The six tapestries illustrating the Quest of the Holy Grail represent the climax of the collaboration between William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones on the design and manufacture of tapestry, and are one of the greatest achievements of the Arts and Crafts movement. They are also the ultimate expression of the friends' lifelong devotion to Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, discovered by them in 1855 when they were still undergraduates at Oxford, and the subject of the famous murals in the Oxford Union that they helped to paint two years later under the leadership of their hero, D. G. Rossetti. Like many artists, Burne-Jones at the end of his life tended to return to early sources of inspiration, which in his case meant above all a revived feeling for Arthurian romance and mysticism. This found a number of outlets: the enormous painting The Sleep of King Arthur in Avalon (Ponce, Puerto Rico), commissioned in 1881 but still unfinished at his death in 1898; the sets and costumes that he designed for Comyns Carr's play King Arthur, staged by Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre in January 1895; and the Holy Grail tapestries themselves. These were particularly significant, for it was this part of the story that captured his imagination at the deepest level. 'Time never touched his feeling for the Quest', wrote Lady Burne-Jones in her Memorials. '"Lord!" he wrote, "how that San Graal story is ever in my mind and thoughts continually. Was ever anything in the world beautiful as that is beautiful? If I might clear away all the work that I have begun, if I might live and clear it all away, and dedicate the last days to that tale - if only I might".' He had 'no sympathy' with the allegorical interpretation of the story suggested by his friend Sebastian Evans, the translator of the French Arthurian romance Perceval le Gallois. Nontheless he loved to hear Evans read the translation aloud, and provided illustrations when it was published, as The High History of the Holy Graal, in 1898.
Tapestry, said Morris in a lecture of 1888, was 'the noblest of the weaving arts', and both he and Burne-Jones were interested in the subject from an early date. Morris never forgot 'a room hung with faded greenery' that he saw as a boy at Queen Elisabeth's Lodge in Epping Forest, and on early visits to France - in 1854 alone, a year later with Burne-Jones - he studied medieval tapestries, including the famous set of La Dame à la Licorne in the Musée Cluny. The examples in the South Kensington Museum were also familiar to the friends; Burne-Jones copied them in early sketchbooks, and later acquisitions were often made with their advice. Tapestries sometimes appear in the backgrounds of Burne-Jones's pictures, notably the well-known Laus Veneris (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle), exhibited in 1878; and there was a set of late sixteenth-century tapestries, illustrating the story of Sampson, at Kelmscott Manor, the country retreat near Lechlade that Morris acquired in 1871.
Despite all this, Morris did not begin to teach himself tapestry until the late 1870s, using a French eighteenth-century handbook and practising on a loom in his bedroom at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith; and he did not take up the craft commercially until 1881, when he moved his firm to Merton Abbey on the banks of the river Wandle between Wandsworth and Wimbledon. Here the soft river water was ideal for dyeing wools and silks, the light was good for weaving, and there were abundant flowers to serve as models for the millefleurs backgrounds that he invariably gave his tapestries in emulation of early Flemish examples, the style and technique of which he was trying to revive. In further pursuit of this ideal, he adopted the traditional haute lisse method whereby the tapestry was woven on an upright loom, the weavers working from behind the warp threads and watching the progress of the tapestry in a mirror placed in front. Needless to say, he was anxious to avoid the mechanical reproduction of designs characteristic of the Gobelins factory in France, which he visited, and the Royal Windsor Tapestry Works, launched in 1876. Although artists designed the figures and Morris or his chief assistant, J. H. Dearle, exercised strict supervision, Morris insisted that it was 'really free-hand work' in which the weavers themselves took a good deal of initiative. In fact he was proud that many of them were boys trained by himself, maintaining that 'the work of weaving is of a kind which experience proves...is best carried on by small flexible fingers'.
Although some of his early tapestries were purely naturalistic, Morris's object from the outset was to produce figurative compositions, preferably designed by Burne-Jones, whom, he claimed, was 'the only man at present living who can give you pictures at once good enough and suitable for tapestry.' The first collaborative pieces, such as the Flora and Pomona tapestries of 1885 (Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester), were relatively simple concepts in which a single figure is placed against a flat decorative background devised by Morris. But it was not long before more elaborate, pictorial effects were being sought; indeed it is significant that several of these designs were adapted by Burne-Jones for easel pictures. The first was the famous Adoration of the Magi, woven in 1890 for the Chapel of Exeter College, Oxford, and repeated many times thereafter. This was swiftly followed by the Holy Grail series.
