Thursday, 27 December 2012

A rainy afternoon at the Gobelins

One of my challenges when setting up the itinerary was to try to get an English language tour of the Gobelins Tapestry Workshop. After months of emailing to all web listed email addresses, responses were not forthcoming. So with a resigned air I herded my group by Metro to the very grand entrance, knowing that a long tour in French would probably be a bit wearisome for them.

The Gobelins Tapestry Workshop was set up under royal patronage in 1662, and is the longest running workshop in the world. The Manufacture des Gobelins was founded as a dye works in the mid-15th century by Jean Gobelin. In 1662, Louis XIV purchased the manufactory and there minister Colbert united all the artisans, creating a royal tapestry and furniture works. Charles Le Brun was director and chief designer from 1663 to 1690. The Gobelins was temporarily closed from 1694 to 1697, after which the works specialised in tapestry. I had first visited there in 1979, a few short years after the establishment of the Victorian Tapestry Workshop (now ATW) in 1976 where I was a production weaver. I was amazed to see the working conditions of the Gobelins weavers, still so governed by the past with apprenticeships that lasted seven years, bondage to the workshop with rules prohibiting their own self expression and studios that were dark and depressing.

A rainy visit 

As well as the workshop, the complex houses a vast, two storey exhibition hall with a changing exhibition program. Last year there was an enormous exhibition of Renaissance and Baroque tapestry that included some examples from The Acts of the Apostles which tied in beautifully with our viewing of the Raphael cartoons at the V & A. We were able to spend an hour taking these in as we waited for an official tour. This year we were treated to Classical tapestries designed by Poussin, an opportunity to view close up the incredibly detailed if somewhat turgid interpretations of figures in landscapes. This style is like a large, ornately prepared meal that in the final event proves to be quite indigestible, and one truly needs a strong stomach to be able to assimilate all the fine excesses of the weaver's craft. 

Statue of Colbert with the chapel behind

I voiced my disappointment over not being able to arrange an English language tour to the attentive young man at the desk, and he, in turn, relayed my request to the smart young woman, Diane Marnier, who was assigned to be our guide. He also furnished me with the details of the person to contact about setting up the tour for next year. Diane generously agreed to explain parts in English for us. The tour is very regimented with an embargo on taking photographs in the studios.


Because of the rain, we started in the chapel that I had not seen before. Plain white walls were draped with "contemporary" tapestries dating from the 1950s and 60s. It is interesting how in France these designs are repeatedly woven over the decades even though they look visually dated. Crossing the cobbled courtyard and the small street that used to be a river on which the initial dye works were established, we entered the newer area.

Vasarely carpet photographed last year outside the Savonnerie

A large, new, multi storey building sits behind a grassed area and is surrounded by a pleasant park full of mature conifers. The visit starts on the top level, outside a studio area known as the "Savonnerie", named after an original soap manufactory. Outside, in the foyer, was an example of a rug with tufted insignia woven in shades of deep royal blue. It was explained to us that Government patronage has taken over where Royal patronage left off, and the carpet had been woven for the President to stand on whilst he witnessed a Bastille day parade from an elevated dais. Inside, the studio is flooded with light and pile rugs of enormous size are being made in high warp technique. We could clearly see the weft being woven in and areas being shaved to the right depth with large shears balanced on a ruler. Diane demonstrated the complicated twining of the weft using her fingers. 

On a lower level the tapestry studio is a bit less rewarding as it is furnished with low warp looms that slope away from the viewer, and all that is really visible is the cartoon below the warps and the design that hangs above. Woven painfully slowly from the back of the work it appears a truly backbreaking exercise as the weavers pause constantly to shove a mirror between the warps to see what their weaving looks like from the right side. They boast that their production rate per weaver is one square metre a year, a rate that would have a production weaver anywhere else out of work! Usually the weavers don't engage with the public, but this time we met and spoke to a woman who had been working there for over thirty years. She was fascinated by the information that we weave from the front, a fact that always seems incomprehensible to French weavers. 

