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.
The best tapestry designs for a century and a half - I almost wrote three centuries - are those produced by Burne-Jones and Morris and Dearie for the works at Merton (See chapter IX (Designs And Cartoons. Portraits In Tapestries. Counterfeit Arras. Animals In Tapestries. Verdures)). The division of labour was an important feature. The figures were by Burne-Jones, the grounds and borders and colour schemes by Morris and Dearie. Each did what he knew best - Burne-Jones the creative composition and personages, his two associates the ornament and foliage. What was most significant of all, the interpretation of the designs was in the hands of Morris and Dearie - the practical weavers - from beginning to end. There was no attempt to express in wool and silk what can be expressed only in paint.
Burne-Jones prepared drawings 15 or 20 inches high from actual figure studies. These slightly tinted drawings were enlarged by photography and submitted to him, together with small colour sketches prepared by Morris and Dearie. On the photographic enlargements Burne-Jones worked up the heads and hands, but without touching the ornament at all.
Also, in putting the cartoons and colour sketches on the loom, considerable liberty was allowed to the weaver in the choice and arrangement of tints and shading.
This method I regard as the perfect one for producing masterpieces of picture tapestry. In essentials, it resembles the method employed by the great Gothic and Renaissance tapestry factories. Then the petits patrons that came from the great painter were translated into grands patrons by artists trained in tapestry technique, and the grands patrons were translated into arras on the loom by weavers trained to substitute tapestry conventionalities for paint conventionalities, under the direction of managers whose reputation and business success depended upon their ability to produce tapestries that utilised to the utmost the wonderful possibilities of tapestry texture.
Small colour sketches (petits patrons) of the kind used in the XV century, are those illustrating the Trojan War (See chapter XII (History And Romance In Tapestries)), now in the Louvre, from which were produced the Bayard and Aulhac, and Zamora Trojan War tapestries. Large colour cartoons (grands patrons) are the Toiles Peintes of Reims (See Reims Peintes in chapter XV (Tapestry Museums, Collections, Expositions, Inventories, Sales, Books)), the Raphael Cartoons in the Victoria and Albert Museum (See chapter III (Renaissance Tapestries)), and Mantegna's Triumphs of Caesar at Hampton Court.
That the nine paintings of the XV century Italian artist Mantegna were what they look like - cartoons for tapestry - is clear from a letter dated December
Plate no. 257. Saint Luke Painting the Virgin. Late Gothic tapestry in the Louvre after the painting of Rogier Van Der Weyden in the Munich Museum, of which there is a duplicate in the Boston Fine Arts Museum. The tapestry reverses the direction of the painting (with the necessary modification of St. Luke's hands), and is much richer in details, mostly such as were often added by tapestry weavers of the period. Note the name S. lucas on the scroll behind the patron saint of painters.
27, 1519, received by the famous Venetian amateur Marc-Antonio Michiel from his correspondent in Rome, and quoted on page 5 of Muentz Vatican. The letter says in part:
"They [the seven Acts of the Apostles tapestries just finished and first shown the day before] were adjudged to be the most beautiful work of the kind ever done up to our time, in spite of the fame of other tapestries - those in the ante-chamber of Pope Julius II, those of the Marquis of Mantua after the cartoons of Mantegna, and those of the kings Alphonse and Frederick of Naples".
The Triumphs of Caesar was considered to be Mantegna's masterpiece not only by his contemporaries and posterity but also by Mantegna himself. In a letter from Rome dated January 31, 1489 - quoted in part on page 272 of the English edition of Paul Kristeller's Andrea Mantegna, London, 1901 - he commends the paintings to the especial care of the Marquis of Mantua and asks "that the windows be mended so that they may take no harm, for truly I am not ashamed of having made them, and hope to make more if God and your Excellency please." The Marquis answered on February 25: "We would remind you that you still have work here to finish for us, and especially the Triumphs, which, as you say, are a worthy work and which we should willingly see completed." He adds that arrangements have been made for their preservation, because he is himself proud of having them in his house.
They were shown to distinguished guests, among them Duke Hercules of Ferrara in 1486, and to Giovanni di Medici in 1494.
In 1492 Mantegna was presented with a large country estate "for the admirable works he had painted in the chapel and in the chamber of the castle, and for the Triumphs of Caesar he is now painting for us in pictures which almost live and breathe. As once in antiquity Hiero gained lustre from Archimedes, Alexander from Apelles and Lysippus, Augustus from Vitruvius, so now has the house of Gonzaga attained undying renown by the works of Mantegna, and wishes on that account to reward the artist with princely generosity".
Over a century later, in an inventory of 1627, the paintings are named as being in the Galleria della Mostra, and they are valued at 150 scudi each, altogether 8,100 lire. In that year Daniel Nys bought from the Duke, for 68,000 Mantuan scudi, works of art to enrich the collections of King Charles I of England. He was much censured because the Triumphs was not among them and opened fresh negotiations. The Duke held off at first and demanded 20,000 doubloons, "a clear sign that he did not wish to part with them." Finally he let them go to Nys, together with a number of statues, for £10,500. King Charles was not pleased with the bargain and held up the bills until May 15, 1629, when Nys received the Lord Treasurer's promise to pay and a command to send the objects purchased from Venice to England by ship. The nine cartoons were valued by the Commonwealth, in 1651, at £1,000 and, like the Raphael cartoons, were selected by Cromwell for the decoration of Hampton Court. In 1653 they were ordered copied by Gilbert Pickering (see chapter V (Mortlake, Merton, And Other English Looms) under Mortlake), and the tapestries woven from them were later purchased by Charles II.