In 1977, after a visit to my foundry in Pietrasanta, Italy, my wife and I drove back through France, via Aubusson. We had just seen the Unicorn Tapestries housed in the Cloisters in New York, and I wanted to see weavers actually working at the looms.
The manager of the hotel we stayed at in Aubusson made an appointment for us to visit the Atelier Goubely. The manager told us that Monsieur Goubely had worked on repairing the tapestries at Windsor Castle for Queen Victoria, that the Atelier was run by his daughter, and was the best workshop in Aubusson.
The Atelier is in a beautiful old mill situated on the river that ran through the medieval town. The daughter of Monsieur Goubley was then nearly 80 years old, but she and her husband still ran the business. They agreed to take us on a tour of the looms that were all housed in a great loft running the whole length of the building.
It was as though we had stepped back into the 17th century. The looms were built in the reign of Louis XIV, and had been in constant use ever since. They were the old design of loom, i.e. flat and not upright, which allowed the vibrant colours of the tapestries being woven to be flooded with sunlight. We watched the deft hands of the weavers passing the shuttle to and fro, as they followed the paper patterns that lay under the warp. It was one of the most fascinating things I had ever seen.
The gentle charming couple took us into their sitting room for a cup of tea. I summoned up the courage to ask them if it would be possible for them to weave a tapestry for me ? They would be delighted, as long as I was not in a hurry !
So began my involvement with tapestries. A year later, on our way down to the foundry, we again visited the Atelier, this time bringing the 12 paper patterns I had prepared for the looms. We selected the colours for each tapestry in a jewel box of a room that was hung with a thousand skeins of different coloured wools.
In 1979 we went to collect the finished tapestries. I was delighted. The experience of designing, then seeing the patterns appear on the ancient looms, under the skilled fingers of the weavers, was a never to be forgotten trip back to the past, and a fascinating variation to the pouring of the molten bronze into the moulds of my lost wax sculptures. Working with skilled artisans is one of the great joys of being a sculptor.
Many of the tapestries now hang in the new Parliament House of Australia in Canberra, which pleases me greatly. In these pages I have included eight pieces.
© Mathematics and Knots/Edition Limitee 1996 - 2002
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