The Tapestry History Mystery
An intriguing work of art owned by the University and hiding in plain sight inspires a multidisciplinary investigation involving students and faculty in fields ranging from chemistry and classics to theatre arts and medieval studies.
By Tom Sanders
Nec gemino bellum Troianum orditur ab ouo;
Semper ad euenum festinat et in medias res ...
Nor does he begin the Trojan War from the egg,
but always he hurries to the action, and snatches the listener into the middle of things ...
— Horace, Ars Poetica
When you read this story—whenever you read this story—it will always already be in media res, in the middle of the action.
One fall day in the Tower Room of McClurg Dining Hall, Sewanee’s neo-Gothic cathedral to food, a strange band gathers to discuss what they call “the tapestry,” a 9- by 17-foot printed cloth now hanging in the neo-Gothic McGriff Alumni House on Georgia Avenue. The tapestry was given to the University in 1960, first hanging in the EQB building, then the chapel, and finally the McGriff Alumni House, and this group is trying to learn more about it as its condition is rapidly deteriorating. A classicist, a theatre costume designer, an art historian, a medievalist, a chemist, and several students of these subjects are thinking about the derelict cloth, with an eye to solving both its mysteries and potential fate. How old is it? Where did it come from? Is it worth preserving? And, in the words of Chris McDonough, professor of classics who is Gandalf to this troupe, “How long can you look away?”
“I never knew it existed,” McDonough says. “And when I saw it, I knew I had to learn more.” After digging, McDonough discovered that part of the original work upon which this one is based resides in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and while on other business there, he stopped in to see it. The trip did nothing to slake his thirst, and when he returned to Sewanee, he began assembling a team, inviting each in turn to the conference room in McGriff to look at the compellingly forlorn object.
In the Tower Room, Rob Bachman, professor of chemistry, talks about what he has discovered. “I took an initial technical analysis look at the tapestry with our infrared digital camera and our portable X-ray fluorescence instrument. The X-ray fluorescence immediately showed some source of chromium was used to prepare the fabric before creating the image.”
“That fits,” says Jennifer Matthews, professor of theatre arts and an expert in costume design and technology. “Chromium started to be used in dyes in the mid-19th century, so that gives us an earliest date for the piece.”
“You know," McDonough says with a lilt in his voice, "that puts this piece in the Arts and Crafts movement of the 19th century, perhaps a contemporary or even a product of the William Morris studio.” Morris, of course, is the 19th-century English socialist, poet, and textile designer who was a central figure in both the Arts and Crafts movement and the Pre-Raphaelite movement in visual arts and literature. He pioneered the kind of techniques that made the production of this textile possible. Next up for Bachman is analysis of very small fiber samples from the edge of a small tear, which should give insight into the what the colorants are. “Over time, this exploration may tell the whole story of when and where it came from,” Bachman says.
While excitement at the prospect of the tapestry as a product of the Morris studio is palpable, the desire for this work to be something more intriguing, unique, more valuable has been part of its story since it arrived at Sewanee around 1960, as a gift from Charles E. Thomas, a friend of the University. In an account in The Greenville News, Sunday Sept. 15, 1957, a reporter breathlessly tells it this way: “One panel of a tapestry, almost certainly dating from the 15th century, which has come into the possession of a Greenville man is attracting the attention of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. ... Cmdr. Charles E. Thomas has been told by a curator of the museum that the museum knows of no parallel to the inscription on panel 1 of his … tapestry.”
A few years later, on the occasion of Sewanee receiving the gift, a local newspaper reporter turns the inscription into the whole panel when he writes, “The tapestry has attracted the attention of the Metropolitan Museum, New York, because of one of the four panels, unlike any other….” Fake news.
In 1975, the donor himself, Charles Thomas, tried to set the record straight in a letter to Arthur Ben Chitty. “The Greenville News story ... went overboard, I felt at the time, in suggesting that it was 15th century tapestry. I never even suggested that it was so old.”
Jay Fisher, vice president for university relations who was director of alumni when the Phi House became McGriff Alumni House, was instrumental in moving it to McGriff. “At the time, we didn’t know much about it,” Fisher says. “We had heard that it wasn’t worth much. The assessment was that it was printed and therefore wasn’t ‘real.’”
The tapestry’s unparalleled nature—or not—is a tantalizing element of the work being done by the group. “If you have the last of something or the only instance of something, what is your obligation or responsibility to it?” asks Bachman. “Not everything can be saved, but what you do with something like this becomes an ethical question.”
