Tapestry weaving is an ancient technique. Tapestries for interiors were very popular with the upper classes in the late middle ages. Rich tapestry owners liked large-scale scenes of aristocratic life, such as hunts, or improving biblical stories or allegories.
The V&A holds a number of medieval tapestries, including a series depicting hunting and courtly pursuits known collectively as the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries.
The term tapestry (or tapetum in Latin documents) originally meant a wall hanging, including woven tapestry. The term tapestry is often applied today to needlepoint or other stitched textile. True tapestry is woven.
Areas of production
Workshops in France, Flanders and Germany produced most of the tapestries that graced the walls of the great houses of England in the middle ages. These expensive and luxurious tapestries were exported throughout Europe and were considered a great luxury.
Tapestries on display
Tapestries made rooms more colourful and comfortable, keeping rooms warmer by insulating stone walls, whilst at the same time proclaiming the owner’s wealth, power and status to visitors. They could also be taken down, rolled up and moved from place to place easily.
Tapestries could be bought ’off the peg’ or could be commissioned to fit a particular room or theme. They were sometimes ordered in sets known as ’rooms’ or ‘chambers’, consisting of several pieces designed to fit together which could include cushion covers, wall hangings, bed hangings and bench backs.
Tapestry weavers worked in professional workshops which were often large scale. Some weavers also travelled between workshops. We don’t usually know the names of the weavers or workshops that produced surviving tapestries of this period. Rich owners would also employ a man to take care of their tapestries, transporting them from place to place as needed and carrying out any mending or alterations in workshops.
Cartoons or designs
The weavers worked to a full-scale pattern created by an artist or specialist, known as a cartoon. These were used as a reference tool by the weavers. Many designs were re-used and adapted to suit the project. The most famous tapestry cartoons from Renaissance Italy are by Raphael and are on display in the V&A.
Tapestry reading list
An annotated list by Juliet Griffin
Ackerman, Phyllis: Tapestry the Mirror of Civilisation (AMS Press, NY, 1970 – reprinted from the 1933 edition)
A thorough history of tapestry and those who wove it throughout the world since ancient times.
Pianzola, Maurice, and Coffinet, Julien: Tapestry (Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, NY and London, 1971)
Small-format, illustrated with photos of tapestries including some unusual medieval pieces.
Phillips, Barty: Tapestry (Phaidon, London, 1994)
Superb, lavishly illustrated survey of tapestry through the ages, including a chapter on tribal weaves and another on buying and caring for tapestries.
Museum and exhibition catalogues
Adelson, Candace J: European Tapestry in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1994)
Huge, luxurious catalogue of the tapestries, organised by country of origin. Most are post-medieval. The descriptions of the tapestries are comprehensive and detailed, and include mention of the type of yarn used (wool, silk, gold or silver) though not the dyes.
Campbell, Tom, ed., Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2002
Cavallo, Adolph S: Medieval Tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1993
Erlande-Brandenburg, Alain: La Dame A La Licorne (Michel Aveline Editeur, Paris, 1993)
In French. Lavish examination of the tapestries, with a great number of very clear colour plates of extreme close-up detail.
The Lady and the Unicorn (Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, 1989)
Shorter softcover survey of the tapestries, mainly consisting of colour or b&w plates of details. Includes a history of the tapestries, comparing them with related pieces.
Fromaget, Brigitte: La Tenture de la Vie de la Vierge (1995)
In French. Description and analysis of the tapestry set, with large colour plates of general views and very good close-ups. One or two photos of the reverse of details, and an account of the recent conservation of the pieces.
Guy, Marguerite: Présentation des Tapisseries de Reims – La Vie de la Vierge, La Vie de Saint Remi (Editions Michaud, printed at L’imprimerie du Nord-Est à Reims, Second edition 1973)
In French, several reasonably good b&w plates of unusual tapestries.
Huchard, Viviane, Antione, Elisabeth, Lagabrielle, Sophie and le Pogam, Pierre-Yves: Guidebook to the Musée National du Moyen Age, Thermes de Cluny, Paris (Musées et Monuments de France, Paris, 1996) English edition (trans Margaret Clarke)
lavishly illustrated with large colour photos. Tapestry is mentioned in three chapters, and the illustrations show some of the best examples of the excellent collection of Coptic and medieval tapestry owned by the Cluny.