The Stanmore Hall tapestries
The set of six tapestries depicting the Quest for the Holy Grail were commissioned from Morris & Co. in 1890 by the Australian mining engineer William Knox D'Arcy for the dining-room of his house, Stanmore Hall, near Uxbridge in Middlesex. The house had been built in 1847 in the fashionable Tudor-Gothic style - or 'sham Gothic' as Morris described it after his first visit. Following the D'Arcy family's occupation, modifications and additions, including a new dining-room, were undertaken in the 1880s by the architect Brightwell Binyon (fig. 2). Morris & Co. had already supplied furniture and carpets for much of the house. The tapestries were to be the crowning glory of the decorative scheme (see J. S. Gibson, op.cit.).
The choice of subject matter for the tapestries, while influenced by the shape and character of the room, was essentially dictated by the long-standing love of the Grail legend on the part of Morris and Burne-Jones. The temptation to illustrate the story on this grand scale was simply too great to resist. It is not hard to read as much between the lines of a memorandum sent by Morris to D'Arcy in the spring of 1891 (see A. B. Bence-Jones, op.cit.): 'I have had a careful discussion with Mr Burne-Jones on the tapestries for the dining room at Stanmore, and after considering the spaces to be filled, the light in the room and other circumstances, we have come to the following conclusion. The subject chosen for the illustration is the Quest of the Sancgreal which forms the latter part of the world-wide romance of the Morte d'Arthur, and is on the whole the most illustrateable part of it, apart from the fact that as literature it is the most beautiful and complete episode in the Romance. It is in fact particularly suited for illustration being, so to say, in itself a series of pictures.'
Burne-Jones's influence on the conception of the tapestries as 'a series of pictures' hardly needs emphasising. He also had a very clear idea as to how the 'pictures' should be seen. 'Mr Burne-Jones', Morris informed D'Arcy, 'thinks it desirable that the main figures should be more or less at a level all around the room so as to gain the response necessary for a great picture series of tapestry'. The artist's clear sense of the relation between the subject and its setting is apparent in the completed panels. The towering scale of the figures, their heads in many cases cutting into the upper edge of the tapestries, creates an effect that is highly dramatic and compelling.
This effect would have been all the greater when the tapestries, hung as a continuous frieze on the upper walls of the room, were viewed from below. The Attainment of the Grail was placed above the sideboard, but all the other scenes had verdure panels beneath them, showing deer in a thicket with the knights' shields hanging from the branches of the trees (fig. 3). Burne-Jones's autograph work-record (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) shows that he was engaged on the designs from 1891 to 1894. Many drawings for the project survive, including rough composition sketches, studies of individual heads and figures, and finished drawings in gouache in which the designs assume their final form. These were enlarged photographically by Morris's friend Emery Walker to make full-scale cartoons, Burne-Jones working over the enlargements to define such sensitive passages as heads and hands, Morris adding the heraldry (his principal source for this was Gyron le Courtoys, avecques la devise des armes de tous les chevaliers de la table ronde, an anonymous book published in Paris in 1520 which he consulted in the British Museum), and J. H. Dearle, Morris's assistant, being responsible for the foreground flowers. Finally, from a tracing of the cartoon, the design was transferred to the warp threads for the weavers' guidance.
Despite their dependence on medieval precedent, Burne-Jones rather resented Dearle's floral foregrounds, complaining that they cluttered up his designs. No-one, however, could deny their botanical accuracy. In 1895, shortly after the completion of the tapestries, D'Arcy's gardener at Stanmore Hall, the appropriately named Mr W. Tidy, was able to make a study of the flowers introduced by Dearle, and identify every one. In the present tapestry they are as follows: daffodil, saponaira, campanula, dianthus, foxglove, hawkweed, tulip, convolvulus, snowdrop, lychnis, winter aconite, celandine and poppy.
Morris himself was responsible not only for the heraldic elements but the overall colouring and the judicial use of silk threads to give highlights in certain areas. Especially effective, for example, is the use of silk for the golden beams of light streaming from the chapel window in the present tapestry.
Three vast upright looms were used at Merton Abbey to create the suite of Stanmore Hall tapestries, each employing up to three weavers. The tapestries were woven to a thickness of fourteen threads to the inch, using only vegetable-dyed wools, combined with silks and mohairs to add richness of texture and tone to the finished works. The entire project took nearly four years to complete. The first scene to be finished was The Attainment of the Grail, iconographically the climax of the series as well as the largest in size. When it was shown at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition at the New Gallery in 1893, Morris told the Daily Chronicle that it had 'occupied three persons, as many as can sit comfortably across the warp, for two years. The people who made it, and this is by far the most interesting thing about it, are boys, at least they are grown up by this time, entirely trained in our shop. It is really freehand work remember, not slavishly copying a pattern like the basse lisse method, and they came to us with no knowledge of drawing whatever. Our superintendent Mr Dearle has of course been closely watching the work all the time and has put in a few bits, like the hands and the faces, with his own hands; but with this exception every bit has been done by these boys.'
