French Tapestry has a long and visible history that stretches from the Middle Ages to today’s surprising art works. Large museums, and little unexpected ones displaying French tapestry offer an insight into this most sophisticated of textile arts. And don’t forget all the châteaux and castles whose walls are lined with these glorious, and practical, masterpieces.
Most people know about the Bayeux Tapestry (which strictly speaking isn’t a tapestry). But what about the Tapestry of the Apocalypse, the creations of Dom Robert, and the weaving of 13 Tolkien tapestries in Aubusson, due to be finished in 2021?
When I began researching French tapestry, I got caught up in the history of the art. I know not everyone shares this, so if you want to skip the history bit, scroll down to Where to See Tapestry in France. If not…
Let’s start with: What is a Tapestry?
Tapestry is a form of textile art produced by hand or more commonly on a loom. It’s created by weaving coloured weft threads through plain warp threads which are stretched on the loom. The warp threads act as the basic grid which weavers use to create a pattern using different coloured weft thread.
Unlike other forms of weaving, the weft threads don’t run all the way across the warp. The weft runs back and forth creating a small block of colour. It’s called a discontinuous weft and these blocks create a pattern or picture.
One other feature which distinguishes tapestry weaving is that the weft threads are beaten down so they hide the warp. It means that the design can be seen on both the front and the back. Older tapestries may today be more intensely colored on the back, as that side has been hidden from light.
Wool is the most common material used. It can easily be dyed and in the past was widely available in all European countries. It’s strong and flexible so can be used as both warp and weft thread.
The very rich commissioned tapestries using silk thread in the weft. Metal thread was also used but this was hugely expensive so you’ll find it mostly in small items like purses and bible covers. If it’s woven into those glorious hangings that covered whole walls you’re looking at a very rich owner.
History of French Tapestry
One of the oldest forms of woven textiles, the golden age of tapestry throughout Europe ran from the 1350s to the end of the 18th century.
Tapestries were large, practical and beautiful. They kept out the cold air, particularly in those draughty medieval castles, and provided a form of entertainment.
As the light from a flaming fire and candles lit up the rooms, the onlookers could follow the stories depicted in lifelike detail. Stories came from the Bible, from mythology or the classics. The better educated you were, the more familiar you would be with the stories.
Biblical tapestries were often frightening. They imitated the carvings over church doorways depicting the horrors of hell, like the entrance to the Abbey of Ste-Foy in Conques. But unlike the stone images, tapestries were fragile and few of those with biblical themes have survived which makes the Tapestry of the Apocalypse (see below) even more remarkable.
Tapestries on the Move
Most importantly tapestries were transportable. They were, as Le Corbusier described them, ‘nomadic murals’.
In a time of very little communication, travel was vital to maintain law and order. Monarchs in particular travelled throughout their countries, showing off their power and wealth to their subjects, particularly to the knights and aristocrats who were no doubt plotting to take the throne.
Before setting off, the tapestries were rolled up for the journey to the next castle or palace where they were to be hung on the walls. In the 1540s the French King Francis I commissioned a set of tapestries based on the decoration that covered the walls of his Great Gallery at Fontainebleau Palace. He carried them around France on his journeys in case he felt a longing for his newly renovated palace near Paris.
14th-century Beginnings & 15th-Century Expansion
The early 14th century was a time of peace and prosperity after the uncertainties of medieval Europe. Fortunes were there to be made…and spent. Tapestries were an obvious way to show off your wealth and power to your peers and peasants.
In France the major tapestry manufacturers set up, naturally, in Paris. A century later, demand was growing and manufacturers set up outside Paris.
Arras, North France
Arras in north France was already a thriving textile town, specialising in fine wool tapestries that were exported to the rest of Europe. One of the most important markets was in England where landowners made rich from the wool trade were demanding luxury items.
Arras produced masterpieces like the Offrande du Coeur made in the Arras workshops between 1400 and 1410. Depicting a young man offering his heart to his love, it’s in the Cluny Museum in Paris.