And that question has for the group opened up more questions:
- Is the work from the William Morris studio and thus a product of one of the most influential cultural figures of 19th-century England?
- Is the fourth (leftmost) panel truly unique? When McDonough saw the tapestry at the Victoria and Albert, he confirmed that the Sewanee textile had a panel not found at the museum.
- Or, in the words of McDonough, “is this something really valuable or just another piece of 19th-century schlock?”
Some of those questions are easy to answer, but the third is quite a bit more complicated, related to how cultural objects are valued in the first place. To understand that, we might need a map …
The Burrell Connection
“This is the best neo-Gothic thing we have,” says Greg Clark, professor of art history. “And it is one of the few works of art in our collection that has been independently published.” In fact, a photo of the hanging may be found in the catalog of the tapestries of Glasgow Museum’s Burrell Collection, published just this year (2017). When the editors of the catalog, Elizabeth Cleland and Lorraine Karafel, found out about the piece, they sent a photographer to take the photo of “a tapestry-like painted cloth hanging, almost certainly nineteenth century,” which “replicates the Burrell Collection’s panel adjacent to a later episode from the Troy series, the Arrival of Penthesilea.”
Clark explains what we know of the object: In the 15th century, an artist known as the Coëtivy Master did a series of drawings (called cartoons) that depicted the Trojan War and that were the model for Pasquier Grenier (1447–1493), a well-known Flemish tapestry artist, to produce his own series on the Trojan War. The tapestries were created in panels roughly 4.5 feet by 9.5 feet and then sewn together to cover a large wall. The panels were dispersed to royalty and other wealthy individuals, and not all survive. Two significant sections may be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. The Sewanee textile is a 19th-century printed copy, most likely based on drawings of the tapestry (not the cartoon). The date and source of its production is unclear, and it may contain subject matter from the original cartoons that is found nowhere else.
As to its status as an object without parallel, Clark has this to say: “The Coëtivy Master's cartoons do not include the captions found below the scenes on Pascal Grenier’s tapestry series. If I am right that there is no surviving tapestry depiction of the scene of King Priam of Troy sending Antenor to Greece, then that caption on our hanging is most likely the only surviving recording thereof.”
Studying in Edinburgh, Clark decided to visit the Burrell Collection. “Getting there takes some serious planning," he says. “You have to take a train from central Glasgow to a suburban station and then it is quite a long walk from that station to the Burrell.” Clark and Cleland have corresponded about the painted cloth. “What we have is a copy of a copy of a copy,” Clark says.
That copy has also been altered to account for 19th-century tastes. A dog, for example, in the Grenier tapestry with short wiry hair, has been transformed into a dog with feathery hair, more like the ideal of a 19th-century domestic animal. “Greg took one look at the tapestry and in about five seconds said, ‘That’s a different dog,’” recounts McDonough, also explaining that in a battle scene, a severed hand lies on the ground in the 15th-century version, while the 19th-century artist tidied up the gore.
While Clark definitely sees the value of saving the piece, the technical challenges are daunting. He describes a process of taking it down, removing all the glue, stitching up the tears and adding a new backing of linen or cotton.
“And then there is the question of where we would put it,” he says. “Where it is now doesn’t work. It’s bathing in ultraviolet light which is fading the colors. We can’t bring the color back. But we do not have a place to adequately display it. So, do we save it by putting it in a closet somewhere? That doesn’t seem right, but nobody really knows what to do.”
Stephanie Batkie, a medievalist and director of Sewanee’s Writing across the Curriculum program, has a keen appreciation of the story in situ. “I think this whole project is completely fascinating,” she says. “I don’t think it really matters what it may or may not be worth intrinsically. What I know is that it is a provocative site of intellectual engagement. You know, here we are in this imagined medieval room, with this imagined medieval tapestry, which is also neglected and in ruins. What does this context say about the people who made this, bought it, kept it in the family for three generations, and then gave it to Sewanee? What does it say about Sewanee that we have it here in this room in a building for alumni? These are questions that students will be interested in answering.”
Batkie notes that everything about the story is nested. For example, the illustrations are based on a Latin text, the Chronicles of Dictys of Crete and Dares the Phrygian, not the Homeric epic. Dictys and Dares were thought by medieval readers to be witnesses to the events of the Trojan War, giving a true account (certainly not true). But the text was the Latin version of the Homeric story that informed medieval writers and artists in western Europe.
