The Franses Tapestry Archive
Specialising in European tapestries dating from 1350 onwards (including historical European carpets) and European figurative textiles dating from AD 400 onwards. The Archive was a collaboration between Simon Franses – expert adviser and gallery director – and Tom Campbell, tapestry scholar who had completed an MA on Mortlake tapestry at the Courtauld Institute of Art.
Before 1987 some significant collections of tapestry images had already been collected by scholars and museums but these were not, for the most part, systematically catalogued or accessible – the images had simply been collected and stored and were difficult, if not impossible, to use. There were only three exceptions and these less than ten per cent of the size of the Franses Archive.
This branch of art is one of fast growing importance with a mass of research, increasing numbers of new books, publications. In some cases publications are devoted to individual works or series of tapestries, or to a designer or a single museum collection. Major exhibitions of the surviving stock of often little-known textile treasures and masterpieces are being held or planned by museums.
This renaissance of interest is principally as a result of the pioneering work of Dr Campbell, co-founder of the Franses Tapestry Research Archive in 1987 (and a small group of leading academics – Rotraud Bauer, Pascal Bertrand, Iain Buchanan, Koenraad Brosens, Elizabeth Cleland, Guy Delmarcel, Isabel Denis, Anna Maria de Strobel, Nello Forte Grazzini, Wendy Hefford, Fabienne Joubert, Lucia Meoni).
What is Tapestry?
Tapestry was a principal form of artistic expression in Europe for at least 300 years, attracting the most illustrious figures in European history as patrons and collectors but also some of the greatest painters and artists from Rogier Van Der Weyden to Raphael and Rubens.
The works themselves are some of the largest and most ambitious artistic projects ever undertaken to hang in the greatest buildings in all of Europe. Most notably, The Apocalypse series in the museum at Angers, The Unicorn Tapestries at The Cloisters in New York and Lady with the Unicorn series at the Musée de Cluny in Paris – to our own Devonshire Hunting Tapestries in the V&A as well as The Life of David, owned by Henry VIII now at Ecouen. The list goes on and on. It is of note that the Bayeux Tapestry is a figurative textile as it is embroidered not woven.
These monumental tapestry series are now being appreciated as great woven projects with artists, wool and silk makers, gold thread producers, dyers and weavers all collaborating, but not as works of applied art such as chairs or vases or pieces of silver – as beautiful as these may be these are functional artworks, unlike tapestry.
William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones revived this art form in this country during the second half of the nineteenth century.
The Archive contains images of European tapestries from landmark sets to decorative and domestic tapestries, and tapestry altar frontals, table carpets, curtains, cushions, screens and upholstery.
Tapestries were the largest and most costly works of art, possibly apart from those objects made of solid gold or silver gilt. In the sixteenth century a set of tapestries with gold thread, such as the Story of Abraham tapestries at Hampton Court Palace could cost as much as a fully equipped warship.
European tapestries were largely (but not exclusively) designed and woven in series intended to fill entire rooms or spaces. Workshops invested massively in creating the full size preparatory artworks, known as cartoons. Each cartoon might amount to hundreds of square feet in size, representing the detailed designs and compositions required by the weavers to produce an individual or set of tapestries. Tapestry workshops would exploit and adapt their artwork repeatedly by weaving and producing further editions of the original set, without the need for further investment in original artwork. In the majority of cases these sets have been broken up and dispersed.
CONTENTS OF THE ARCHIVE
- Image Archive
Comprising more than 240,000 images of European tapestries, textiles and carpets organised by country, subject and date. These have been collected from every possible source.
Most from the above sources are photographic records, some are only documentary descriptions.
It isn’t merely the quantity of images that distinguishes the Tapestry Archive it is that they are accessible and organised in general by subject, date, country of origin. In one file there may be 10 images of the same tapestry representing every time it has been re-sold, published or written about. A tapestry can be retrieved quickly in this way.
- Other Unique Holdings and Archives and Collections stored in the Archive:
(i) National Trust Survey – images of tapestries throughout all regions of the country – completed as a joint project with the Trust – allowing central documentation for the first time of tapestries in the National Trust,
(ii) US survey of public collections – comprising more than 3,000 tapestries from 98 museums throughout the US,
(iii) French & Co images and stock sheets – comprising 80 years of tapestry dealing by this pre-eminent New York dealer,
(iv) Duveen Tapestries – some major tapestries from major art dealer,
(v) Seligmann Tapestries – images from this most distinguished dealer,
(vi) Perez Tapestries – the UK’s largest post war dealer,
(vii) Rosenberg and Stiebel – the most important US post war specialists in European artworks,
(viii) C. John Ltd – supplier to HM Queen, London and Oxford who also formed the Toms Tapestry Collection in Lausanne,
(ix) Mayorcas – London’s leading dealer in textiles for 50 years until its closure in 2001
(x) Bernheimer – the premiere tapestry and carpet dealer in Germany, based in Munich for over a century,
(xi) The late Donald King (the Keeper of Textiles at the V&A), private photo archive,
(xii) The late Jack Franses – the Department head at Sothebys, private collection of images and photos,
(xiii) The late Edith Standen – approximately 3000 images collected by Standen, curator in charge of the MMA textile study room,
(xiv) Tapestry Archive of Musée d’Art Royaux d’art et d’Histoire Brussels.
(xv) A project with Glasgow City Art Gallery and Museum assembling documentation from the archive on Sir William Burrell’s Collection of medieval tapestries,
(xvi) The V & A Marillier Tapestry Subject Catalogue, fifty volumes of script and photographs, donated to the Nation in 1945
3. Books, Articles and Sale Catalogues
(i) 3675 academic articles;
(ii) 2761 reference books mostly rare and out of print
(iii) more than 10,000 sales catalogues and museum journals including a rare catalogue collection (467) containing legendary collections – Hamilton Palace, 1888; Stowe Auction; Pyford Court; Mentmore; the Berwick and Alba sale; several Kann sales; Figdor; Spitzer collection; Blumenthal – all containing tapestry masterpieces.
STAFF EXPERTISE AND USES OF THE ARCHIVE
The Archive is staffed by tapestry specialists and is indispensable to those wishing to identify accurately or to catalogue works of tapestry. Furthermore it allows researchers to establish if there is more than one version of a tapestry and, if so, the number of surviving weavings. It is helpful to monitor change in condition of works over time by comparing images taken and published at different dates.
The Archive is useful to track ownership of works, verify title, and provenance and essential to locate surviving works from particular sets of tapestry.
The Archive resources may be accessed in two ways:
- By written contact – letter or email
Staff can assist with the enquiries and frequently refer enquiries on to other specialist scholars and researchers. For example, recently an image was received from the US of a 17th century Brussels tapestry depicting Scipio Africanus signed by Franz van Maelsaeck. The tapestry, with the help of the Archive, was correctly identified as having come from the National Trust property, Kedleston Hall and that it had previously been owned by Lord Curzon, the Foreign Secretary under Lloyd George.
- Visiting by appointment
The Franses Tapestry Archive is one of the primary, if not the primary, research resources for international scholars and curators of tapestry in the world.
Jamie Mulherron, Former Curator of Textiles, National Museums of Scotland. Cataloguer for the Rothschild Foundation