Renaissance Tapestries Are Out. But Today’s Are Having a Renaissance.


On Tuesday and Wednesday, the regional auctioneer Sworders sold the principal contents of North Mymms Park, a Jacobean estate 17 miles north of London that had formerly been the home of the British-American banker Walter Hayes Burns, brother-in-law of the financier John Pierpont Morgan. Most recently, the house has been owned by the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, which was putting its principal contents up for sale.

Photo

“Red Carpet,” by Grayson Parry, was made in an edition of eight. The dealership that financed the works said they had sold out.

Credit
Paragon Press

The second day of the auction began with an exceptional group of 19 antique tapestries that had hung in the house for more than 100 years, many of them gifts from Mr. Morgan. These included a partial set of five mid-16th-century Brussels tapestries depicting the “Labors of Hercules.”

In 1979, when the Burns family sold North Mymms Park and its contents, all 19 had been offered by Christie’s. The tapestries were then bought back by the estate’s next owner, to preserve the decorative scheme.

On Wednesday, the five “Labors” sold for a seemingly impressive total of 478,000 pounds with fees, or about $680,000, led by the £146,400 given for a tapestry of Hercules and Atlas. It was bought online by a London dealer, who acquired nine tapestries in the sale. But in 1979, that same partial set was sold by Christie’s for £104,000, equivalent to about $800,000 in today’s money.

An 18th-century Brussels tapestry of a village festival, also formerly owned by Mr. Morgan, sold for £9,760. At the Christie’s auction 40 years earlier, it achieved a top price of £28,000.

“They’ve gone down substantially,” said Penny Bingham, a specialist valuer whom Sworders consulted for the North Mymms Park auction.

“People want instant color, and they’re generally less interested in wall hangings and textiles,” she added, noting that potential buyers were concerned about tapestries’ colors fading.

Photo

Weavers at Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh during the making of Chris Ofili’s tapestry “The Caged Bird’s Song.”

Credit
Dovecot Studios

Paradoxically, just as antique tapestries have been falling out of collecting fashion, there has been a revival in tapestry as a medium for contemporary art. Digital innovation has allowed tapestries made on Jacquard machine looms to achieve unprecedented clarity of interpretation, and enterprises such as Factum Arte in Madrid and Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh are enabling artists to realize ambitious new projects in the historical, but ever-evolving, medium.

“Increased computing power means you can do things you couldn’t do before,” said Adam Lowe, the founder of Factum Arte, which facilitates and produces artworks using a range of new and established techniques. “Artists are getting really excited by tapestry and are trying to push what can be done with the medium,” added Mr. Lowe, who points out that the Jacquard loom’s early-19th-century punch-card technology prefigured modern computing.

Grayson Perry, Cornelia Parker, Carlos Garaicoa and Craigie Horsfield are among the artists Factum Arte has helped to make tapestries on the looms of Flanders Tapestries in Wielsbeke, Belgium.

“The looms have become so sophisticated in the last 10 years,” said Mr. Horsfield, who immerses himself in the painstaking process of turning a large-scale photograph into data, then into an even bigger, unique tapestry. “I can make it look exactly like a photo. It doesn’t look like a tapestry. It doesn’t have that materiality.”

In “Zoo, Oxford,” a monumental 2007 tapestry diptych showing a male and female rhinoceros gazing at each other across their pens, the artist went a stage further by using digitally programmed 3-D weaving techniques to simulate the skin of the animals. The 13-yard-wide work was acquired by the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, the Netherlands, after a 2017 exhibition devoted to the artist there. The purchase price was 220,000 euros, or $270,000 at current exchange rates, said Mr. Horsfield, who self-finances his tapestry projects.

“They’re so expensive to make,” he added, noting that the weaving alone of a single tapestry panel could cost more than €25,000.

Photo

Tapestries were among recently auctioned items from North Mymms Park, a Jacobean house 17 miles north of London.

Credit
Sworders

Mr. Perry’s much-exhibited tapestries satirizing contemporary Britain are financed by the London dealership Paragon Press. These have been selling steadily to museums and private collections at slightly lower prices, reflecting that, unlike Mr. Horsfield’s unique tapestries, they are machine-woven in editions. Of Mr. Perry’s 10 ambitious seven-yard-wide tapestries titled “The Battle of Britain,” eight have found buyers at prices up to £125,000, while the entire eight-piece edition of the more compact “Red Carpet” has sold at prices up to £65,000 each, according to Charles Booth-Clibborn, founder of Paragon Press.

“Big things are back,” Mr. Booth-Clibborn said, referring to the renewed commercial appeal of large contemporary tapestries now that “collectors are creating warehouse-style private museum spaces.”

Unique, hand-woven tapestries made today in the tradition of Leo X’s Sistine hangings are, by contrast, almost a different medium.

It took two and a half years for Dovecot Studios’ five master weavers to make Chris Ofili’s tapestry “The Caged Bird’s Song,” a one-off commission for the Clothworkers’ Company, an organization in the City of London that dates from the 16th century. The tapestry was exhibited last year at the National Gallery in the British capital, before its permanent installation in the company’s hall.

One of just two tapestry studios left in Britain, Dovecot would not divulge the cost of the commission, but it did say that just one meter, or close to a yard, of its tapestry costs £25,000 to weave. Mr. Ofili’s Trinidad-inspired landscape covers 20.7 square meters, or almost 223 square feet, implying a cost of more than £500,000 for a commission the company said would “support endangered skills and nurture talent.”

But how can you tell the difference between hand- and machine-woven tapestries, other than price?

“There’s more life to them, a bit more expression,” said Naomi Robertson, one of Dovecot’s master weavers, who chooses colors by eye and mixes dyes by hand. “We see ourselves in a 50-50 relationship with the artist. We’re expressing ourselves as we weave. We blend the colors and find the language to create the work.”

Tapestry is once again gaining value in the art world. But as with so much else in that world, it’s out with the old and in with the new.

Continue reading the main story