Contemporary Tapestry

It's nothing like your granny did!


From the start we need to get one thing straight, what most people think of as tapestry is 'canvas work' invented by the Victorians.


In this article we are talking about 'hand woven tapestry' which was invented thousands of years ago.


A bit of historical context


The earliest known tapestry works are by the ancient Egyptians and date from 1400BC. Later pieces can be found across Asia, arriving in Europe by the 8th century BC in Rome as well as Greece.


There are examples of weaving in South America, in Peru in the 8th century AD by the Andean Indians. Spanish colonisers found from early pottery that these were created by women, whose great skills made up for the basic looms used.


The most famous tapestry in Western Europe from the middle ages is the 11th century Bayeaux Tapestry which depicts the Norman conquest of England. It should be noted though that this is not a woven tapestry but a crewel embroidered hanging. At the same time though in Cologne, a true tapestry was woven for the choir of the church of St Gereon. These two represent the beginnings of narrative works which would be made for the next several centuries by teams of (mostly flemish) artisans working in unison. They were created in series of huge hangings for churches and wealthy individuals in the Gothic period. A good example of this is The Hunt of the Unicorn from the 15th century, see left an image of Katharine Swailes and Caron Penney with their recreation of these panels, commissioned by Stirling castle.


In the 17th century the famous workshops, Gobelins and Beauvais, were founded.


Notably there were no workshops in England, where the main textile art was embroidery. When a woven tapestry was needed they were imported/commissioned from Flanders.


The fall and rise of contemporary tapestry


During the 19th century tapestry weaving went into decline as the large houses closed or were destroyed after the Napoleonic occupation. Indeed the tapestries produced at this time were largely copies of previous works. Also, with the onset of the industrial revolution mechanical weaving posed a further threat to hand made pieces which could not compete as large works went our of fashion.


The art form was revitalised in the late 19th century by the Arts and Crafts movement, whose leading figure William Morris established a tapestry factory at Merton Abbey, Surrey. In Europe at this time there was also a resurgence of tapestry weaving based on old traditions.

In the early 20th century painters like Gauguin, Picasso, Braque, Miro and Matisse permitted their paintings to be reproduced at Aubusson. In the 1950's designs became more abstract as Modern British artists took to the genre. Sutherland designed Christ in Glory (23 x 11m) for Coventry cathedral in 1962, and this has recently undergone cleaning and minor repairs. see image left.


[source for much of this piece is from Madeleine Jarry "Tapestry" for Encyclopaedia Brittanica - Jarry is Principal Inspector, Mobilier National (state furniture collection); National Factories of Gobelins and Beauvais (tapestry); and of the Savonnerie (carpet factory), Ministry of Cultural Affairs, France. Author of World Tapestry.]


On 1st June, Henrietta Thompson wrote "Fruits of the Loom": The new tapestry trend for Luxury Telegraph. In the article she places tapestry in the contemporary context, in which artists such as Tracey Emin, Gary Hume and Gavin Turk have all "dabbled in the medium". Her conclusion is that now "the time is ripe to pick the fruits of the contemporary loom."


Manhattan by Penney & Swailes


Caron Penney and Katharine Swailes have a combined 40 years experience creating woven textiles, most notably with the West Dean Tapestry studio.


Window, Manhattan, image left, 22 x 18 cm hand woven tapestry by Katharine Swailes (wool, cotton & gilt thread.


They are now at the forefront of hand woven tapestry in the UK.


Whilst at West Dean they worked on large scale commissions for established artists such as Tracey Emin (Black Cat was exhibited at Collect and Frieze in 2011), Martin Creed and Gillian Ayres (Tirra Lirra exhibited at Collect in 2015 and also alongside Manhattan). They also helped reproduce seven tapestries of the 16th century "Hunt of the Unicorn" series of tapestries for Stirling Castle.


Their current exhibition, Manhattan, at the Zimmer Stewart Gallery from 6-27 June is the beginning of a new chapter for both the artists, one which has involved shedding the past and emerging into new avenues.



Katharine Swailes and Caron Penney travelled recurrently to New York City over a twelve year period. During this influential time both artists were inspired by the urban landscape, street architecture, museum collections and natural environment. Mapping this journey through photography, note taking and sketches to their resulting work in woven textiles. 


Twelve Avenues, image left, 30 x 40 cm hand woven tapestry by Caron Penney (wool)


Whether you think of these pieces as art or craft, these original works in a still relatively unknown medium are well worth looking at!

29 Tarrant Street, Arundel,

West Sussex, BN18 9DG

Tel: 01903 882063

or call/text: 07901 677933

contemporary art in Sussex

© 2014 by Zimmer Stewart Gallery

Open: 10-5 Tues-Sat

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