Looming marvellous

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 55, Summer 2018

Page 17

Tapestries are now as likely to be found in a contemporary art gallery as in a dusty stately home. Timothy Wilcox takes up the thread

For the monarchs of the Middle Ages, tapestries were the ultimate status symbol. So much so, that they were carried through the streets, like walking strip cartoons, to dazzle and entrance the grateful populace. Now tapestry is making a vigorous comeback in the practice of many leading contemporary artists. Some magnificent examples, including work by Peter Blake, Grayson Perry, Beatriz Milhazes and Gary Hume, are offered in the Bonhams Prints & Multiples sale in London. As these demonstrate, some of tapestry's effect still relies on the medium's innate sense of luxury, but other properties of the art form are being stood on their head.

Grayson Perry has been a pioneer in this reinvention, designing his series The Vanity of Small Differences to portray the views of the many, not the few. With characteristic disregard for the elitists, he had them woven by machine. Now in the collections of the Arts Council and the British Council, Perry's tapestries have toured Britain and abroad, gleefully cranking up the contradictions, with obscure symbolism being replaced by topical imagery. And with their display in gleaming white-box galleries, all memories of the gloomy corners of country-house bedrooms and endless museum corridors are banished.

Modern tapestry still requires hefty capital investment, so it is not exactly democratic – but it is almost always collaborative. The techniques of Warhol or Hirst tend to erase the involvement of the studio-workers who made their prints or paintings. But no one can look at the yards of tightly packed woollen or silk thread that make up the surface of a tapestry without thinking of the hands that wove it, or the hours of concentrated labour that saw the object grow, inch by patient inch. In 2017, when Chris Ofili's rather inept watercolour design The Caged Bird's Song was displayed in the National Gallery, magnified into a huge tapestry, he was not the only superstar in the room.

Tracey Emin understood right from the beginning of her career that textile art is no less expressive than other types of art-making. She has exerted enormous influence in creating today's situation where it is the message, not the medium, that is most valued. Hierarchies of material, or of context, pitting the 'fine' against the 'decorative', have not exactly disappeared, but they bear less weight. The recent reawakening of interest in tapestry goes beyond irony: you have only to see the headline billing given to the vast new tapestry in Beatriz Milhaze's current London show to know that for colour, scale and wall power, tapestry has not only a fascinating past, but an ever-expanding future.

Timothy Wilcox is a curator and co-author of Tapestry: A Woven Narrative.

Sale: Prints & Multiples
Tuesday 26 June at 2pm
Enquiries: Lucia Tro Santafe +44 (0) 20 7468 8262

  1. Lucia Tro Santafe
    101 New Bond Street
    London, United Kingdom W1S 1SR
    Work +44 20 7468 8262

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