Unicorns—rainbows, magic and… medieval tapestries? Hitoric Scotland has undertaken an exciting project to recreate a series of medieval tapestries entitled the “The Historie of the Unicorne” (sic) that had once hung in Stirling Castle. A historically rich location, Stirling Castle was the childhood home of Mary, Queen of Scots; the last Scottish monarch who fought to preserve the Scottish Throne. It was there that she was crowned and where she narrowly escaped death in 1561.
Ruth Jones, one of the lead weavers, has agreed to answer some of our questions about this project and provide insight in to the delicate process. A Canadian artist based here in Vancouver, Ruth has a Graduate Diploma in Tapestry Design and Production from the National School for Decorative Art in Aubusson, France and has worked at the Scheuer Tapestry Workshop. She has been weaving for almost 30 years and exhibits both nationally and internationally.
Zoya Mirzaghitova: Why did Historic Scotland undertake this project?
Ruth Jones: One branch of Scottish heritage is preserved through the pride and feeling of distinctness from mainstream English customs felt by the Scots. Historic Scotland (HS) has rich and complex mandates including the preservation of fine craftsmanship in stonemasonry, wood carving, metalwork and textiles which is what led to the Unicorn tapestry project. The inventory of the tapestry collection of James V still exists in the National Archive and includes a line item about a series of tapestries named “The Historie of the Unicorne.” No one knows what they looked like or where they ended up after James the VI moved his court (and SC furnishings) to London during amalgamation of the crowns.
When HS undertook to replicate the experience of life in Stirling Castle, they searched for a Museum or collector (who had an existing set of 15th Century European tapestries on a unicorn theme) that would be willing to share the iconography. Out of the collections engaged, the Metropolitan had the strongest educational mandate and saw the point of a generation of tapestry weavers researching unfaded backs of medieval tapestries from new digital material and learning to interpret and render figurative (albeit surreal) subject matter with systems of hachures (visual hatching language) and rhythms of colour blending. In the Cloisters, the medieval wing, there is a set called “The Hunt of the Unicorn”—which the Metropolitan Museum has allowed us to use as inspiration.
A happy mutual goal was found in the project, especially once it was decided that the new series of work would be woven at 4 warps per cm rather than the original warp set of 8 per cm. This has turned the new tapestries into more than copies, more like a musical variation on a theme.
ZM: As a weaver, how did this process of researching and weaving a medieval tapestry affect your own creative practice?
RJ: Importantly for my creativity, the tapestry I was asked to direct the weaving of, “Mystic Capture of the Unicorn” only exists at the Cloisters in three small fragments of what was a large original. Most of what I am weaving is guesswork based on existing woodblock prints of similar iconography. Also, I have learned to weave from the front of the tapestry, where as a classically trained Aubusson weaver, I previously worked on the back of a tapestry. Now I look at the surface of what I am weaving rather than waiting till the work is finished to flip it over and see the surface—this surely must change the visual effect!
While I spend the coming year weaving to completion of the “Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn” as my day job, I am focusing on a private studio practice of painting and production of tapestry designs. I feel sure that the colour harmonies, homage to the natural world and simplicity of portrayal that I have experienced weaving “Mystic” will bring a bright new direction to my own woven work once I begin weaving my designs again.
ZM: Weaving is often overlooked as an artistic practice. What is your opinion on the status of weaving in art history and the significance of this particular series?
RJ: I picked weaving as my medium for the thrill of this very challenge—I love to back the talented underdog and have devoted my career to the pictorial hand woven weft-faced corner. For me, tapestry surprises as a gorgeous, sculptural, tactile, and erotic medium. It lures me endlessly towards serving its healthy survival and return to full status in the art market. Signs are everywhere—just this week there was an article in the New York Times about a series of tapestry works. (http://nyti.ms/1cznEIi)
ZM: What will happen to the tapestries upon completion?
RJ: There will be a set of 7 tapestries custom fit to the Queen Palace Apartments in Stirling Castle, where “The Historie of the Unicorne” would have hung during the childhood of Mary Queen of Scots. Six are hanging to date—the last one will hang in early 2015. The tapestries hang in the room of diplomacy because the unicorn symbolizes purity of thought, justice, freedom of spirit, and spiritual right of authority, and the story line follows a theme of sacrifice and redemption. Visiting diplomats would have been struck with awe at the luxury and symbolism, and we notice that our visitors are moved by the experience of the new tapestries as well, each finds them, in a way, relevant to their own life story.