‘Behind the arras…’
In England, the word arras came to be used for tapestry in the 15th century. By Shakespeare’s time it was in common use and the playwright used it in Hamlet:
“You and I will hide behind the arras and watch what happens. If it turns out that Hamlet’s not in love after all, and hasn’t gone mad from love, then you can fire me from my court job and I’ll go work on a farm.”
The English word tapestry was first used in England in 1467, coming from the old French word tapisser, which translates as covering with heavy fabric or to carpet.
Aubusson, a small town in the Creuse in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, dates its first tapestry production to 1457. In the 16th century it became known for its tapestries ‘with cabbage leaves’. More romantic than the phrase suggests, Aubusson produced astonishing wild landscapes with mythical animals and strange foliage.
French Tapestry in the 16th Century
The French King Henry IV (1553-1610) wanted luxury goods to become part of the nation’s growing economy. What could be more luxurious than tapestries?
The King did two things which were to cement the importance of French tapestry in Europe. He set up a special royal tapestry works in the Louvre. At the same time, he brought in two Flemish master weavers to establish their own workshop in the old Gobelins family dyeworks on what was then the outskirts of Paris.
The 17th Century and the Height of Luxury
In 1662 the royal factory prospered under that master of ostentatious living, the Sun King Louis XIV. He ordered his finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert to buy the Gobelins business from the Flemish. It was expanded to include every artisan skill, from tapestry weaver to cabinetmaker and goldsmiths producing furnishing for the royal residences, especially Versailles.
Gobelins was on a truly epic scale and was named the Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne (Royal Factory of Furnishings to the Crown). In charge of it all was the court painter, Charles Le Brun. He was one of the trio of artists who dominated French taste at the time, with the architect Louis Le Vau and the gardener/architect André Le Nôtre.
State-subsidised French tapestry booms outside Paris
Beauvais began its tapestry manufacturing in 1664. Privately owned but licensed and founded by Louis XIV, Beauvais produced delicate silk and wool tapestries for the nobility and the rich bourgeoisie of the region. Like the other centres, it became known for producing particular themes.
Beauvais specialised in architectural themes and also tapestries known as the Grotesques, a word which at the time referred to the strange, mysterious, magnificent rather than the modern meaning of ugly or unpleasant.
Aubusson was recognised by the monarch and the workshops became a Royal Manufacture of Tapestries in 1665. The styles changed, more in tune with the fashions coming from Paris, particularly the chinoiseries, scenes set in China. Aubusson used a different system of producing tapestries. Instead of one huge manufacturing plant, it was scattered among small independent workshops. It’s a tradition that continues to today.
The French Revolution and beyond
Napoleon was as much in love with luxury as the monarchs and nobles who he sent to the guillotine.
The Gobelins survived the French Revolution and flourished when Napoleon ordered a set of tapestries devoted to him and events of his reign.
He began in 1808 with a woven copy of his favourite portrait, one by François Gérard in 1805. It shows Napoleon in the Throne Room of the Tuileries Palace, the seat of the empire. 8 weavers worked for three years to make it and was presented on March 7, 1811.
19th– and 20th-Century French Tapestry
Tapestry survived in the 19th century but not as a significant commercial form. By this time, as with lace making in centres like Calais, technology that could reproduce tapestry-like furnishings had taken over from the old hand weaving looms. Cost was the final factor.
But it wasn’t the death knell for the art. France has a well deserved reputation for keeping its traditions alive. In the mid 20th century, several significant artists took up the art.
In the 1960s the Aubusson works were commissioned to create the tapestry Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph.
Designed by Graham Sutherland, the tapestry was commissioned to commemorate the bombing of Coventry Cathedral in World War II and was unveiled in March 1962, shortly before the May consecration of the cathedral..
Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph is an astonishing work. At 23 x 12 metres (75ft × 39ft), this is the biggest tapestry in the world made in one single piece. It weighs more than a ton and took four years to make. It uses around 900 colors, is roughly 144 stitches per square inch and was woven by 13 weavers on a loom made from 2 huge tree trunks.
