, black, very high heels! But not before he'd swung past his home town of Brissac and its impressive chateau that sits comfortably on the main street. It has been in the same family for 600 years, and the area is known for its production of sweet white wine.

And so to Aubusson, the Manoir and the truly incomparable week of our tour!  It was a warm, summery day and the countryside shimmered in the sunshine, all blue skies and golden fields criss-crossed with banks of verdant trees and the presence of the river never far away.

Countryside around the Manoir

The Manoir is buried deep in the country, five kilometers from the village of Bourganeuf in the Creuse district. As we wound around small, curving roads in our big coach I was delighted to be able to recognise the turn off immediately, much to the relief of Anne Marie.

Situated in rolling fields with a stand of immensely tall trees for protection, the 250 year old Manoir is indeed magnificent. Built of grey stone in three storeys, its white shuttered windows yield to the sun on both sides and deciduous ivy patterns the outside walls. Entering through the heavy front door we were swept away by the sheer size of the interior space and the luxuriousness of its contents. The caretaker, Francois, walked us through room after room of furniture dating from the Renaissance to Louis XIV and XV. Heavily carved yet beautifully proportioned cupboards and wardrobes hold all the daily household needs and there are velvet covered settings in two sitting rooms with high, gilded mirrors and tall French windows to let in the light. Traditional tapestries woven in Aubusson abound, and nearly every room in this eight bedroom abode boasts one. I particularly love the stone - floored rustic kitchen and its great collection of catering sized pots and pans.

 Formal sitting room
 Kitchen with Aubusson tapestry
Downstairs bedroom with"bateau - lits"

We wandered excitedly through the many rooms and I suggested bedrooms for each person. By the most enormous luck each one had instinctively gravitated to the room I had in mind for them, which was a great relief to me. Everyone had fallen in love instantly with the impressive house and its bountiful surroundings.

The grounds have a careless charm, un manicured except for a grassy path bounded by young lavender leading to a secluded rotunda of foliage - a place for sitting under a huge, shady tree and contemplating the property. Tucked behind a grove of hedges a swimming pool gleamed pristinely in the sunshine, and proved to be a focus of much pleasure in the warm evenings, the natural gathering place for drinks and feeling the last of the sun on our faces.

The Lavender path
Tai Chi by the pool with Sally

Soon our lovely caterer Valerie Largorsse arrived with a note of welcome and some tapestry frames  from my wonderful, indispensable contact in Aubusson, Susanne Bouret, who had very generously liaised with the Aubusson weavers and arranged our two days of visits to the town. Susanne is an esteemed conservator of textiles and a wonderful translator because she knows and understands both the language and technique of weaving so well. I couldn't do this part of the tour without her depth of knowledge and her willingness to be involved.

Valerie produced a marvellous meal for us, and as well as catering for every evening meal she came each day laden with bread and fresh fruit and vegetables, homemade pates, terrines and rillettes for our picnic lunches, eggs and cereal and confiture for our breakfasts. On the second day Francois arrived with an enormous box of fresh farm produce to supplement our provisions, including tomatoes with a flavour that could only be imagined. Valerie and I had discussed menus before our visit and I asked for them to be simple but characteristic of French cuisine. Night after night she delighted us with the variety and excellence of her efforts, also catering thoughtfully for three people who had food allergies. Betty sat in the kitchen with her each evening and compiled a list of her recipes to share, Valerie explaining patiently the details of ingredients and methods. We all grew very fond of her during our week together.

Our time here was divided between a workshop to learn and explore tapestry techniques designed to accommodate the skills of the participants, and visits to the studios of Aubusson weavers, the Cite Internationale de la Tapisserie and the Atelier Pinton, in nearby Felletin. After settling in to the lovely surroundings and waking to the fresh, country air we warped up our frames on the second day, using the large dining room as an ideal studio, scattering the enormous table with our materials. As I had students from several levels of accomplishment I tailored the workshop to their individual needs. Inspired by the wealth of tapestry that we had seen so far, the beginners were very keen to learn the basic technique and the more experienced weavers had very definite ideas about what they wanted to pursue. These included explorations of Mediaeval tapestry techniques and weaving "en plein air", picturing the surrounds of the Manoir.

Workshop in the Dining Room

Stephnie working "en plein air"

Samplers and small tapestries

We passed the week in a wonderful haze of work balanced by leisure, with morning and evening walks  down picturesque lanes bounded by farms and old stone houses, long evenings of conversation, dips in the pool and lots of laughs. The group had bonded extremely well and shared this whole experience in very good spirit. I felt lucky to be one of them. 

The river and bridge close to the property

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Epic Apocalyptic visions and Mediaeval delights

The next morning we walked through the winding streets of Angers to the Chateau, an enormous fortress sitting precipitously on an outcrop of rock, its vast proportions dominating the edge of the city and overlooking the river Maine.  Its history dates from the Neolithic period and it has been, in turn, over the centuries, a barracks, a prison and a castle that entertained a dazzling court life. 

