Published: 25th September 2008
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Some of the most detailed and exquisite tapestry in the world was produced at the Gobelins Factory in Paris exclusively for royal palaces. During the seventeenth and eighteenth century the factory was at the height of production and it was at a time when the world looked to France for artistic inspiration. Creating detailed and distinguished tapestries for Royal Palaces during the eighteenth century the work exuded wealth, extravagance and luxury and adorned the walls of the Palace of Versailles.

Origins and techniques

The Gobelin workshop began life in 1450 as a dyeing factory in a Paris suburb, founded by Jean Gobelin, and emerged into a tapestry weaving workshop with the arrival of two Flemish weavers, Marc de Comans and Francois de la Planche after they had been called to the Court of Henri IV in 1601.
Tapestries were used to furnish walls and give a sense of grandeur to a residence. Works emerged designed by Rubens, Simon Vouet, Goya and other leading artists as the factory produced some of the greatest tapestries of the day and of all time, commissioned for royalty. By 1661 the Gobelins workshop became a centre of excellence when Louis XIV's finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert merged the existing Parisian workshops into one site, their role being to provide furnishings for the Royal palaces including the Royal Bedchamber of Louis XIV. Often a tapestry would take years to produce and gives an insight into the economy at the time as wealthy courtiers committed money for a long term project. With Versailles being the height of inspiration, fashion and design, the use of tapestries at the Royal Court and their exquisite workmanship ensured their popularity throughout Europe.

The technique used was very specific and detailed, and eventually became known as Gobelin stitch or weave, and is a technique in itself. It is very different from other patterned weaving in that no weft threads are used along the full length of a fabric. Each unit or the background is stitched with a weft thread and only where that colour appears in the design. No knots are used in Gobelin technique. An apprenticeship for a Gobelin worker lasted eight to ten years, largely because they also dyed their own tapestry wool. The Gobelin colours still exist today as a legacy from the dyeing industry, the most well known being Gobelin Blue. Three high warp or haute-lisse looms which stood vertically and a low warp loom were used to make a tapestry, often using several people on one loom. A designer would paint the cartoon or design onto canvas which would then be interpreted and woven by the artisans. These craftsmen worked from the wrong side of a tapestry, using a mirror to see the emerging masterpiece. Typically, a Gobelins tapestry would be surrounded by an ornate frame, also woven, which gave a trompe d'oeil impression to the finished masterpiece.

Seduction by tapestry

One of the most famed courtesans in French history, Madame de Pompadour, had significant influence at the Palace of Versailles and at the Court of Louis XIV. She was famed for her extravagant commissioning of art in the form of paintings, porcelain and tapestry to seduce powerful men at Versailles including the king. One of her protégés, Francois Boucher, became master of the Gobelins Factory and some of his most famous work was made into tapestries for Madame de Pompadour. These include The Rising of the Sun and the Setting of the Sun as mythical decorations for her residence at the Chateau de Bellville.

Held to ransom

One of the rare complete Gobelin collections, sometimes called the Indian Hangings, can be seen at the Grandmaster's Palace in Malta. The tapestries themselves were adapted from paintings at the request of Louis XIV and purchased by the Grandmaster of Malta. During their journey to the island they were seized by pirates off Sicily and a large ransom paid to ensure their safe delivery in Malta. This work was completed in 1710 and depicts scenes from South America and Africa, virtually unknown continents at the time. Wild animals emerge from the tapestry, giving the impression of a savage and untamed land, whilst highly colourful birds bring an exotic air to the work. The mixing of the colours ensured a detailed and vivid perspective to the tapestries which captured the imagination of those who saw them, full of the jungle, natives, animals, plants and hunting scenes. This fine work outside France helped spread the popularity of the Gobelins factory throughout Europe.

A testament to history

As the eighteenth century drew to a close the opulence that had adorned the Royal Courts of France was no longer fashionable and gradually fell from favour. The splendour and luxury of the royal palaces cocooned its inhabitants in tapestry covered walls, when outside on the streets of Paris a different picture of life was emerging. The French Revolution destroyed many palaces and fine homes in France and executed or exiled the clientele on which the industry depended. With them went a number of wall tapestries, condemned to burn as the Terror reigned. More simpler and practical designs emerged with the work of designers such as, enabling a wider population to own a tapestry and for more to be economically affordable. The Gobelins Factory is still in existence in Paris, having adapted to the centuries of change, and works on specially commissioned designs for state buildings, still retaining the air of exclusivity.

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