A sincere thanks to our guide, Diane

Diane proved to be a godsend, liberally translating her spiel into English and graciously answering all our questions. I will definitely seek her out next year. We left feeling happy and well informed due to her efforts. 

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Paris Arcades - stepping back in time

Tuesday in Paris dawned in a misty drizzle  - our only rain of the whole tour.  As our only scheduled appointment was to visit the Gobelins Tapestry manufactory in the afternoon, our group decided on individual adventures to fill in the free morning. I had read an article before I left Australia about the elegant, turn of the 19th century suite of arcades that are once again flowering as shopping and eating places, and the Lonely Planet guide has a very instructive little plan of them outlining the route. Conveniently, several of them are situated close to the Palais Royal and the Rue Moliere where we were staying. So Wilma, Caroline and I set off to explore their many delights.

We walked along the Rue Richelieu to the closest one, the Galerie Vivienne, which I think happens to be the grandest and most interesting of them. Built in 1823, the floors are magnificently mosaiced in Italian tiles, its wide entrance opens onto a generous rotunda and the arcade itself glows warmly    stretching into the distance, lit by glass skylights. There are very upmarket fashion shops with the latest knitted fabrics and colour combinations moulded into up-to-the-minute designs. A feeling of sumptuous elegance surrounds the fashion boutiques like Wolff and Descourtis and Jean Paul Gaultier. Curiosities like a maker of silk flowers and well stocked bookshops are thrown into the mix. We lingered in a beautiful toyshop, Si tu veux, which had lovely handmade wooden toys, cloth dolls and everything else to captivate any child. A gallery showed a strangely anthropomorphic feathered being in its window display.

Mosaic floor of the Galerie Vivienne

Curious exhibit

The Galerie Colbert, around the corner from Vivienne and built in 1826, is extremely grand architecturally with very high walls and a walk that leads to a wide, elegant rotunda. It is not a shopping arcade but houses part of The National Library in its upper reaches. Our bags were searched before we were allowed to enter and our exploration of it led to one of the most delightful coincidences of the tour. 

On our arrival in Paris, Betty, one of the participants, asked me if I knew where the restaurant was located that was used in the film Something's Got to Give starring Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson. "That's a big ask" I responded, "Paris is a very big place!" Well, to my greatest astonishment, as we walked down the street outside the arcade we came face to face with a huge movie poster bearing the images of the actors and the proud announcement that it was, indeed, the Belle Epoque restaurant, Le Grand Colbert, that had hosted the filming of this illustrious company!

We subsequently tried to book twice to have a meal, but of course it was booked out. The maitre d', Francois, was very charming and told us about Le Petit Colbert which is at a little remove at 8, Rue Monsigny.

The rotunda of the Galerie Colbert

The interior of Le Grand Colbert

After our exciting discovery we made our way down the Rue de Petits Champs to the Passage Choiseul that dates from 1824. Smaller, darker and less renovated than the previous arcades, it still offers up a huge array of shops and eateries. There is an excellent art supply shop, Adam and Lavrut, and we were amazed to come across a tiny gallery selling genuine Aboriginal dot paintings!

A further walk in the drizzle down Rue St. Augustin and Rue Vivienne took us to a string of arcades, from Passage des Panoramas, full of philately and restaurants, to Passage Jouffroy. Here there are  tearooms and confiseries filled with delicately crafted and packaged cakes, a shop specialising in comic books - Le Petit Roi - and interior design boutiques that lean towards the baroque and the bizarre. The arcade culminates in The Hotel Chopin built in 1846 and still operating, a glimpse of an elegant past.

Our last destination was the Passage Verdeau for more of the same -  bookshops, print galleries and innumerable places to eat. A morning well spent. On the way back to our hotel along the Rue de Richelieu, I photographed this beautiful fountain dedicated to the nymphs of the Seine in a tiny public garden.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Sainte Chapelle - Heart of Glass

I have visited Paris several times and cannot understand why I have never seen Sainte Chapelle before, surely the most consummate creation of stained glass to be experienced anywhere. At the suggestion of Wilma, who is rather an aficionado of all things Parisian, a few of us walked back to the Ile de la Cite and queued outside the Conciergerie to gain access to the chapels.

