Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace

Please Select Search Type:
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article


The presentation by Mr. Edward S. Harkness to Yale University of the four tapestries once owned by Elihu Yale is of particular interest to the American antiquarian. The Yale Tapestries, as they are called, were made by John Vandermark, a weaver under the patronage of British royalty, and follow the Oriental designs which, during the eighteenth century, were made popular by trade with the East.

By birth, Elihu Yale belonged to England, for though he was born in Boston in 1648 his family carried him to England when he was four years old. In after years he amassed a huge fortune in India and returned to London as a patron of the arts. It was during this period of his life that he was asked to give financial aid to a little seminary at Saybrook, Connecticut, called "The Collegiate Institute of Saybrook." Yale followed the request by sending over books and works of art, which the trustees of the school sold for about eight hundred pounds. They were duly appreciative of the gift and when the seminary was moved to -New Haven the first building was named "Yale Hall." In 1745, the name of Yale College was bestowed upon the institution and many years later it was changed to Yale University.

The Yale Tapestries all have black backgrounds, and the borders have a certain resemblance. The designs differ. They are called "The Concert," "The Toilet of the Princess," "The Promenade," and "Palanquin." It is said that the tapissier received his inspiration from nrotifs on Chinese and East India screens and from bric-a-brac in Elihu Yale's collection.

The word "tapestry" is steeped in the atmosphere of the past. It brings up pictures of Greek palaces and of baronial castles-their walls decorated with coverings of wool, embroidered in various colors. It conjures up visions of the faithful Penelope waiting the return of the wandering Ulysses-of Matilda and her maidens passing long hours at their work.

At a very early date tapestries were made by the people of eastern countries. Like other forms of needlework, the invention of the art is attributed to the Phrygians, and long before the Trojan War the women of Sidon were celebrated for their tapestries.

Homer sang of them and said,

"Far as Phaeacian mariners all else Surpass, the swift ship urging through the floods, So far the tissue-work the women pass All others, by Minerva's skill endow'd With richest fancy and superior skill."

Minerva, as the goddess of the liberal arts, was invoked by craftsworkers in wool, embroidery, and painting. Do you remember the old myth of Arachne who was so skillful in working tapestries that she challenged the goddess to a trial of skill. But, also, the unfortunate woman was defeated by the goddess and changed into a spider! The results of her weaving may be seen by any housewife who does not constantly use the broom!

The art of tapestry-making was carried from the East to Greece and Rome. With the exception of the famous Bayeux Tapestry, we find few examples of the work in Europe until the time of the Crusades, and it seems that after the fall of the Roman Empire, the art was lost for a time.

Dyer's words well explain the return of tapestry-makmg to Europe.

In "Life On A Medixval Barony," William Stearns Ata`tis -says, "Of another luxury, however, he is rightly proud. Stowed away in carefully guarded cupboards is a quantity of admirable wall tapestries, some of the precious sendal (taffeta) silk, some of hardly less valuable Sicilian woolen stuff. Their designs are of blazing magnifcence. There is one of great elaboration showing `The Seven Virtues and the Seven Vices,' another giving a whole sequence of scenes concerning Charleangne. But such precious ornaments must be kept for great occasions. The order, `Hang the tapestries,' is a sign to the servitors that Conon contemplates a tourney or a great feast or a visit from the duke."

The women of Anglo-Saxon days were noted for their needlework and embroidered upon the hangings of their chambers the daring deeds of their husbands and sons. In the tenth century, Edelfreda, widow of Brithned, Duke of Northumberland, presented the church of Ely with a curtain upon which she pictured the life of her dead lord. Witlaf, king of Mercia, gave a golden curtain, embroidered with the seige of Troy, to the abbey of Croyland.

I have spoken of the Bayeux Tapestry. It is one of the oldest specimens of needlework in existence, and was made by Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror, and her maidens for the Cathedral of Bayeux in Normandy. The web of cloth, two hundred and twentyseven feet in length and twenty inches in width, was worked with worsted to represent the incidents of the invasion and conquest of England by the Normans. Strange figures of birds and animals were shown in the borders at the top and bottom, and in the portion picturing the Battle of Hastings the lower border consisted of the bodies of the slain. Exclusive of the borders, about five hundred and thirty figures were shown. Few colors were used-dark and light blue, green, red, yellow, and buff-and no thought seems to have been given to the correct colors of the objects. For instance, horses were worked in blue, green, red, and yellow, and sometimes different colors were used for the legs and bodies. The passing of so many hundreds of years has dulled the colors and given the cloth itself a dull brown tinge.

These tapestries which I have been describing were worked with needles filled with worsteds or silks and sometimes intermixed with gold and silver threads upon a groundwork of canvas. The method was very different from the kind of weaving used in making the Gobelin tapestries or those of Flanders.

