A Labour of Love

December 18, 2009

By Stuart Frost

There is an extensive and varied programme of events to support the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. Activities, talks, special projects and lectures will take place throughout 2010. A fascinating demonstration took place on Saturday 5th December, the first weekend the galleries were open to the public, and it focused on a unique object that I think will astound visitors who see it.Quilted bedcover, Italy, about 1355-1400. Museum no. 1391-1904.

The object in question is a large bed-cover that can be dated between 1360-1400, and perhaps even more precisely than that. The quilt is vast, 320cm high by 287cm wide. It is decorated with fourteen scenes from the story of Tristan. The photograph to the right shows a detail from one of the scenes, with the hero Tristan pointing to his sword.

Photographs of the original quilt really don’t do it justice. It looks far more spectacular in reality, partly because it is easier to appreciate its vast scale and to read the scenes. The image at the bottom of this page should give you a sense of how big the quilt is, although it doesn’t include all of the object.

Tristan is a chivalrous knight who performs great deeds but whose life is ultimately brought to a sad conclusion as the result of a tragic love affair with Isolde, the queen of his lord, King Mark of Cornwall. As in many great romance stories, love grows but doom follows.

The Tristan quilt belongs to the age of romance literature, a type of literature that was popular from the middle of the twelfth century until the sixteenth. These types of poems and stories were written in the local vernacular, rather than the Latin of the church. .Detail from a modern copy of the Tristan Quilt made by Francine Nicolle.

If you click on any of the pictures in this blog entry you will find more information about the quilt, and be able to access a larger group of images on Flickr. Some of those photographs relate to conservation work that was undertaken to prepare the quilt for display in the new galleries. Others, like the one to the left, relate to the recent demonstration of the technique that was used to create the copy.

The scenes on the quilt were created by stitching the outlines of the figures through two layers of linen, and then carefully stuffing the pockets between the layers with cotton. Then the loose stitches that form the outline were tightened. The figures are raised in relief, the background between them is flat. The technique is still practiced in France where it is known as boutis. Over a number of years a large number of French men and women brought together by the Musee de Boutis in Calvisson have been involved in making a modern copy of the Tristan quilt.

Francine Nicolle has been the driving force behind the project. I first met her several years ago when she brought examples of the work to the V&A. After six thousand hours of work her copy of the quilt was finally completed earlier this year. It really is a remarkable achievement and one which raises many interesting questions about how the original was made. Francine and her French colleagues arrived in London on Friday 4th December, and the following day they laid out the quilt in the Sackler Centre Art Studio so that the public could see it. Throughout the day a number of demonstrations took place, and the public were able to participate and try the technique for themselves.

Detail from a modern copy of the Tristan Quilt made by Francine Nicolle.The event was a great success thanks to the efforts of the delegation from Calvisson and colleagues in the Learning & Interpretation department who planned the event over a long period of time. French speakers from within the department were on hand to translate the talks given by Francine and her team. The provision of powerful lights helped to illuminate the quilt and show exactly how the figures on the quilt were raised. The attention to detail helped give visitors a clear sense of the technique. It really was a remarkable event and quite an emotional occassion.

I’ll post extra photographs of the event on Flickr in due course. I’d like to thank everyone involved in the project, but especially Francine Nicolle, Catherine Paoli, Christina Shannon and at the V&A Helen Didier and Maureen McKarkiel.

Quilted bedcover, Italy, 1355-1400. Museum no. 1391-1904.Although the galleries themselves are now open this doesn’t mean that the work of the project team has finished. A large amount of content will be added to the V&A website over the coming months so if you check back at regular intervals you are likely to discover something new. The Tristan Quilt is one of the objects that will be the focus on an in-depth online only subject.

We also hope that a subject exploring the links between some of the key objects in the galleries and the literature of medieval and Renaissance Europe will be added in due course. The version of the Tristan story illustrated on the quilt is a 14th century Italian version that isn’t easy to find. The most accessible English translation is the Penguin Classic edition written by the German Gottfried von Strassburg. He who followed an earlier version written in French by Thomas around 1160. It is a wonderful story, and a very good read.

If you wish to come to the V&A to see the quilt you will find it in Room 9, The Rise of Gothic 1200-1350. It is part of a subject that looks at the subject of Knights and Heraldry. If you wanted an object that epitomised these themes I don’t think you could find a better one. The quilt depicts a magnificent castle, kings and queens, knights in armour, brave deeds and a duel to the death. You can find out more about the quilt and see images of all of its scenes online via Search the Collections.

If you have any questions or comments please do post them below and we’ll endeavour to answer them as soon as we can!

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