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.
Arras tapestries have a more wonderful and fascinating texture than any other material. I say arras tapestries because I wish definitely to limit the statement to wall hangings with horizontal woven ribs in relief, and vertical hatchings (hach-ures), in colour - the type developed and made famous in French Flanders in the XIV and XV centuries, continued in the XVI century at Brussels (in French Flanders that had passed under Spanish control), in the XVII at Brussels, Mortlake, and the Gobelins; in the XVIII at the Gobelins, Beauvais, Brussels, and Aubusson. The progress after the middle of the XVI century was constantly downward. And while the most exquisite tapestries ever produced were woven in the first third of the XVI century, the most characteristic ones and those that, with least effort and most naturally expressed pictures and stories in true tapestry texture, date from the XV century.
Arras tapestries are in their essence line drawings formed by the combination of horizontal ribs with vertical weft threads and hatchings. There are no diagonal or irregular or floating threads as in embroideries and brocades. Nor do any of the warp threads show as in twills and damasks. The surface consists entirely of fine weft threads that completely interlace the coarser warp threads in plain weave (over and under alternately), and also completely cover them so that only the ribs mark their position - one rib for each warp thread. In other words every arras tapestry is a rep fabric.
Plate no. 233. Weaving arras tapestries in the works founded by William Morris at Merton in 1881 (See chapter V (Mortlake, Merton, And Other English Looms) under Merton). The looms are high warp-Contrary to the almost universal practice of weavers since tapestries first were woven, no open slits are left where colors meet parallel with the warp, to be sewed up afterward in the salon de rentraiture.
The number of ribs - from 8 to 24 to the inch - has much to do with the texture. Just because the Mazarin tapestry is very fine (22 ribs to the inch), and many cheaply woven tapestries are coarse, there is a tendency on the part of both dealers and amateurs to exalt the virtues of fineness. This is a serious error. The most marvellous tapestries of the XV century were comparatively coarse (from 8 to 12 ribs), and of the XVI moderately coarse (from 10 to 16). For anything finer than 20 in wall tapestries there is no excuse, except perhaps in a tour-de-force, where the design is so complicated and the figures so many and the weft threads so fine, that by comparison the ribs are coarse, and the texture remains true tapestry texture - a line drawing.
As regards materials, there is also a vast difference between the XV and later centuries. For tapestries as for rugs the best basic material is wool, and it is woollen weft on linen or woollen on hemp warp that composes the body of the great Gothic tapestries, whose texture is enriched with gold and silver thread to a warmth and wealth of colour impossible in other materials.
Nowadays we seem to be too poor to use gold and silver. At the Gobelins they let a weaver spend a year weaving a square metre, but refuse him the precious metals. In France, at the end of the XVIII century as pointed out in chapter I (The Renaissance Of Tapestries. Prices Of Tapestries. Gothic, Renaissance, X Vii And X Viii Century Tapestries), they even burned up ancient and invaluable Gothic tapestries for the sake of the gold they contained.
Silk is the fashion of the day. In all tapestries the tendency now is and has been since the XVI century to use too much silk. Mortlake and Gobelin and Brussels tapestries make this obvious. But Gobelins of the Louis XIV period, less than those woven since. Many of the Louis XIV Gobelins and Charles I Mortlake sets were heavy with gold.
Too many colours are used to-day. They try to do in the dye-pot what ought to be done on the loom. In the XV century, 15 or 20 colours were enough. In the Renaissance, 20 or 30. Now there are available at the Gobelins no less than 14,400 different tones, besides the 20 grey tones called normals, all worked out and developed by Chevreul, chemist and manager of the dye-works at the Gobelins in the XIX century, who lead the march in the wrong direction.
The movement started in the XVI century. Raphael and his pupils with their monopoly of the ancient mural paintings then just unearthed in Rome, set new problems for the Flemish weavers problems suggested by paint and easily solved in paint - but not at all suitable for tapestry.
Tapestries are par excellence line drawings. Herein lies their chief virtue and the moment they depart from it, confusion and uncertainty follow. But the wonderful genius for weaving inherited by the weavers of the XVI century, enabled them to accomplish the almost impossible, and translate at least partially many of the extreme shadow effects of Italian Renaissance painters.
I have no quarrel with these painters. Far from it. Nor with those who took up the Italian tradition in the XVII century - Rubens and Teniers and Lebrun. But their failure to understand tapestry technique and their efforts to compel weavers to copy models closely, did great harm to the art of tapestry weaving.
Tapestry texture is not suited for the expression of large expanses of nude flesh, open sky and water, and deep shadows. These and the production of illusion by direct imitation of nature are the province of the painter and the photographer. Even when successfully accomplished on the loom, the result is transitory and the colours fleeting because too delicate.
Tapestry texture is suited for the presentation on a large scale of richly clothed personages backgrounded with contrasting patterns. Strong contrasts of light and shade it does not need because it utilises line contrast to the utmost. For that reason it is able to employ strong colours, blending them together and inspiring scenes with life by hatching and line stippling.
Tapestry texture is also suited for the presentation of flowers and foliage, and of the rinceaux and the Grotesque (miscalled Arabesque) ornament, borrowed by the Renaissance Italians from Ancient Rome. Illustrations of the former are the Gothic mille-fleur and verdure tapestries, of the latter the decorative compositions of the XVI century copied and developed so skilfully at the end of the XVII century by Claude Audran and Noel Coypel.
Another form of patterned background interesting in tapestry - moderately so - are the damassé and festooned mats of Charles Coypel's Don Quixote, and François Boucher's Classic Series, at the Gobelins.
The Golden Age of arras weaving is the last half of the XV century and the first half of the XVI century, while the Gothic influence was still powerful with the French-Flemish weavers who had developed and exalted the art to the highest point. Undoubtedly steps were being taken in the right direction in the XIII century or perhaps even earlier. Evidences of this are the fragments from the Church of Saint Gereon in Cologne, fragments now preserved in the South Kensington, the Lyons, and the Nuremberg museums. But of arras that tells stories, and is important as a form of literary expression, we have no important examples earlier than the XIV century and few earlier than the XV century. The famous XI century Bayeux tapestry is not a tapestry at all but an embroidery.