The Ile de la Cite became the very heart of French power from its original occupation by Gallic tribes in the 1st century to the establishment of the palace of the first  king of France, Clovis, in the 6th century.  

Sainte Chapelle was built between 1242 and 1248 as a complex of two chapels, one above the other, by Louis IX to act as a reliquary for objects from the Passion of Christ, most notably the Crown of Thorns that was acquired by the king in 1239 from the Emperor of Constantinople. The relics were displayed in the upper chapel to which only the king and his close friends and family had access, and the lower chapel was used as a place of worship by the palace staff.

The design is in the shape of a very simple basilica - a long, narrow rectangle with a semi circular apse at one end. Entering the lower space you are absorbed by the warm glow of its colour - reds, blues and golds predominate - and the richness of its decoration.  A 13th century fresco of the Annunciation graces one wall and the twelve apostles are depicted in medallion portraits. The struts of the vault gleam gold against the azure "sky", ornamented with "stars" of fleur de lys.

The lower chapel

But it is the upper chapel, reached by a narrow turret of winding steps, that takes your breath away in a heart stopping display of sixteen shimmering windows of sky scraping glass as you emerge into a blaze of light and colour! Depicting the chapters of the Bible from Genesis to Christ's resurrection in 1, 113 scenes the effect is mesmerising, a story best told in pictures.

Views of the upper chapel including the western rose that illustrates the Apocalypse of St. John

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Musee du Moyen Age

Between two Unicorns.

From Stirling to Paris we were literally between two Unicorn suites, the re woven Hunt pageant and the sublimely beautiful Lady.

On a beautiful morning we caught the train to Chatelet and then walked across the wide Pont au Change to our destination, the Musee du Moyen Age on the Boulevard St. Michel. Why is it that the sky seems so much higher in Paris? And why do you always see that perfect, spirit lifting bank of puff ball clouds scattered across the blue as you cross the Seine to the Left Bank?

 View from the Pont au Change towards the Conciergerie

The Musee is structurally the most fascinating accretion of history, from the original Gallo Roman baths dating from 200 AD to the 15th century Hotel de Cluny, its flamboyant Gothic features preserved and restored in the 19th century. It was home to Alexandre du Sommerand from 1833 to 1842, and here he assembled a Mediaeval collection that was purchased upon his death by the State along with the building itself. The treasures that we see today sprang from this embryo, and have been added to over the years through donations and legacies as well as important acquisitions such as the La Dame a la Licorne tapestries in 1882.

Views of the Musee from the courtyard

Evoking the five senses, Sight, Hearing, Taste, Smell, Touch and a sixth entitled A mon Seul Desir, bearing the Coat of Arms of Jean le Viste, the La Dame la Licorne suite originally graced the walls of the castle at Boussac. It was discovered there in a deteriorated state by Prosper Merimee and Georges Sand in the 1840s, and their efforts played a part in the recovery and subsequent recognition and repatriation of the tapestries as major works of art. Believed to be woven as a wedding gift for the family of Jean le Viste in the 1500s, we are still charmed by the enchanting animals and flowers, the spaciousness and balance of the composition, and the supreme labour manifest in this extraordinary expression of love.


Entering the low light of the oval room that houses the famous suite is magical, the magnificence of their glowing presence permeating all. We studied at length the details of superbly refined and exquisite weaving, surely the high point of expression in this medium. Within the sensuality of the flowering garden and the "millefleurs" background the five senses are represented as -

Sight - the lady gazes at the unicorn and holds a mirror in which he observes his own reflection.

Hearing - the lady plays a small portable organ while the maidservant works the bellows.

Taste - the lady picks a sweet out of a golden dish to feed to the parrot perched on her left hand.

Smell - the lady makes a crown of carnations, inhaling their scent while the monkey sniffs a rose from her basket.

Touch - the lady holds an emblazoned banner in her right hand and caresses the unicorn's horn with her left.

