Tapestries, explained the legendary architect and designer Le Corbusier, are ‘nomadic murals’ — a quality that has contributed to their enduring popularity since they first emerged in ancient Greece and Egypt.
Today, the millennial predilection for the cool neutrality of modernism (and its step-child, minimalism) is fading, as the aesthetic gives way to contemporary interiors that are richer and warmer. Pattern?! Chintzes?! Floral wallpapers?! Whatever next? I think it’s time to reconsider tapestries, both for their richness and for their versatility — as objects that can be hung on walls as an alternative to wallpaper, or to cover tables in the depths of winter. This could be described as nomadic decorating.
The aesthetic was one that would have been only too familiar to members of the nobility in centuries past. Indeed, from the 14th century on, no European aristocrat worth his position would have been without an array of rich tapestries which would have accompanied him on tours of his lands and estates. They were used to cover walls and tables, or were draped over thrones in draughty castles to create a canopy known as a baldachin.
Often glinting with gold and silver thread, these woven miracles could be hung as quickly as they could be dismantled — ready to be rolled-up, loaded onto wagons and rumbled off to the next stone-walled castle or panelled hall at a moment’s notice.
King Henry VIII standing against a tapestry, after Hans Holbein the Younger. Oil on canvas. Image © Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, UK / Bridgeman Images
Henry VIII had a vast collection of such tapestries, and during his reign those made in the French town of Arras were among the most valuable items in the kingdom. The ‘arras’ is famously referenced in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, concealing the eavesdropping Polonius (slain through the tapestry moments later). In the late 16th century, under the reign of Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, Lord Howard of Effingham famously commissioned a set of 10 tapestries to commemorate the defeat of the Armada. They hung in the House of Lords for two centuries before being destroyed by fire.
The tradition continued along the royal line: when Charles I was executed, the entire contents of his royal palaces — right down to the cooking pots — were sold by Oliver Cromwell to pay his army. Historic royal tapestries, lovingly collected over several generations, were dispersed to the collections of the crowned heads of Europe.
On 2-3 November, the suitably titled Noble and Private Collections sales include a fabulous group of tapestries — some depicting famous men, others hunting, or biblical scenes. Among the quirkiest, an early 16th-century ‘game park’ tapestry (below) — showing a lynx being pursued by an alligator — is quite remarkable.
A later Franco-Flemish tapestry (below) is more exotic still, featuring a camel, a porcupine and lush vegetation. At £3,000-5,000 this eye-catching, original work could be a bargain, perfect for transforming an interior with a touch of the rich, strange and unexpected.
These early tapestries were mostly made in Arras or Flanders. My favourites, the green Belgian ‘verdure’ tapestries, would have filled the bleak, stone-walled banqueting halls in which they were once displayed with the spirit of spring, whatever the weather outside.
A perfect example is the large leaf verdure tapestry shown below, which was made in the mid-16th century. Hidden in the scrolling foliage are a leopard, a stag, a turkey, a phoenix and other animals. At £12,000-18,000, it’s one of the rarest and most expensive of the group offered. A Flemish 16th-century tapestry, depicting huntsmen improbably pursuing unicorns, is more affordable at £6,000-10,000.
Table-top tapestries add something special to a winter dining room. My pick is a pretty Spanish verdure table tapestry from the first half of the 18th century, which features bright floral garlands and cartouches.
It’s definitely time to take a second look at these marvellous woven scenes. Not least because, unlike wallpaper, when you want to change the decor of a room, you can simply unhook them and replace them with something else.