The first weaving of tapestry to gain a reputation in Europe was that of the workers of Flanders. There were manufactories at Antwerp, Brussels, Bruges, Lille, and Tournay, and at Arras. Some of the products of these looms were so exquisite that they were scarcely inferior to paintings by great artists.

The art was introduced into England during the reign of Henry VIII, but did not gain any great reputation until the time of James I. He was a patron of tapestry-weaving and gave the sum of two thousand pounds toward the establishment of a place for its manufacture. During the persecution of the seventeenth century, Flemish craftsmen came over to England as refugees. Among them were tapissiers. The Mortlake industry had for its patron King Charles I, but it expired about 1688. One of the followers of the Mortlake Industry was the John Vandermark who made the Yale Tapestries. He became tapissier to the English Crown in 1689, and it was said of him that no person ever so happily represented the works of nature in weaving tapestries.

But France led in the art. Let me repeat something that I read in an old book on needlework. "Henri Quatre first established a tapestry manufactory at Paris about the year 16o6, which was conducted by several dever artists whom he invited from Flanders; but this, like many similar institutions founded by that monarch, was greatly neglected at his death, and would probably have been entirely so, had not Colbert, the minister of Louis XIV, with a view of providing the costly and magnificent furniture for Versailles and the Tuilleries, again remodeled it upon a more secure foundation, and from that period the royal manufactory of the `Hotel des Gobelins' dates its origin."

Jean Gobelin was a dyer of wool who lived about the year 1450 in the Faubourg St. Marcel at Paris. He amassed considerable wealth, and his descendents filled various offices of state. The Gobelin family was succeeded by the Canaye family who added the art of tapestry-weaving to that of dyeing. Later came a Dutchman, Glucq, and Jean Lianson, who was a most proficient workman. But the gardens and buildings were still owned by the Gobelin family. At the suggestion of Colbert, Louis XIV purchased the estate and established a royal workshop. The building was called the "Hotel des Gobel.ins" and in this way gave the name "Gobelin Tapestries" to the products made there. The king ordered that artists, weavers, and dyers should be hired from Flanders that their knowledge might be used to perfect the tapestries.

The celebrated artist Le Brun was appointed in 1667 as the chief director of the establishment. Here he painted the series of the battles of Alexander and the tapestries developed from the designs were among the finest productions made at the Hotel des Gobelins. Other designs by the artist were from the history of important episodes in the life of Louis XIV and les quatre elesnens et les quatre saisons de l'annee (the four elements and the four seasons of the year).

Toussaint Dubreiul designed the Diana set of five tapestries worked in gold and silver thread. Under the direction of Le Brun fifty workmen completed the work for Versailles Palace.

The Gobelin factories are still standing and on the front of one of them is a marble plaque telling of the founding of the works which turned out tapestries unsurpassed in beauty. It says, "Jean and Philibert Gobelin, dyers in scarlet, who have lent their name to this quarter of Paris and to the manufacture of tapestries, had their workshop here at the end of the fifteenth century, on the banks of the River Bievre."

During the reign of Napoleon the art of tapestryweaving was again revived after a decline of several years. Historical subjects were usually portrayed and from two to six years was often required for the completion of a single piece.

An Englishman, describing some Gobelin tapestries owned by the Duchess of Portsmouth, said, "Here I saw the new fabriq of French tapissary, for designe, tendernesse of worke, and incomparable imitation of the best paintings beyond anything I ever beheld. Some pieces had Versailles, St. Germain's and other palaces of the French king, with huntings, figures, and landships, exotiq fowls, and all to the life rarely done."

A form of tapestry-weaving used by women of the Middle Ages to pass the hours while the men of the household were occupied with the hunt and warfare was known as petit point. Lovely bits for wall decorations, for table covers, and for chair backs were made by English gentlewomen of the succeeding generations.

Catherine de Medicis was an adept at making these exquisite pictures in needlework; Mary, Queen of Scots, passed many hours of her long years of captivity at the work and some examples of her faded petit point still remain.

During the reign of the Stuarts many needlework pictures were made, and the subjects were chosen from the Bible and from pastoral scenes. Mary, wife of William of Orange, was an enthusiastic and ambitious needlewoman, and conceived the idea that she and the ladies of her personal retinue should cover the chairs uf the palace with pieces of petit point.

The unfortunate Marie Antoinette of France adorned some types of furniture with examples of her own needlework and she is said to have made a carpet.

To quote the words of John Taylor,

"Thus is a needle prov'd an instrument

Of profit, pleasure, and of ornament,

Which mighty queenes have grac'd in hand to take."

Bookmark and Share