It is rare nowadays to see someone pull out a half-finished tapestry from their handbag and get on with their stitching. In fact, tapestry is becoming increasingly unfashionable; ‘nomadic murals’ (as architect Le Corbusier described them) are often relics of the distant past. So much so that they have plummeted in price.
‘People are streaming into contemporary art, and tapestry is becoming more of a niche market,’ says Marcus Radecke, Christie’s European head of furniture. ‘Whereas a large Brussels baroque tapestry might have fetched £50,000 in the 1980s or 1990s, nowadays it would sell for £20,000 or £25,000.’
That may still sound a lot for woven thread, but it’s a long way short of the record-breaking $1.2 million paid for ‘Wild Men’, a Swiss medieval scene sold at Sotheby’s in 1981. Another set called the Caesar tapestries was commissioned by Henry VIII. There were ten pieces, each 9 feet high and 25 feet long, and when hung in a row, they stretched 259 feet. The set was valued at £5,022 a century after the monarch’s death, but sadly it disappeared at some point in the 19th century.
The price that tapestries could fetch were, and still can be, absurd. But see one up close and you will marvel at its glory. (The V&A has a fantastic collection, for starters, and I implore you to go and see them.)
Though domesticity is undergoing something of a renaissance — home-furnishing tycoons such as Cath Kidston have helped to make it fashionable again to think about what’s on your walls and how fabrics look — tapestries seem to have been forgotten.
But they were to the medieval home what Kidston’s Aga is to her kitchen. While aesthetically pleasing, their principal purpose was to keep the house warm. To the countryman, they were a vital addition to walls that were often damp.
At the National Trust’s Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, many of the rooms have tapestries in place of wallpaper, with paintings boldly hung over the scenes. The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, on display in the V&A, were discovered at Hardwick, too.
There is something romantic about the congregational function that tapestries must have served: the thought of women gossiping and plotting over their canvases in times past is an exciting one. Bring back the stitch and bitch of a bygone era, I say.
Though it’s not a discipline that will stave off Alzheimer’s, as Sudoku claims to do, tapestry work can certainly be beneficial. Fine Cell Work is a brilliant social enterprise that trains prisoners to make everything from cushions to murals. It has recently teamed up with English Heritage to work on restoration projects. Their designs are modern and elegant, and show that tapestry has a place in the modern world.