Joubert, Fabienne: La Tapisserie Médiévale au Musée de Cluny (Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris 1987)
In French. Comprehensive catalogue of the museum’s medieval tapestry collection, fully illustrated with colour and b&w plates of the tapestries and related materials.
La Tapisserie au Moyen Age (Editions Ouest-France, 2000)
In French. Includes a useful list of places to see medieval tapestries in France.
Muel, Francis: Tenture de l’Apocalypse d’Angers; l’Envers et l’Endroit (1996)
In French. A glorious set of photographs of the front and back of many section of the Angers Apocalypse. An excellent demonstration of the vivid colours of the unfaded reverse of a 14th century tapestry. Several large close-up shots.
Oursel, Raymond: L’Hôtel Dieu de Beaune (Lescuyer, Lyon, May 1968)
In French. History and description of the Hôtel Dieu hospital, illustrated with b&w photos of the buildings and some of its treasures. Of interest regarding tapestry solely for its colour cover, which shows a large section of a particularly fine tapestry with the arms of the hospital’s founder.
Souchal, Genevieve: Masterpieces of Tapestry from the 14th to the 16th Century: an Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Metropolitan Museum, New York, 1974)
A very interesting exhibition catalogue, illustrated with b&w and colour plates of rare tapestries.
Wingfield Digby, George, assisted by Wendy Hefford: The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries (HMSO, 1971)
An old-fashioned discussion of the history of the tapestries (including their restoration) and of other hunting tapestries. Includes a description of hunting. Large number of b&w plates, some rather blurry.
Wingfield Digby, George: Victoria and Albert Museum - The Tapestry Collection: Medieval and Renaissance, HMSO, London, 1980
Woolley, Linda: Medieval Life and Leisure in the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries (V&A Publications, London, 2002)
A discussion of hunting and court fashions of the time.
Delmarcel, Guy: Flemish Tapestry (English edition Thames & Hudson, London, 1999, translated from Dutch by Alastair Weir)
Very detailed account of Flemish tapestry from the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth century, with large numbers of photos of tapestries. Useful appendices giving details of makers’ and town marks.
Eirwen Jones, Mary: British and American Tapestries (Tower Bridge Publications, Essex, 1952)
40 pages of b&w plates. Deals briefly with the manufacture of tapestry and concentrates on the development of the art from its conception to the time of writing.
Fleischmann, Isa: Drache, Greif und Leibesleut’ – Mainzer Bildteppiche aus spätgotischer Zeit (Philipp von Zabern, Mainz am Rhein, 2000)
In German. Illustrated, mostly in colour, including six fold-out pages. One or two excellent close-up details.
Gysin, Frédéric: Swiss Medieval Tapestries (first published 1940 in Basle: English edition – trans Robert C Allen – Batsford, London, 1947)
Essay, illustrated by b&w and colour plates.
Lejard, André (ed): French Tapestry (Paul Elek Publishers Ltd, London, 1946)
Plates in b&w and colour. Chapters on tapestry technique, the use of tapestries in interiors, and early French tapestry.
Grimstad, Kirsten (ed): The Conservation of Tapestries and Embroideries – Proceedings of Meetings at the Institut Royal du Patrimonie Artistique, Brussels, Belgium September 21-24, 1987 (Getty Conservation Institute, 1989)
Nine chapters on tapestry, discussing principles of conservation with illustrations from actual projects. Some interesting photos, mostly b&w.
Stack, Lotus (Ed): Studies of Fifteenth- to Nineteenth-Century Tapestry, in the Conservation Research series (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1993)
Selected papers presented in October 1989 at a symposium held in memory of Joseph V Columbus. Many excellent b&w plates and diagrams including very fine close-up photos of tapestry details. Sections on conservation, dye analysis, makers’ marks and carpets.
This content was originally written in association with the exhibition 'Gothic: Art for England 1400-1547', on display at the V&A South Kensington from 9 October 2003 - 18 January 2004.