A Mon Seul Desir - the lady is either taking or replacing a necklace from a box of jewels. The "sixth sense" illustrated the tapestry could be interpreted as intelligence, wisdom or the "spiritual heart" that governs the five others.

One of the interesting things we discovered on this visit concerned the state of the re woven borders added as restoration in the late 19th century. I had always wondered why these ostensibly newer additions were more faded than the originals. And the answer? The yarn was dyed with chemical dyes as opposed to the natural ones used in the 15th century that have retained their vibrant colour. 

After taking our fill of these wonderful works we moved slowly on through the wealth of small rooms richly decorated with contemporaneous suites of tapestries including The story of St. Stephen, The story of St. Peter, The Offering of the Heart and Aristocratic Life. As well as the tapestries the Musee houses an abundance of Mediaeval craftsmanship - enamel and metalwork, ivories, stained glass, embroidery and sculpture dating from the fifth century.

Manorial Life

Ceiling of the Chapel

We lunched in a brasserie across the road and then made our way back to view the garden, bounded by the boulevards St. Germain and St.Michel.  Opened in 2000, the garden is designed to resonate with the Musee collection and provide respite from the busy contemporary world that surrounds it. Drawing inspiration from the treasures within, it includes medicinal plants, a celestial garden where flowers such as lilies and irises symbolise the Virgin Mary, and a garden of love reflecting courtly pastimes. A "millefleurs" flowerbed directly references the wonderfully complex floral background motifs of the tapestries.


Views of the garden and back of the Musee

Monday, 22 October 2012

To Paris with love

On Sunday we coped with a very crowded Edinburgh airport and flew Air France to Paris, a short smooth journey that took less time than the waiting at either end. We arrived on a hot afternoon and the ride to the hotel was comfortably efficient in a luxury minivan.

The Moliere monument on the corner of Rue Moliere and Rue de Richelieu

 Rooftops along the Rue Moliere

The Hotel Moliere was a delight, well situated in the Rue Moliere which is just off the Avenue de L'Opera and very close to to the Rue de Rivoli and the Louvre complex. Charming old style rooms decorated in chintzes and toiles awaited us and it was easy to shake off the wearying aspects of travel and freshen up for an evening walk around the Palais Royal. Its cool arcades were welcome respite from the heat of the day and its boutiques offered up a range of fashionable distractions as we ambled around the quadrangle.

Evening at the Palais Royal

The central garden basked in the late golden light, offering up a full flush of summer roses, untidy against the pillar straight avenues of trees. We sat on the edge of the fountain and enjoyed the stray drops caught by the breeze, the whole place alive with the sounds of families delighting in the warmth of the evening. How can you not love Paris, especially at moments like these?

Gardens of the Palais Royal

We found an interesting restaurant tucked behind the Palais in the Rue de Beaujolais, quite empty except for our party. The French come out to eat and play much later, it seems. With a fixed price menu and boasting "Cuisine a base de produits biologiques" we felt in safe hands. The handsome young waiter was delighted to tell us that he had been in Melbourne for the Australian Open and that he was a keen tennis player. He certainly looked after us with a great deal of athletic panache!

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

A birthday at Stirling Castle

Saturday September 8th was my birthday and we had a particularly active schedule, up early to catch the 10 o'clock train from the Edinburgh Waverley station to the pretty town of Stirling, a forty minute train ride, then by bus to the top of the hill that is crested with the imposing castle, home to Scottish royalty for hundreds of years.

Our group at Stirling

The reason for the visit was to see the re woven Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, a project that has been undertaken by the West Dean tapestry studio over a period of twelve years. Originally woven in Brussels between 1495 and 1505, this famed suite of six tapestries hangs in the Cloisters in New York, part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the theme of this allegorical hunt, the fabled Unicorn is associated with purity and inaccessible love, and the hunt is a mission to capture the animal for its healing powers.

Funded by Historic Scotland and the Quinque Foundation of the United States, the new tapestries have been woven on a horizontal or low warp loom at West Dean and also on a vertical, high warp loom at a purpose built studio at Stirling. They are one tenth smaller and warped at ten ends to the inch as opposed to the 18 -20 ends of the originals.