“So then we have a series of nested revivals, fan fiction if you will: First the illustration of the Coëtivy Master, then the rendition of those illustrations by the tapestry artist, Grenier, and finally this textile is a commercialized, mass-produced object. All this can tell us a lot about cultural values and how people all along the way have appropriated the past for their own ends.”
Bachman, a synthetic chemist focused on making novel materials, makes no claim to be a professional at conservation or cultural history, but he is learning the techniques possible to perform the chemical analysis of the tapestry. In fact, he has participated in a program at the Indianapolis Museum of Art to learn how to do so.
Like Bachman, Jennifer Matthews is fully committed to the idea of lifelong learning. A professor of theatre arts, Matthews says, “I’m working on becoming an amateur textile archaeologist, and if I could start over I would be a professional textile archaeologist.” Working on a production of Hecuba at the Tennessee Williams Center, Matthews taught herself tablet weaving to make belts and other accessories for costumes. “Then I became obsessed about a medieval hair net and tried for years to make one. When I finally finished it, I just looked at it and cried because I was so happy.”
As she is building skill as an amateur textile archaeologist, she is focusing on experimentation. “Just because we know what some clothes looked like and what materials they were made of, we don’t necessarily know how they actually fit on people or worked with real people’s bodies. That’s where reproduction can come in to give a clearer picture.”
Matthews has intensely studied textiles and everything associated with textiles for years. “I’ve had to pick up on chemistry connected with clothing for the fun of it. There are 16th-century recipe books for cleaning and dyeing, and often those things are in the same book. It was because pre-modern dyes were natural dyes and faded easily. So often, cleaning and re-dyeing were part of the same process.”
Matthews, who brings an intense focus on the material object itself, summarizes the task before the tapestry group this way: “What is the provenance of this piece? Where did it come from? How old is it? How was it made? What does it say? And how does it fit into cultural history?”
The Aims of the Liberal Arts
The tapestry troupe has thought a lot about how this project is fundamentally interdisciplinary and is a perfect expression of the liberal arts. “It all goes back to the students,” says McDonough. “Can we put an opportunity in front of students that makes them partners in exploration, gives them insight into important cultural questions, the changing nature of taste, our responsibilities to the past?”
McDonough is a believer in projects as a focal point for a liberal arts education. “For a long time, we had a kind of catechistic notion of education: Teach people what they need to know and then they will find ways to connect it to their experiences. But then along came John Dewey, and the approach changed to give people experiences and then they will learn what they need to make sense of them. So, I am a big fan of projects. A project like this can really inspire learning across multiple disciplines and different people can bring to it their own intellectual gifts and aptitudes.”
Still in the Middle
We return, finally, to the question: Is this painted cloth valuable? Well, we are still in the middle of the story. Macon St. Hilaire is a textile conservator the University hired to provide a preliminary assessment of the tapestry, exploring what it is and what it might cost to conserve it. St. Hilaire believes she has found the company responsible for its manufacture, which did so using wood cuts and a proprietary technique of weaving that made the work look more like actual tapestry. “No one would be fooled,” she says. “But the quality was much higher than other manufacturers.” Whether or not the Sewanee tapestry is an unparalleled representation of the design of the Coëtivy Master, St. Hilaire believes it could be the only surviving example of the copy of a copy of a copy (with a different dog) produced by the Arthur Hill Company in late-19th-century England. Or maybe not; it’s still a mystery.
During the Easter semester, the tapestry group will be offering a course through the Medieval Studies program on the work, enjoying the insights of all the faculty members who have been involved so far. They will likely learn more and maybe help answer Greg Clark’s questions: Can we conserve this? Where will we put it? How much will this cost? What now?
Ultimately, its value may also be reflected in the resources the University is able to gather for its preservation, but for now, the value may be represented in a paraphrase of a popular commercial (because why not in a story essentially about appropriation): An opportunity for faculty and students to work together on fascinating questions of value, changing cultural taste, material culture, and material content? Priceless.
Special thanks to Matt Reynolds, associate University archivist, for support of this project and for helping coordinate the eventual fate of the Trojan War textile at Sewanee. He has been instrumental in helping researchers gain information on the history of the textile at Sewanee and will continue to support this work in the coming months.