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Tapestries – From the Old World to the New

Europe has been a major source of tapestry art since the Middle Ages, when these decorative wall hangings served as a pictorial history of the times. When the Americas began to be settled by Europeans, tapestries came along to grace the walls of the more fortunate. Owning fine wall hangings was status symbol among wealthy merchants and relocated nobles, and some of the finest tapestries from France and England made their way across the Atlantic to take up residence in the Colonies.

The Old World…

Master bedrooms in Europe sported tapestries not only on the walls but hung around the four-posters themselves. This created a warm resting place for the master and mistress of the household, as well as some privacy. Depictions of angels were common on such bed hangings, as were family crests and coat of arms. Heavy cords were used as tiebacks to allow the curtains to be drawn back by day, and closed at night.

Wall hung tapestries were often ornately decorated with landscapes, hunting scenes or floral designs. These could range from narrow vertical pieces suitable for framing a doorway to gargantuan masterpieces large enough to cover an entire wall. Smaller tapestries were often decorated further with embroidery to make accents stand out, such as a bird’s eye or a gemstone in a lady’s ring.

Some tapestries showed a historic or mythological event; battles fought against men or dragons, fair maidens won by knights or unicorns. The practice of preserving history on warp and weft included scenes from all walks of life, and portrayals could be startlingly accurate. Natural history was as common a subject as any, and some of the renditions of English birds (notably cockerels) are truly spectacular in their attention to detail and their accuracy.

…And the New

Tapestries were the height of fashion in the early years of the American settlements. Colonists followed the example of the London wealthy and imported English, French and Italian tapestries to hang in their parlors and bedrooms. Some of the most popular designs of the times later became standards to be looked up to, emulated and designed after by American weavers.

As the industrial age gave rise to the nouveau riche, tapestries came more into vogue. They graced the mansions and country homes alike of the upper class, providing an air of luxury. The invention of the Jacquard loom made tapestries more affordable for the middle class as well, allowing merchants and trades folk to enjoy the wall hangings that they had hitherto only been able to admire as they provided them to the more affluent.

New patterns were constantly invented, and by the time of William Morris there was a revolution in the Arts and Crafts world. This opened the doors to a whole new way of looking at wall art and reproductions of famous tapestries became common. The color and texture provided by tapestries was greatly appreciated during this extremely tactile stage of artistic awakening, and more tapestries were being used as decorative touches in homes across the country.

The reign of Queen Victoria marked an era of lavish furnishing, including paintings and tapestries. The lush floral patterns of the times provided a rich counterpart to the intricate woodworking and swan like lines of the furniture of the age. In America, the wealthy in the East followed suit, and as the Westward Expansion continued the trends slowly worked their way towards the Pacific coast.

Tapestries in the Modern Age

By the mid 1900’s a completely new appreciation of tapestries had surfaced once again. As people became more apt to change with the times and move from place to place with the help of modern transportation, tapestries became beloved for their ability to instantly turn a new house into a home. They traveled easily, rolled up in canvas and carried by ship or train, to be unrolled and re-hung at their new home.

The cost of tapestries in comparison to framed quality paintings is quite affordable. One nice piece can cover a wall and set the tone for an entire room. With the huge variety of patterns and styles available, it is not hard to find a wall hanging that not only blends with your decorating scheme but speaks top you on an inner level. You can echo your own personality or choose a tapestry that represents the way you see the world – or wish you could.

Tapestries are a fine addition to any living space; even if you can’t afford a huge nine by twelve foot reproduction of a masterpiece there are hundreds of sizes, shapes and styles. Look for one that will fit into a special place in your house, and align with your budget. Over the years you can add to your collection, and each new wall hanging will seem like an old friend!

Angela Dawson-Field is an expert in antique tapestry art. She enjoys researching the history of Medieval tapestry wall hangings

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