Past and present collide in this endeavour as contemporary artist weavers inhabit the skin of the mediaeval artisan and create a repetition of their thoughts and movements in a fascinating exercise. Enormous research has gone into the making, from careful examination of the 15thC. Hunts, to the establishment of the colour palette, the dyeing of the range of yarn and the sampling of the elements that make up these incredibly complex panoramas. Conforming to ancient techniques, tonal gradations are achieved through areas of “hatching” in singular colours rather than mixing strands of wool together.  There are enchanting vignettes of botanically accurate bunches of “millefleurs”, dainty animals, prancing hunters clothed in a variety of fabrics, jewelled ladies, sleek baying hounds, animated mediaeval faces and the calm purity of the hunted mythical Unicorn in their midst.

Five of the tapestries are complete, and the last one will be ready in next year.  Senior weaver Katherine Swailes has imaginatively re - created the final and sixth tapestry in the suite as in actuality it only exists in two incoherent strips of weaving. The missing areas of the tapestry have been re - imagined through referencing other work of the period, including the contemporaneous La Dame a la Licorne from the Musee du Moyen Age in Paris.

 Tapestry studio with artwork in the background

Tapestry detail

Our first stop was the studio where the final tapestry sits dormant, as the weavers have been co opted into an urgent project at the West Dean studio in Sussex. A sprightly guide gave us a very full explanation of the weaving technique and the history of the project that somewhat made up for the lack of actual demonstration. Seeing the quality of this work up close is a revelation and the amount of skill employed to render the detail is quite awe inspiring.

The Palace

Built by Scotland's James V for his French bride Marie de Guise, the palace has recently undergone a 12 million dollar refurbishment that sets it authentically in the mid sixteenth century. Completed originally in 1545, at the height of the Renaissance, its flamboyant decorative past has been painstakingly captured in carved and brightly stencilled panels and gilded columns. This is where 
Mary Queen of Scots spent her childhood with her mother, Marie.

After lunch we entered the newly renovated Queen's apartments in the Palace to view the completed Hunt tapestries that grace the freshly painted rooms. Although displayed in an authentic manner, they are hung up so high that it is impossible to appreciate the amount of work that has gone into the weaving. It is also very disappointing that an embroidered velvet throne canopy has been installed in a way that blocks out considerable sections of two tapestries.

Tapestry installation in the Queen's bedroom

A treatise on the mythology of the Unicorn by a costumed guide dressed as an attendant of the Royal Court. 

He holds a replica of the horn of a Narwhal, thought to be related to the Unicorn.

And what of the birthday? I had a very special day because my dear friend Carol Dunbar, an artist weaver who has lived in Orkney for twenty five years, came down to Edinburgh to spend the day with me. We met at the Edinburgh College of Art in 1980 and have maintained our friendship through all the ups and downs of the intervening years, bridging continents and hemispheres. It was so exciting to meet her at the station and talk non stop all the way to Stirling and back, and continue the conversation later over cups of tea and dinner. Carol's work has recently been featured in Tapestry - a Woven Narrative, a comprehensive survey of tapestry from the past to the present day, compiled by Fiona Mathison, Caron Penney and Timothy Wilcox.

With Carol at Stirling

We ate our lunch outdoors, the grey skies belying the mildness of the weather and the lack of a customary stiff breeze. As we finished my lovely tour participants sauntered up the hill singing Happy Birthday and presented me with a card and little package wrapped in gift paper from the V&A. To my great delight it contained a delicate muslin scarf that I had admired a few days before in the V&A shop. It is from a design by Cecil Collins for "Avon" furnishing fabric, originally woven by the Edinburgh Weavers in 1960 and featured in the recent British Design exhibition at the V&A. I felt quite emotional when I realised how truly thoughtful they had been.

Birthday presentation with Stephnie and Marie

More images from the visit

My thanks to Eleanor Muir, visitor experience manager at Stirling Castle, for hosting us and making us feel most welcome.