This section is from the book "Tapestries; Their Origin, History And Renaissance", by George Leland Hunter. Also available from Amazon: Tapestries; Their Origin, History, And Renaissance.
Tapestry with or without personages is a perfect furniture covering. It is both beautiful and durable. The first cost is high, but with use the value increases. The Aubusson chair back on the opposite page I have pictured both front and reverse, in order to make clear to everyone the fact that except for the irregular floating threads and the reversal of direction, all real tapestries are exactly alike on both sides. This explains why aged tapestries are sometimes mounted wrong side out - like two of the fragments of the Burgundian Seven Sacraments illustrated on plates nos. 46 and 47 - without the fact being generally known. Just shave off the floating threads and the picture stands revealed as clearly on the reverse as on the front.
Valentinois, who had the somewhat doubtful distinction of being the widow of the notorious Caesar Borgia. In the will are enumerated numerous tapestries from the looms of Felletin, mostly verdures, several of them being described as "tappicerie de Felletin à feuillages".
Colour plate no. IV illustrates the front and the reverse of an Aubusson chair-back. The ribs run vertically instead of horizontally as on wall tapestries. In furniture tapestries the ribs are either vertical or horizontal as is most convenient for the weaver, and the texture is often as fine as 24 ribs to the inch. The warp of the tapestry before us is of wool and the weft is of silk and wool, principally silk. Aubusson seats and backs are largely in the style of Louis XV or XVI, and consequently in delicate tones that are most easily secured in silk.
Returning to the colour illustration, I would ask the reader to note that the reverse of a tapestry furnishes a quick test to enable the novice to distinguish real tapestry from Belleville and Nimes broché imitations. In the broché the floats on the back are all parallel with the weft - that is to say perpendicularly across the warp. But in real tapestries the back is covered with loose threads - not parallel - that mark the transition of bobbin from section to section of the same colour. When the loose threads are shaved off, the back is seen to be exactly like the face, except that the direction of the design is reversed.
In a.d. 418, the land of the Lemovices, that in four and a half centuries had become more Roman than Rome itself, was granted by the Roman Emperor Honorius to the invading Visigoths - barbarians from the forests of Germany and Russia - as their "mark." Hence its Latin name Marchia Lemovicina that in French became La Marche. Auvergne got its name from the Arverni, and in the seventeenth century Aubusson tapestries were often called "tapisseries d'Auvergne," while tapestries made in Felletin were called "tapisseries de La Marche." The modern name for the political division in which both towns are situated is the Department de la Creuse, named from the river that flows through Aubusson, which was said to possess, like the Bièvre of the Gobelins, and the Bronx at Wiltiamsbridge, certain mysterious qualities that endear its water to the dyers of wool.
In the year 1581 an ordinance of Henri III speaks of tapestries from Felletin and Aubusson as "tap-pisserie ou tapis dit Feletin, d'Auvergne." In 1601 Henri IV encouraged the industry greatly by forbidding the importation of Flemish tapestries into France. But the Parisians were not content to share prosperity with Aubusson. They wanted a monopoly of the Paris market. They wanted to tax the Aubusson tapestries on entry to Paris, and to allow them to remain there on exhibition only a fortnight. Evidently they feared the competition of the hardy mountaineers of Auvergne and La Marche. Fortunately the Government did not share their local selfishness, and a royal decree dated February I, 1620, confirmed Aubusson and Felletin in their rights.
An indication of the high quality of the work being done at Aubusson in the first part of the XVII century is the fact that, in 1625, a tapestry merchant of Aubusson received an order to supply the cathedral of Reims with four figure tapestries on religious subjects - the Assumption, the Virgin with the infant Christ, Saint Nicaise, and Saint Rémi. Contemporary evidence about tapestry weaving at Aubusson in the XVII century is also to be found in the article on the Haute Lisse in Savary's Dictionnaire du Commerce, published in 1641. He says: "There are also two other French tapestry factories, one at Aubusson in Auvergne, and the other at Felletin in La Marche. It is the tapestries made in these places that are called tapisseries d'Auvergne. Felletin makes the best verdures, and Aubusson the best figures. It is a long time since anything but the basse lisse [low warp loom] has been used either in Auvergne or Picardy".
