My husband Anthony and I recently visited The Lady and Unicorn Tapestries at the NSW Art Gallery – on loan for approx. 4 months from Musee de Cluny, France. Thank you Musee de Cluny! First time the tapestries have left the shore in 500 years. Truly a once in a lifetime experience and I am so happy we made the trip! So curl up with a cuppa and I will regale our tale of the wonderful experience of real medieval tapestry up close and personal.
June 11, 2018. Leaving at 4:30 am on a chilly winter Toowoomba morning, we headed off on our long drive to Brisbane airport. Upon our arrival in Sydney we quickly became lost trying to find our hotel, but enjoyed the sights and oddities that made up such a big city – my inclination towards country life certainly reaffirmed. Ant and I huddled over coffee and croissants in a cafe as we watched the city march by, working up our courage to re-enter the city streets and find our hotel. After an afternoon’s rest, we were refreshed and emerged for a night time walk through the city again before returning to our hotel restaurant for pumpkin stuffed ravioli and sourdough bread with cherry tomato and wonderful amounts of basil.
The next morning we headed off on our long walk to the NSW Art Gallery. On the way we visited lovely statues, a gorgeous fountain and explored the beautiful St Mary’s Cathedral. We soon arrived at the NSW Art Gallery.
And so we finally arrived at the exhibition!
The NSW Art Gallery had presented the tapestries beautifully and even gave permission for photographs to be taken without a flash. I turned a corner and saw a large banner with a section of the lady on it and I could feel tears tugging. Needless to say, when I entered the darkened room and was faced with sheer enormity of the six, huge tapestries – I couldn’t see properly through my tears. Slowly my vision cleared again and we have finally arrived at that place where I can share the tapestries with you.
They are overwhelming in so many ways. First, the sheer magnitude of detail. They are a sumptuous feast for the senses. Rabbits, foxes, birds, dogs and other animals all dart about the garden. Different plants, some recognisable, some not adorn every aspect. The colours – even in their faded state – are exceptional. The size of the tapestries are overwhelming. The richness of the jewels and clothing depicted on the lady and her maid/daughter are overwhelming. I can honestly say, that no professional photographer has ever come close to capturing the beauty of those tapestries in person.
I am hoping this video demonstrates at least the sheer size of the tapestries. What struck both Ant and I quite quickly is how the tapestries are literally quite overwhelming to the senses. We approached a point where we merely could only sit there and stare, jaws ajar. I don’t know if we are conditioned to such splendour now – truly. The tapestries were certainly something to be experienced. They had to be soaked, absorbed. They were too wonderful to take in fully, immediately. I remember afterwards when we were having our coffee in the gallery cafe, we were drinking in hushed, stunned tones.
One thing in particular that photography fails to capture is the 3D quality of the tapestries. The curves in the dress, the haunches of the lion, the jewels in the Lady’s hair, the folds of fabric under the organ – they appear to actually be lifting off the tapestry. The lion’s haunches actually did have raised contours and modelling. When I looked closely at some of these aspects, the direction of the stitching was inconsistent with the regular stitch so actually created new forms, lumps and bumps. It was astonishing. In the pamphlet provided by the museum it notes that these effects were accomplished by modulating the weaving and different tones.
Ant and I discussed the tapestries at length. Were they commissioned as a show of great love to a lady? Where they spiritual in content. The Lady certainly appears to have her hair cut off in the tapestry ‘My Sole Desire’ and would fit the renunciation of her jewels as she places them in the box. There are theories on the meanings of these tapestries, the most popular begin they are a series depicting the five senses and ‘My Sole Desire’ depicting the sixth sense. However, after sitting in front of these tapestries, I remain very unconvinced that this is the story of these tapestries. There is a lore of theology, spirituality and love going on that goes beyond a depiction of senses, though these would certainly appear to be incorporated.
As usual I am interested in the back of textiles. The Gallery had supplied some pictures of these as well:
The animals that romped about in the tapestry were reminiscent of predator/prey side by side in harmony. The same animal could be seen in different tapestries however with fascinating differences. For example, the hunting bird has jesses (leg leashes) in one tapestry though not in another).
There are so many photographs that we have taken. If there are any aspects of the tapestries that you would be keen to have a copy of , please let me know. We have taken quite a few photos, many of which are not included here. There are many dogs, birds, rabbits, monkeys etc.
Much information was made available at the exhibit. I am certainly no expert, but I have bought a resource book and have other literature. I would be happy to try to answer any questions you may have within my ability and my resources too.
As the for the impact of these tapestries on my own work – I am excited by the close link between medieval illumination and needlework – as one who has painted medieval illumination from my youth. I am also encouraged to keep working on my current project which is still in its design stage so I can explore in greater detail the intricacies and beauty of the medieval manuscript through embroidery – certainly learning more about stitching as I do. I would also love to explore the medieval command over contours and modelling effects to get a 3D look. The presence of those tapestries was truly a marvel.