The Tolkein Tapestries

by Bill Skidmore

I first became involved with the Tapestry Museum in Aubusson a few years ago. We happened to be covering a show about an hour away, so it was an opportunity not to be missed.

After speaking to staff at the museum, it became obvious to them, I was not just a normal visiting tourist. Jean and I were taken behind the scenes and were involved in technical discussions, even helping with some technical translating of terms and processes; knowing what these were we could give the English version. We were invited to see their apprentices at work and go to other ateliers and dyehouses in the area.

When the curator of the museum, Bruno Ythier, realised the Vatican Bibliotheca had a copy of my thesis, he asked for a copy for their library.

Perhaps many people do not realise, the Graham Sutherland designed tapestry in Coventry Cathedral (approximately 75 feet high x 38 feet wide), was woven in one of the Aubusson area ateliers at Felletin. There was not a studio in the UK that could accommodate the size.

We were told about a project to weave a series of 13 tapestries and a large carpet based on JRR Tolkien’s illustrations for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and other books. The original watercolour drawings were only about A4 in size so it was a massive task to enlarge them to 3 to 4 metres in size. To make life size cartoons was much easier with the aid of digital imaging. The tapestries were woven on a Basse Lisse loom, from the back. The work was in close cooperation and given the blessing and supervised at various stages by Christopher Tolkien and other members of the family.

I was given regular updates, regarding the progress of the weaving and asked to publish it in the UK, via organisations like the Tolkien Society. Sometime in early summer we were not only given the date of the ‘cutting off’ ceremony, but Jean and I were invited to attend, along with the British Ambassador.

So in October we arrived in Aubusson for the cutting off of the tapestries two and three, ‘Halls of  Manwë’ and ‘Glorund sets forth to seek Tùrin’. This was a very special occasion and we were very privileged and honoured to be invited, along with Christopher Tolkien’s wife and son. Christopher, now in his 90s, was too frail to travel. There were many dignitaries from the region, however, the British Ambassador gave back word at the last minute and sent no one else to represent him. Not good for relationships at a delicate time!

Many years ago I worked on a thesis about the tapestries after Raphaello Santi cartoons in the V&A.

During my research I spent a lot of time in the Vatican Museums. The original tapestries were commissioned by Pope Julius II for the walls in the Sistine Chapel. During frequent visits, the restoration of Michelangelo’s ceiling and altar wall were in progress. When the thesis was completed, the head of the museum and the person in charge of the restoration, (Fabrizio Mancenelli), requested a copy for their Bibliotheca. In return, he asked if Jean and I would like to ascend to the work station where the lab and work was taking place. It was the first time a computer had been involved in work of this type! The cleaning was done two square centimetres at a time, no solvent was put directly onto the fresco surface, but via rice paper. From recollection the project took in total about ten years.

During the time I was doing my research I visited numerous places to see versions of the tapestries, at least five churches/museums in Italy, but also France, Austria, Spain, Belgium and Germany besides the UK. However, my research into the process and production of tapestry weaving took me to the Gobelin (normally Haute Lisse ie woven vertically) in Paris, but I never got to Aubusson, (normally Basse Lisse ie woven horizontally), a centre for tapestries and carpets for over 500 years.

With thanks to SDC member Bill Skidmore for writing this article.

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