By 1664, however, the industry appeared to be in a bad way. According to the report made to Colbert, the number of weavers had decreased, there was a lack of good cartoons, and wool was coarse, and the dyes were bad. The tapestry merchants and weavers of Aubusson requested the services of a good painter and an able dyer. They were not willing to have all the royal favours showered on the Gobelins and Beauvais, while Aubusson got nothing.
I suspect that they may even have exaggerated their woes in order to move the royal compassion. In response to their petition, the King the next year authorised them to use the title 'Royal Manufactory." It was also ordered that "as the perfection of the said tapestries depends especially on good designs and the dyeing of the wools, in order to improve the said works and to treat favourably the workmen, a good painter chosen by the Sieur .Colbert, should be maintained at the expense of the King to make designs for the tapestries manufactured in the said town; and there should also be established in it a master dyer to colour the goods employed in the said manufactory." Why the promised painter and dyer were not sent at once we do not know. Perhaps the fact that Aubusson was a Protestant town may have had something to do with it. At any rate, a few years later, in consequence of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, Aubusson lost an important part of its population. Together with other Protestants two hundred of the best weavers of Aubusson had to leave France. Pierre Mercier, with nine others, went to Germany, and was successful in establishing himself there.
The promised painter and dyer were finally sent in the year 1731, in the reign of Louis XV. The painter was Jean Joseph Dumons; the dyer was the Sieur Fizameau, who was succeeded shortly by Pierre de Montezert. An ordinance of 1732 provided that the work of Aubusson should be distinguished by weaving the name of the town and the initials of the weaver into the border. After the arrival of Dumons and largely as the result of his efforts, the industry became again prosperous. During the French Revolution, weaving was practically suspended both here and at the Gobelins. The condition of Aubusson a little later can be seen from a report made to Napoleon in 1804. It gives the number of workmen on flat rugs, hangings, and furniture coverings as 240 to 250, and on pile rugs as 50 to 60. The looms, except those for pile rugs, were at the houses of the workmen. Linen came from Flanders, silk from Lyons, wool from Bayonne. Work was partly by the piece, partly by the day, and wages were from a franc to a franc and a half a day. The total production was about $30,000 a year. Tapestries in fine wool were from $10 to $18 a yard, in silk from $24 to $30.
Plate no. 203. A Chinese Return from Fishing. An Aubusson XVIII century tapestry in the collection of M. Martin Le Roy, reversed and modified from one of the nine Chinese designs painted by François Boucher in 1742 for the Beauvais Tapestry Works, low preserved in the Museum of Besançon. The maker was Pierre Picon who signed duplicates of two of the companion pieces in the Le Roy collection: M. R. D'AVBVSSON. PICON (Royal Manufactory of Aubusson, Picon).
At the present time 1,800 men and women are employed at Aubusson in making rugs and tapestries by hand, the total product being about $200,000 yearly. The best foreign customers are the United States and England. The weavers are contented with from $1 to $2 a day according to ability. In 1804 they got from twenty to thirty cents only. The painters who produce the coloured cartoons, some original and some copied or adapted from the antique, receive from $80 to $120 a month. For a training school, Aubusson has a "National School of Decorative Art." Apprentices are received in the different ateliers at the age of thirteen and by the end of the first year are paid two or three cents a day. Their assistance in the simpler and easier work is important in keeping the cost of production down.
At the Paris Exposition of 1900, the exhibits of three Aubusson manufacturers were of such excellence as to be awarded Grand Prizes - the same award as to the Gobelins, the product of which is reserved for the French Government.
Among the tapestries that helped to win these grand prizes, were reproductions of one of Oudry's XVIII century Hunts of Louis XV, of the panel Venus and the panel Jupiter from Claude Audran's Grotesque Months; in silk and gold of the Château de Blois and the Château de St. Germain, from Lebrun's XVII century series the Royal Residences. Of these reproductions the jury said: "They are so like the originals as to be mistaken for them." Of an Empire set of furniture coverings, part antique and part Aubusson restoration, the jury said: "Only the most experienced eye can tell the new from the old".