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13 January 2021

The fabric of nature

It was tapestry, not landscape painting, that first brought the outdoors indoors. 

By Michael Prodger

Long before there were landscape paintings to hang on the wall, the bucolic had already crept inside. Anglo-Saxon homes are recorded as having been hung with “wah hrægel” or “wah rift” – wall coverings – and in the most well-off of later houses the natural world was also present in the form of decorative plasterwork, embroideries and tapestries. Painters were the Johnny-come-latelys, slow to realise the potential of the landscape.

The way we now fetishise oil paintings would have been inexplicable to our ancestors. Inventories from the early Renaissance onwards show that the most valued chattels were furniture and, above all, tapestries. It is easy to see why: it could take a skilled weaver a month to complete a square metre of tapestry, while a painter could knock out that sort of coverage in a couple of days.

Tapestries had other virtues too; they not only insulated cold baronial halls but could be rolled up and taken along when their royal, clerical or noble owners processed from one residence to another: an inventory of Cardinal Wolsey’s possessions taken in the early 1520s, for example, recorded some 600 tapestries, while Henry VIII amassed more than 2,000 in his lifetime. Because they could also incorporate silk and, at the top end, gold and silver thread – metal filaments twisted round a silk core – tapestries were peerless signifiers of wealth and status (the arras behind which Polonius is killed by Shakespeare’s Hamlet was one such tapestry, named after Arras, the northern French town that, from the 13th century, specialised in tapestries with gold thread).

Even by 1623, when Charles I acquired Raphael’s Acts of the Apostles tapestry cartoons, commissioned in 1515 by Pope Leo X as hangings for the Sistine Chapel, he did so not for their intrinsic artistic merit but as working designs for the weavers at his new tapestry workshop at Mortlake.

Tapestries were subdivided by both quality and type. If quality varied depending on the design, the ability of the weavers, the materials and the fineness of the weave, then figurative schemes – usually showing biblical or classical-historical scenes – were the most expensive subjects. Sometimes they incorporated nature motifs, such as the field of flowers – “millefleurs” – of the six celebrated The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries made in Flanders around 1500, or the woods and meadows of the four three-metre-wide Devonshire Hunting Tapestries of the early- to mid-15th century.

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Often the central figure scene was framed with a separately woven decorative border showing leaves or flowers. These might also contain armorial bearings but they soon developed into a type of their own, becoming known as “verdures”, from the French for greenery, and could be hung anywhere. With their preponderance of flowers – sometimes generic, sometimes specific and carrying symbolic meanings – verdures brought the garden inside. What’s more, with them there was no need to pay attention to the rules of perspective, so their designers didn’t need to be artists of the highest order but simply have an eye for pattern.

[see also: Atkinson Grimshaw’s glistening landscapes of Victorian prosperity]

For tapestry workshops, verdures had the added benefit of being covetable goods that could be sold anywhere across Europe rather than woven specifically to order. The town of Oudenarde became particularly known for its verdures, and Flanders, which took over from Paris as the centre of tapestry weaving as a result of the disruption of the Hundred Years’ War, had long-established trading links with England, Italy and Spain.

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When first made, verdures could be startling objects: around 1525, for example, the poet John Skelton was delighted by an “Arras of rich array,/Fresh as flowers in May” belonging to Cardinal Wolsey. Their drawback, however, is that they were woven with a limited palette of colours, so the tints, predominantly derived from vegetable dyes, tended to fade, with greens especially prone to morph into blues.

Such is the case with this piece, probably woven at Oudenarde circa 1545-80, and now in the Art Institute of Chicago. Nevertheless, something of its original beauty survives. At a little under three by two metres, its profusion of leaves, blossom, fruit and birds would have brought a large slice of New World exoticism to its owner’s home. The sheer fecundity on display hides that it has been carefully designed so that the exuberance of the huge curling central leaves disguises the symmetry of the side columns. The repeated motif, with the original cartoon flipped, made efficient use of the weaver’s time.

In The Faerie Queen – written in 1590, shortly after this verdure was made – Edmund Spenser described a tapestry showing the story of Leda and the swan, and lauded the “wondrous skill and sweet wit of the man” who dreamed up the scene of the maiden “in daffadillies sleeping”. There are no daffodils in this verdure but it would nevertheless make a fit bower for a mythological princess and her divine lover.

The influence of such tapestries was soon felt in paintings, not least through the work of Jan Brueghel the Elder, Brussels-born and the son of Pieter Bruegel. He became known variously as “Velvet”, “Paradise” and “Flower” Brueghel because of the verdancy of his floral paintings and landscapes and his skill at mimicking fabric. In the early 17th century, he also developed a new genre – flower garland paintings – that, despite usually having an image of the Virgin at the centre, would seem to derive directly from foliage tapestries. And echoes of verdures can be felt down the centuries, from the jungle paintings of Henri Rousseau and the decorative work of William Morris to the Caribbean paintings of Peter Doig today. So the plants of the verdures continued to grow, just woven into different forms. 

[see also: A Voice Above the Linn by Robbie Lawrence]

This article appears in the 13 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war