It is significant, of course, that Morris saw the weavers' freedom of expression as 'by far the most interesting thing'. Here was a perfect example of his philosophy of art as the key to personal happiness and social regeneration.
H. C. Marillier (op.cit.) records the names of seven weavers who worked on the six narrative panels and accompanying verdures which made up the twelve-piece Stanmore set. They were William Knight, Morris' most gifted weaver, William Sleath, who, with Knight, had joined Morris as an apprentice in the 1870s, John Martin, later a tapestry restorer at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Robert Ellis, John Keach, William Haines, who was originally trained in the haute lisse method at the Royal Windsor Tapestry Works, and Walter Taylor, a mere fourteen- year-old at the time. Sleath and Knight are noted by Bence-Jones (op.cit.) as having mainly worked on the flesh tints, with some assistance from Martin. The weavers were allowed considerable latitude in the interpretation of tint and shading. Again Morris fully supported this practice, maintaining that '...the executants themselves...(are) in both nature and training artists, not merely animated machines.'
The subject of the tapestries
After a number of incidents from the story had been considered, the following were chosen (the titles are those given by Marillier):
The Knights of the Round Table summoned to the Quest by the Strange Damsel
The Arming and Departure of the Knights
The Failure of Sir Gawain (the present tapestry)
The Failure of Sir Lancelot to enter the Chapel of the Holy Grail
The Attainment of the Holy Grail by Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival
A text identifying the subject of each panel was woven on a scroll along the upper edge of the verdure beneath.
The subject of the present panel, taken from Malory, Book XII, chapter 16, is described by Stephen Wildman as follows in the catalogue of the Burne-Jones centenary exhibition, 1998 (op.cit.): 'The verdure inscription reads: "How sir gawaine and sir uwaine went their ways to seek the sangreal but might no wise attain to the sight of it but were brought to shame because of the evil life they led aforetime." In a passage quoted in Lady Burne-Jones's Memorials (op.cit), Burne-Jones describes the knights as "eaten up by the world - handsome gentlemen set on this world's glory." The heraldic device on the second figure's shield does indeed identify him as Uwaine, although in Malory's text Gawaine had ridden "from Whitsuntide till Michaelmas" without great adventure, before falling in with Ector de Maris. After another eight days, these two arrive at a deserted chapel, where a disembodied voice proclaims: "Knights full of evil faith and of poor belief, these two things have failed you, and therefore ye may not come to the adventures of the Sangreal." Burne-Jones converts this episode into the vision of an angel who bars the door of the chapel, protected by the artist's favourite briar roses; a light from within suggests the presence of the Holy Grail, which the knights are unable to attain'.
Subsequent history and later weavings
The other figure subjects were completed a year later than the Attainment (i.e. 1894), and the verdure panels in 1895. The whole set cost D'Arcy £3,500, of which Burne-Jones received £1,000. They remained at Stanmore Hall until D'Arcy's death in 1920, when they were sold at Sotheby's to the Duke of Westminster to adorn Eaton Hall, his country seat near Chester. One, The Arming and Departure of the Knights, was included in the Arts Council's Burne-Jones Exhibition, 1975-6 (cat. 227), and three were sold at Sotheby's Belgravia on 19 April 1978, lots 91-3.
There were several subsequent versions. In 1895-6 the second, fourth and sixth subjects were woven for Laurence Hodson of Compton Hall, Wolverhampton - brewer, bibliophile and keen collector of contemporary art. When Hodson was forced to sell them in 1906, they were bought by subscription for the Art Gallery at Birmingham, Burne-Jones's place of birth. In 1898 a second complete set and one verdure were woven for George McCulloch, D'Arcy's Scottish mining partner who lived at 184 Queen's Gate, Kensington, and formed a famous collection of contemporary paintings which was sold at Christie's in May 1913. McCulloch's tapestries, which won a Grand Prix when shown at the Paris International Exhibition in 1900 and were seen again at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1925, passed through several hands before they were sold in 1953 and exported to Italy. The Summons was bought at auction in 1980 for Birmingham to make up the Hodson set, and four more of McCulloch's panels els appeared at Christie's in 1994 (see Associated Sales above). Birmingham also has versions of The Ship, the smallest of the main panels, and a verdure; these were commissioned in 1900 by the wife of Sir John T. Middlemore, one of the city's MPs and a noted philanthropist.
When McCulloch's set was completed the cartoons were purchased by D'Arcy so that no more could be made, but on his death his widow sold them back to the firm and versions of the first and last subjects, The Summons and The Attainment, were woven 1927-32 for Henry Beecham - just in time to be mentioned in Marillier's record of the tapestry works at Merton Abbey. It was the Attainment from this final weaving that Christie's had for sale in March 1990 (again see Associated Sales).