Perhaps it was an interesting twist of fate that at the same time I was working on my graduate studies at Goddard College (researching and crafting the design for “Deceiving the Hunters”), across the pond a parallel endeavor on a much grander scale was also engaging the theme of the Unicorn Tapestries.
Stirling Castle, home to the Scottish Kings, now serves as a living history museum. In the archives of James V, there is notated a series of tapestries depicting the History of the Unicorn, but these have since been lost (likely from the Scottish King’s ascension to the English throne after the death of Elizabeth I). No record remains of the iconography of these tapestries, so as Historic Scotland became interested in replacing the set for educational and heritage purposes, they turned to a surviving series about the unicorn–The Hunt of the Unicorn, housed at the Cloisters.
2 million pounds and 14 years later, the set was completely rewoven at half the warps-per-inch density (otherwise they’d still be weaving now), with completion of the project in 2014. 18 weavers from across the globe participated, with master weavers from West Dean Tapestry Studio in Sussex and Ruth Jones from Canada leading the project. Using detailed scanned images from the original panels, the team created line drawing cartoons to keep their recreations as accurate as possible, including details in shading and character position.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art does have a wonderful online image gallery for these tapestries, including very high resolution details from the fragmented panel that I have kept close at hand for my own work. By creating my own interpretive piece, I have a taste of the tremendous amount of time and attention to detail that this crew of weavers has taken with this project! I’m certain that seeing the finished pieces in person is quite breathtaking, especially since they were able to utilize colors at a greater brilliance–giving the affect the originals might have had when fresh off the loom.
The original Unicorn Tapestries were woven at 8 warps per centimeter (20 per inch), while the reproductions were worked at 4 warps per centimeter (10 warps per inch–the same as my piece). This certainly makes a difference with vertical details, as I’m finding with a little frustration here and there in my own work, but the Sterling set also has a much bigger palate for spreading this detail work. It’s also quite possible that their weft thread is a little finer than mine. Wouldn’t it be a treat to take a walk in their studio and talk to the makers!
I did find a few online resources about the reproduction process for the Sterling Tapestries, including on the castle’s website and also an interview with Ruth Jones by Satellite Gallery. Ruth is the maker who was given the special task of designing and weaving the scene where the maiden beguiles the unicorn (as critiqued in the previous post). It is one thing to work to recreate an existing masterpiece–and another to graft onto it what might have been. This certainly was a stylistic and iconographic challenge.
In the interview, Ruth Jones quotes woodcuts, engravings, and other contemporary art for her inspiration of a seated maiden with the unicorn in her lap. She does not appear to adopt the idea that this character may be the lady shown before the castle gates after the slaying of the unicorn–instead showing her more like the panel “Sight” from The Lady and the Unicorn series. In this image from the piece-in-progress, that lady has not yet emerged from the weaving process. Here, the damsel who tips off the hunters that the capture has been complete is being woven in all her velvet splendor. Check out the last post for a view of the finished panel.
Studying the process images from this set, I realized that the size of “Deceiving the Hunters” is a much more manageable scale for a solo artist like myself. There is no question that a piece on the proportions of The Hunt of the Unicorn would have required an entire team of weavers–let alone the crews spinning and dying–a real symbol of status and wealth for its owners.
Seeing this parallel project also helps me put into perspective that I’m not a reproductions weaver. While this set is entirely impressive and I applaud the countless hours and dedication to detail and craftsmanship of its makers, I would personally find it far too constricting to spend 14 years remaking that which already exists. And, though from time to time while working on my own piece I get the urge to try to replicate an exact technique or style from these works, I am reminded of my own unique textile background and training and my interests in storytelling through many mediums as foremost components of my style. Unlike the Sterling Tapestries, “Deceiving the Hunters” is not a reproduction piece–it’s an offering of an alternative narrative.
The reproduction-style interpretation of what happened in that fragment tapestry has already been made! Kudos to Ruth and the team at West Dean. But now it’s time to trace the winding and serendipitous tale of how I came to choose and create my own lady with her unicorn–and why.