In 2009 UNESCO included Aubusson tapestry craftsmanship in its list of intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity category. It was joined in 2010 by that other great French contribution to the world’s treasures: the food of France.
Where to see Tapestry in France
Gobelins in Paris
The Manufacture Nationale des Gobelins in Paris is still producing tapestries. It’s now part of the French Ministry of Culture and is housed in a large complex of four 17th-century buildings and an early 20th-century building in the 13th arrondissement in Paris, south of the Seine. You can visit either on a guided tour or individually to watch tapestries being made.
The Galerie des Gobelins puts on temporary exhibitions of tapestries and objects from the Mobilier National (the state furniture collection).
Manufacture Nationale des Gobelins
42 Ave des Gobelins
Tel: +33 (0)1 40 79 92 79
Open Wed 1pm & 3pm for a guided individual tour; Tues, Wed, Thurs group tours (currently only in French). All tours last 90 mins
Admission Adult €15.50; concessions €9.50; Group tickets: Adult €13; concessions €8.50
To book: tel: 0825 05 44 05 (€0,15/min), or firstname.lastname@example.org
Musée de Cluny
The museum is famous for its tapestries and medieval fabric collection. The star of the museum is the huge 15th-century tapestry, La Dame et la Licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn), a spectacular work attributed to Flanders weavers and inspired by a medieval German legend.
NB: Unfortunately the Museum is closed for its final renovation work until early 2022. But put it on your list; when it opens it will be one of the biggest must see sights in Paris.
Musée de Cluny
8 Rue du Sommerard
Tel: +33 (0)1 53 73 78 00
Metro/RER: Saint-Michel or Cluny-la-Sorbonne
Tapestry Museums and Sites outside Paris
Cité International de la Tapisserie, Aubusson
It was the addition of the Aubusson tapestry craftsmanship to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity sites that led to the building in Aubusson of the Cité international de la tapisserie museum which opened in 2016. It’s an ambitious project, preserving the tradition with its training, and it shows permanent and temporary exhibitions.
There are three exhibition spaces including the history of Aubusson tapestry and Tapestries of the world.
The Tolkien Project
The museum is also nearing the end of a project to create thirteen tapestries and one carpet based on original graphic works by J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) and created in conjunction with the Tolkien estate.
The project, called Aubusson weaves Tolkein, started in 2017. It’s the first narrative hanging connected to a great literary work since the heyday of such works in the 18th century.
Cité International de la Tapisserie
Rue des Arts – BP 89
Visitor’s Entrance: Rue Williams-Dumazet
Tel: + 33 (0)5 55 66 66 66
Open Sept-June: Daily except Tuesdays 9.30am-noon & 2pm-6pm
July & Aug: Wed-Monday: 10am-6pm; Tuesday: 2pm-6pm
Closed Public holidays and January
Free guided tours at 11am & 3pm
Guided tours in English on reservation (except July & August). See website for prices
Visits of weaving workshops working on the Tolkien tapestry: Weds 11am; Thurs 3pm
Admission Adult €8; concessions €5.50; free for under 18 years
The historic Manufacture de Beauvais in Oise in the Hauts-de-France region of north France is housed in the former town abattoirs.
Again, you can see the craftspeople at work here. The artists’ sketches are placed on the reverse of the tapestry, and the weavers monitor their work using mirrors. Today it’s only France’s major institutions which commission works from Beauvais.
Manufacture de Beauvais
24, rue Henri Brispot
Open for guided visits only. Tues, Weds, Thurs 2pm-4pm. Details from the Office of Tourisme in Beauvais. Tel: +33 3 44 15 30 34
Musée Dom Robert
In an out-of-the-way location in the Tarn, you’ll come across a surprise. The Musée Dom Robert is housed in the Abbaye-école de Sorèze.
It’s dedicated to the works of Guy de Chaunac Lanzac (1907-1977). Born into an aristocratic family, he became a Benedictine monk in 1930 at the age of 23 and took the name of Dom Robert. Influenced by Jean Lurçat who he met in 1941, the talented artist monk became a tapestry cartoon designer.