The chateau exterior with flower garden planted in the moat

The Apocalypse tapestry measuring 100 metres long by 4.5 metres high was commissioned in 1375 by Louis 1, Duke of Anjou, and was completed in 1382, a scant seven years in the production of a masterpiece. Woven during the 100 years' war between Britain and France it depicts the hellish ravages of plague and famine in exquisite tableaux, the subject matter tamed in its representation by the order of its design and excellence of weaving.

L'Apocalypse in the purpose built space

Designed by court painter Jean Bandol (also referred to as Jean de Bruges) from existing Anglo - French manuscript cycles owned by Charles V, 71 scenes from 7 panels measuring 80 feet long by 20 feet high have survived the centuries. The tapestries, that had performed an important ceremonial role in the Royal courts between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, fell into disrepair, neglected and abandoned from the end of the eighteenth to the middle of the nineteenth until discovered and restored by the Canon of Angers cathedral. In 1954 they were returned to the Chateau to be put on display.   Now exhibited in a purpose built, low lit gallery it is possible for the viewer to focus entirely on the detail of its superb rendering and lose oneself in the wonderful breadth of its scale.

The suite is based on the Apocalypse according to St. John, who wrote the book of Revelations whilst exiled on the Greek island of Patmos in 96 AD, suffering persecution under the Roman Empire. It pictures a "divine" vision that is also a "prophecy", a work intended to 'edify, exhort and console.' Like many tapestries of the middle ages it plays an instructive and didactic role, illustrating the required constancy of God's faithful servants in the battle between good and evil. Here Christ is depicted as the Glorious Lamb, and Satan as the Great Dragon. St. John appears in each scene playing in turn the parts of witness, spectator and participant, his face becoming the emotional register for the unfolding events.
The seven headed beast from The worship of the Dragon
It comprises 67 horizontal scenes, 1.8 m. in height and 2.8 in width, arranged in two rows and grouped in six large sections. Four of them begin with tall, vertical panels, 4.53 m. in width. It is known that Bandol made the cartoons for the first two sections and the start of the third. Interestingly, these initial panels have plain backgrounds, but from the third section they become ornamented with complex motifs of plants, birds, monograms and "quadrilobe lozenges", perhaps testament to the increasingly demonstrable skills of the weavers.

The original strong background colours that alternate red and blue have faded to soft rose and teal but in 1982 the linings were removed to clean the tapestries and another "revelation" took place. It was discovered that the strong yellows had disappeared, the abundant greens had faded to soft blues and the oranges had turned pink. The tapestries were photographed and the images reversed for Front & Back, (Francis Muel, 1996) an excellent picture publication from which I have gleaned much of the information presented here. 

Photographed from the back, The Fourth Trumpet, the Eagle of Woe.

There is much to see in the grounds of the Chateau, the walls of which are flanked by seventeen towers. Expansive gardens, a frescoed chapel that dates from 1410, the royal palace and a parapet walk all add to the atmosphere of this vast, enclosed space that takes you so effortlessly back in time.

15th C. fortified gateway with Pepperbox turrets

View of the bridge and town from the Chateau wall

We found a charming creperie just outside the walls of the chateau to lunch in, appropriately named Creperie du Chateau, with a fixed price main course and dessert crepe served in a cosy atmosphere. The day was quite chilly so we were glad of open fireplaces and warm drinks. 
After a lovely lunch we strolled through a network of tiny, cobbled Mediaeval streets that looked as though they had been unchanged for centuries, delighting in the Tudor style facades and the rough, stone exteriors of the ancient buildings. 

 Mediaeval streets

We crossed the Pont de Verdun and walked the length of the river under an avenue of birches to St. John's Hospital, a collection of 12th C. buildings that displays the work of modern tapestry artist, Jean Lurcat.
 Pont de Verdun
 Avenue along the Quai

The hospital was founded in 1175 by the laity of Angers and later taken over by the clergy. It functioned for 800 years, looking after the needs of the poor and the sick, the great ward housing up to 360 beds. At the front of this remarkable space the original apothecary's dispensary is still on view, displaying a large array of china and porcelain from the renowned French manufactories of the 17th and 18th centuries. The hospital became the city's Antiquities museum in 1865 and remained so until 1967 when Lurcat's Le Chant du Monde found a home there. Acquired from Lurcat's wife after his death in 1966, their placement fulfilled his wish that it be exhibited close to The Apocalypse suite that had inspired him when he viewed it for the first time in 1937.

L' Hopital Saint - Jean


Cloister at the rear of the great space

The L'Hopital is set in delightful gardens and the exhibition space opens to a cloister, complete with well. Restored in 1988, it comprises a collection of buildings that also includes a sick ward, a chapel,  storerooms and cellars. In the nave, the pointed Gothic arches soar upwards  supported by delicate columns, providing the perfect volume for Lurcat's magnificent Song of the World (1956 - 1966) series of tapestries inspired by The Apocalypse. To see these suites in such close proximity (both physically and intellectually) to each other is a rare privilege.  

