in the antiques business, items strike a chord with past experiences and
beloved images. Such was the case when
we encountered this set at an auction in Paris.
both of us, the series of tapestries in the Cluny Museum (now the Museum of the
Middle Ages) in Paris, The Lady and the Unicorn or La Dame à la Licorne, is not
only remarkable for the artistry but one of the best examples of how tapestries
can be appreciated by modern viewers.
Illustrating the five senses, the tapestries show the unicorn in various
poses, either central to the action (as in the case of Sight and Touch), or as
part of the pageantry in a heraldic, rampant pose (as in Taste or the Choosing
of the Jewels). Following a two-year restoration, they went back on view
at the Cluny in late December, 2013.
The unicorn, a
cloven-footed horse with a goat's beard and a long fluted horn, was so wild and
swift that no one could capture it by chasing it.
Rather, a maiden had to be left in the forest where the untamable beast would
come to her and fall asleep with its head on her lap, at which time the hunters would seize
it. The miraculous capture was
considered to symbolize the incarnation of Christ and tapestries showed the
capture associated with the Annunciation.
In the six tapestries comprising the Cluny series, the unicorn remains
free but tame.
of the few instances when the series has left France, it was on view at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1974 with other unicorn-related
tapestries from the Metropolitan and other museums. The show was a
blockbuster. Seeing so many tapestries
in one place, up close and personal, spurred a lifetime of interest in
tapestries and marveling at the ability to create in woven form realistic
scenes and effects including deep perspective, detailed landscapes, and
virtuosic renderings of running water and reflections in a mirror. When as
newlyweds we moved to Paris, one of our first stops was the Cluny Museum to be
re-united with The Lady and the Unicorn panels and re-ignite our fascination with the
art of tapestry.
the millefleurs style of tapestries (referring to the mille or
thousands of small flowers or fleurs making up
the background) for their combination of rich decorative
elements, such as the many species of flowers portrayed, but also for the
inclusion of so many animals - a bestiary in cotton and wool. Each time we visit the unicorn
tapestries at the Cluny, it is fun to
look for the bunnies standing on their hind legs and rubbing their noses,
looking off into the distance, or directly out at us, the viewers.
many tapestries from the era around 1500, which were also designed in Paris but
made in the workshops of Flanders, the millefleurs tapestries are
self-contained, lacking landscape or context.
In the case of the Lady and the Unicorn, there is a central mound in
dark blue-green on which the human figures and the unicorn stand, sometimes
with a lion, a dog, a civet, a monkey, and a few rabbits. The flowers and other vegetation depicted in
this central mound are planted while those in the rose background are sprigs
and branches no longer attached to their roots. How bunnies must have loved this feast for their senses!
female figures depicted in the six tapestries blend into the background and
emerge from it, their richly textured and patterned garments reflective of the
value of textiles in the medieval world as treasures far more dear than the
furniture over which they were draped.
pieces making up this set of sofas and chairs reproduce some of the scenes from the Cluny
collection but add others in the same style, presumably inspired by the Cluny
tapestries but a newer interpretation.
The designer has done a remarkable job of capturing the grace and beauty
of the original tapestries in these renderings.
Needlepoint has been used rather than tapestry, meaning that instead of
the fabric being woven on a loom (as were the Cluny originals) it has been stitched onto a canvas
framework. The heads of the female
figures are executed in petit point, a much smaller stitch over single threads of
needlepoint canvas and used for the finest of details.
pieces in our set (pictured at the bottom of the page) consisted of the following:
Item 5127A (2
sofas or love seats)
One - The Choosing of the Jewels, also known as A mon seul désir
Two - Hearing or L'ouie
Item 5127B (2 armchairs)
One - Taste or Le Gout
Two -- Smell or L'Odorat
Item 5127C (4 side chairs)
Chair One - Not based on the Cluny set - depicts a woman with a harp
Chair Two - Touch or Le Toucher
Chair Three - A variation on Taste or Le Gout
Chair Four - Not based on the Cluny set - depicts a woman with animals
one of the most touching and symbolic of the Cluny tapestries, the one
depicting Sight or La Vue, was not offered at the auction. In the Cluny collection, Sight is
represented by the unicorn, its paws on the lady's lap, viewing its reflection
in a mirror she holds and perhaps foreshadowing its capture by hunters waiting
for it to doze off with its head in her lap.
Whether Sight was represented by a piece now missing from this set
(perhaps there were originally six side chairs instead of four?) is a mystery.
undertaken work to make sure that this set of sofas and chairs is in its best condition possible
considering its age. When we received
the armchairs and love seats all of the arms were loose where they connect to the
backs, and to the seats. Since the reason we bought the set was the beautiful
tapestry fabric, we had to undertake our repairs from under the seat and
through the back, so as not to remove or damage the existing fabric. From the
underside of the seats we found that some of the springs had become untied and
some were broken and needed replacing, which we did. All of this work was
performed without disturbing the tapestry fabric. For re-gluing and re-doweling
the arms at the backs, we had to replace the badly faded plain pink (probably
red in an earlier time) fabric, with a new back covering in a sympathetic red.
receive furniture from France, we always examine pieces closely to determine
repairs needed and how to do them in conformity with preserving the value of
antiques. The two love seats or sofas and two of the side chairs had what appeared to be
small portions of fabric missing from the tapestry. We cleaned the chairs with
air under pressure, so as not to affect the color, or condition of the fabric,
and the dust was blown away, as well as what appeared to be whitish spots of
drywall compound. Since we come in contact with furniture from so many places,
things like this do not surprise us, so we removed these spots as well. But
when the whitish spots were removed, it became clear that an insect had been
eating away the wool of the tapestry and leaving this residue. Alerted to the
problem, we examined each piece carefully and determined that only the sofas
and two of the chairs were affected. As we observed for new or active insect
damage it became clear that only Sofa Two (Hearing) had an ongoing problem. The
kind of insect was a clothing webbing moth, so we tented this settee, and
applied a Pyrethrin based insecticide.
Since this insect and its larvae are susceptible to this agent and only
the larvae do damage to the fabric as they develop into moths and lay still
more eggs, we were able to eradicate the larvae and have determined that they
are no longer an issue.
said all of this, any prospective buyer must keep in mind that there are very
small spots in the tapestry fabric that are bare of the surface wool, but in
which the underlying cotton foundation is just fine. Detailed photos of these
spots are available upon request. There
are no holes in which you could, for example, put your finger through.
investigated repairing the tapestry fabric before we undertook any restoration, and
because it could not be repaired while on the furniture, we determined that the
cost of removing the fabric, repairing it, and reinstalling it was prohibitive
while running a substantial risk of damage to the existing tapestry fabric and
it would be lost forever. So for those interested in the set, please be aware
that your appreciation of the old fabric must be tempered with the realities
that old fabrics are unpredictable in how much longer they will be useable. Because
they are old, they may fade more, they may have spots or stains that must be
tolerated, since there are unpredictable results from cleaning , wear and
these glorious tapestry images, and must accept that they are not forever, and
may fail to give the wear we hope for. We understand this limitation, and trust
that out clients will have considered it when they are struck by the
extraordinary beauty of the Lady and the Unicorn series.