Magazine article History Today

A Tapestry of England's Past: Sarah Gristwood on the Complex Issues Raised by the Restoration of a Remarkable Tudor Vision of Victory over the Spanish Armada

Magazine article History Today

A Tapestry of England's Past: Sarah Gristwood on the Complex Issues Raised by the Restoration of a Remarkable Tudor Vision of Victory over the Spanish Armada

Article excerpt

The recreation of the Armada Tapestries, now on display in the House of Lords, could hardly be more timely, in a number of different ways. The original series of 10 tapestries was commissioned in the 1590s by Howard of Effingham, Lord High Admiral at the time of the Armada victory. It quickly became popular as an emblem of national identity. In 1798, when it was feared that Napoleon might cross the Channel, James Gillray was invited to produce a series of prints that 'might rouse all the People'. One showed the tapestries being slashed and torched by a gleeful horde of marauding French. The tapestries were invoked whenever England felt herself up against the wall, as indeed she does today.

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Installed in the Palace of Westminster after being purchased by James I in 1616, the tapestries were destroyed in the Old Palace fire of 1834. When the New Palace was being planned a few years later, a Fine Arts Commission under the chairmanship of Prince Albert allocated space for six painted representations based on key scenes from the lost tapestries. But due to lack of funds, and perhaps to the Prince Consort's early death in 1861, only one of the six was ever completed, by an artist believed to be Richard Burchett, and the project languished--until recently.

When, in 2007, an American donor, Mark Pigott, agreed to finance the creation of the remaining five paintings, he could hardly have known the completed work might stand as much needed reassurance to a nation beset by economic downturn and political uncertainty. He might not have imagined either that the project would set a series of fascinating conundrums for those involved which--with the form, as well as the function, of historical fidelity up for debate--are themselves equally timely.

The story of the Armada representations has been 'like nothing so much as a game of Chinese Whispers', in the words of Anthony Oakshett, the artist in charge of creating the new paintings. The originals were begun in 1592 by a Dutch maritime artist, Cornelius Vroom, followed by the workshop artists who created the cartoons on which the tapestries would be based and by the Brussels weavers who wove them. It was almost 150 years later, in 1739, that the artist John Pine was commissioned to make a series of engravings, and when the tapestries were lost in the fire, these and the one painting Burchett had completed from them became the basis for any future recreations. But the approach to this source material was by no means simple.

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Early in the project it became apparent that Pine's engravings were more an impressionistic rendering of the tapestries than an accurately detailed description. There were empty backgrounds, masts without ships beneath them, vessels without the power to move through the water. Apart from anything else, the engravings were no more than 24 inches across and had to be enlarged into paintings of around 14 feet wide (the original tapestries would have been even more enormous). There was a lot of filling in to be done. The age-old process of 'squaring up'--for centuries the method used to convert a small original sketch into a vast canvas or fresco--took a modern turn with the aid of computers, an innovation that Oakshett reckons saved his team four months' labour per painting. But computers could not make the decisions when the issue of actual alteration was at stake, nor to what degree recent historical research should be taken into account. …

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