The French workshop practice of Jean Lurcat saw the restoration of the woven mark in its own right, reversing the trend of copying paintings in wool that had started with the Raphael cartoons in 1510.  Drawing on Mediaeval precedents, his designs were tailored to acknowledge the skills and techniques of the weaver. A designer and painter, he became interested in tapestry in the late 1950s and re-invigorated the weaving community at Aubusson in central France by supplying designs to the individual ateliers. He created his mural form by exploiting the texture of the yarn and limiting the colour palette to forty five tones on a flat field, devoid of perspective. Interestingly, even in his recognition of the weaver’s art and his identification of the woven form as separate from a painted work, Lurcat issued detailed instructions to his weavers, especially in terms of dictating colour choices. He produced scaled up cartoons in gouache that were carefully numbered to indicate well defined colour areas. 

The ten tapestries of The Song of the World are incredibly vigorous, colourful renditions of a modern apocalyptic time, complete with atom bomb and its social fallout. The work is described by the museum as - "a manifesto of a committed artist, this set of ten tapestries is an epic vision, poetic, symbolic and humanist of the 20th century." Two distinct themes emerge - threat, destruction and chaos in the first four tapestries named The Great Threat, The Man of Hiroshima, The Mass Grave and The End of Everything. Then renewal, hope and joy in the next six entitled Man in Glory at Peace, Water and Fire, Champagne, The Conquest of Space, Poetry and Ornamentos Sagrados. Lurcat died while the final tapestry was being woven.

The suite of tapestries in the great space
Detail from The Great Threat

The tapestry Biennales in Lausanne initiated by Lurcat in 1962 unleashed the work of many International individual tapestry and textile artists over the next few decades and gave rise to the contemporary movement. Honouring his contribution the Musee Jean Lurcat was set up in the grounds of the L'Hopital, in a building that was a former orphanage, to show contemporary textile art.

On this visit the special exhibition was entitled Sacre Blanc, a tribute to Thomas Gleb, a painter, originally from Poland whose name became synonymous with the New Tapestry movement. He pioneered huge, ropy "white on white" wallhangings in the 60s and 70s, all too familiar manifestations of crude, geometric, textured wall pieces that fashionably swept the textile art world at the time. However, in this exhibition, fifty invited contemporary textile artists had made work in response to the theme of the "colour white and the sacred" through the use of embroidery, ceramics, lace, drawing, photography, painting and weaving in a varied and subtle exploration of the theme that was an extension rather than a commemoration of Gleb's work. 

Friday, 1 February 2013

Angers - Cathedrals and Courtship

A short train trip from the Gare Montparnasse brought us to Angers, the delightful Mediaeval town in the Loire valley. Its castle houses The Apocalypse, one of the wonders of surviving 14th century craftsmanship - the enormous, poetic tapestry illustrating the book of Revelations in seventy panels.

As we came out of the station in search of taxis several young people in very fancy dress greeted us noisily - there was a lot of whooping and cheering and the distinct evidence of flour bomb debris all over the pavement. We made a hasty escape, but the University "rag" would catch up with us later in the day, fortunately in a very benign way!

After settling into the Hotel du Mail, a charming country hotel built in the style of a manor that occupies two sides of a cobbled courtyard, we walked across the lovely old town to the Cathedrale St. Maurice that contains eleven Gothic tapestries, an imposing Romanesque/Gothic landmark at its centre. The west portal is crowned by two tall towers and a smaller central one that sits on a figured base. Inside, the spare, grey stone walls sweep upwards in true pointed arch manifestations of the Gothic style, yet the high altar shines in showy excess. Designed in the Baroque style in 1758, six marble columns support an intricately gilded canopy.

The tapestries form one of the most famous and precious collections in Europe, and were woven between 1376-81 for the cathedral. However, they are not all on regular view. The illustrations were drawn by Jean Bondol, based on an illuminated manuscript, and the weaving was overseen by Nicolas Bataille whose workshop also produced the acclaimed Apocalypse. More overwhelming was the display of stained glass windows crafted between the 12th and 16th C. with some 20th C. replacements made after the second world war. There is a distinctly reverential atmosphere within the vast space, and the amalgam of styles takes nothing away from the quiet serenity within.

The west front with 15th C. twin towers, 70 and 77 m. high

Sculptures of St. Maurice and his companions

Gothic interior with Baroque altar on the right.

The front of the cathedral faces a sweep of shallow cobbled steps that descend to a pretty fountain in an open square. We sat along the rim of water in gentle Autumn afternoon sunlight, enjoying a view of a shaded park and listening to the high hilarity of a few dozen young people cavorting around.

 The steps and fountain

With absolutely no warning, ten handsome young men descended on our sixty something group, kneeling in front of each of us and singing, in unison, a pledge of undying love with great gusto and feigned emotion. At the finish they demanded our telephone numbers!

The serenade

After being courted we ambled slowly back through the main square, stopping at shops that sold interesting handmade toys and embroidery wools, and indulged in generously scooped cones of delicious ice cream. We dined at a tiny Greek cafe that I had visited previously, the owner apologising that he had no staff that evening and that the menu would be limited. He turned out great plates of souvlaki lamb and salad, as authentic as you could wish, served with homely hospitality and a warm smile!