Immensely successful, he designed 150 cartoons, most of them woven in Aubusson. In a quirk of fate, he also spent ten years at Buckfast Abbey in Devon to escape fame and fortune.
His tapestries were woven in Aubusson at an atelier owned by Suzanne Goubely. On her death she left money to found the Musée Dom Robert which opened in April 2015.
The museum holds a remarkable and large collection of his works, both cartoons and finished work. It also shows some of the techniques involved in tapestry weaving.
The other half of the complex shows the history and day-to-day life of a military school. It’s linked to the artist Toulouse-Lautrec through members of his family who studied here.
Abbaye-école de Sorèze/Musée Dom Robert
Tel: +33 (0)5 63 50 86 38
Open daily except Tuesdays. Apr-Sept 10am-12.30pm & 2pm-6pm
July & Aug daily 10am-12.30pm & 2pm-6pm
Closed May 1, Christmas holidays and January
Admission to both attractions Adult €8; concessions €6, free for children under 12 years
The World’s Greatest Tapestries
Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy
Strictly speaking, this is not a tapestry. It’s an embroidered cloth nearly 70 metres/230 ft long. It was woven in the 1070s to tell the story of the Norman conquest of England, and probably in England not in Bayeux.
One of the world’s most stunning pieces of art, and a great historical work, the Bayeux Tapestry never fails to impress. It’s housed in the Centre Guillaume le Conquérant in an 18th century building in the center of Bayeux.
For more information on the Bayeux Tapestry and on the centre here’s my story.
The Apocalypse Tapestry in Angers
“And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with 10 horns and seven heads, with 10 diadems upon its horns and a blasphemous name upon its heads.”
Woven in Paris between 1373 and 1382, the Apocalypse Tapestry was commissioned by King Louis I of Anjou. Today it’s housed in the formidable château in Angers which is located in the rather appropriately named End of the World road. It’s in a darkened, silent, vast and echoing room. It sent shivers down my spine as I walked around, taking in the scenes.
This is the most impressive tapestry I have ever seen. Based on the Book of Revelations – which is dramatic stuff, this extraordinary tapestry follows the story in frightening detail.
2 Promenade du Bout du Monde
Tel: +33 (0)2 41 86 48 77
Open Jun 6-Sept 4: daily 10am-6.30pm. Sept 5-Apri 30: daily 10am-5.30pm
Closed Jan 1, May 1, Dec 25Admission Adult €9.50; 18 to 25 years old free for citizens of an EU country; under 18 years old free
The Song of the World Tapestry and Musée Jean- Lurçat
One of the most famous and important revivers of the art of tapestry making was the artist Jean Lurçat (1892-1966). He began designing and weaving tapestries in 1917 and by the 1930s had become an international name. In 1937 he saw the Apocalypse Tapestry which was to him a revelation in tapestry design. In 1939 he moved to Aubusson to help revive the art of tapestry making in the city.
His best known work is the Song of the World (Le Chant du Monde), housed in the medieval Hospital of St-Jean in Angers, just a short walk from the château and the Apocalypse Tapestry.
It’s a powerful work, 80 metres long, taking the threat of war (particularly the nuclear threat), destruction and chaos as the first four themes, then renewal, hope and joy in the following six tapestries. It was designed and woven between 1957 and 1966 during the Cold War.
Musée Jean Lurçat
4 boulevard Arago
Tel: +33 (0)2 41 24 18 45
Open Tues-Sun 10am-6pm
Closed Jan 1, May 1, Nov 1 & 11, Dec 25
Admission Adult €4, concessions €3, free to under 18 years
And More Spectacular Tapestries…
At Fontainebleau, just outside Paris. The magnificent château that is interwoven into the history of France and its monarchs has a superb collection.
…The Louvre museum in Paris also has a magnificent collection, including the Offrande du Coeur woven in Arras.
You’ll find tapestries everywhere in France. If you’re thinking of a vacation in 2021, consider cycling along the Loire à Vélo route and exploring those châteaux in the French monarchy’s playground.