Holy Grail tapestries loaned to Kelmscott Manor
By David Wood
Holy Grail tapestries are being loaned to Kelmscott Manor, near Lechlade, for the 2023 Open Season thanks to the generosity of one of its long-term supporters, Lord Lloyd-Webber.
Kelmscott Manor is famed as the country retreat of Victorian polymath William Morris. He was one of the great re-inventors of ancient and disregarded crafts, rejuvenating amongst other things historic embroidery, early printing techniques, vegetable dyeing and calligraphy.
Perhaps most ambitious of all, though, was his determination to revive haute lisse tapestry weaving. Visitors to Kelmscott Manor this season can see stunning examples of his enthusiasm for this technically challenging craft.
Those who come to Kelmscott Manor will encounter the drama of two tapestries from Morris & Co.'s breathtaking Holy Grail series, designed in 1890 and regarded as one of the greatest achievements of the Arts and Crafts movement. By that date Morris & Co. had raised the art of tapestry weaving to new heights, producing exquisite examples on looms set up at the company's Merton Abbey works.
The series was designed by Morris and his close friend and associate Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones to illustrate the quest for the Holy Grail by the Knights of the Round Table.
When ascending the Manor's staircase, visitors will be flanked by three of King Arthur's knights: Sir Gawaine, Sir Lancelot and Sir Uwaine.
There are also the faded Flemish tapestries depicting the Life of Samson that were already hanging in the Manor when Morris rented it in 1871. Morris loved these rare 17th-century wall-hangings mellowed by age, declaring that they gave the Tapestry Room 'an air of romance which nothing else would quite do'. He gravitated there, using it as both a workspace and sitting room. It was tapestries such as these that inspired him to learn the technique himself and set about reinventing it.
Independent charity the Society of Antiquaries of London, which owns and runs the Manor, plans to return the Tapestry Room to how it was when photographed in 1896. Poignantly, Morris commissioned the photographs only months before his death. However, the tapestries that meant so much to Morris are now in a fragile and unstable condition and in urgent need of conservation.
The Manor's own collection boasts the very first tapestry that Morris wove: Acanthus and Vine, created in 1879 on a loom set up in his bedroom at Kelmscott House, the family's London home.
The Society of Antiquaries has undertaken a conservation assessment of tapestries and their condition is extremely fragile. They are significantly faded and structurally weak, with numerous holes and losses, including distortions and tensions in the woven structure. The Society is also preparing plans to reconstruct the Tapestry Room's partition to reinstate the tapestries in their historical configuration.
The original room arrangement had been undermined by demolition in 1965 of the partition between it and the so-called Bachelor's Bedroom, the former seventeenth-century closet. This resulted in the re-hanging of the tapestries as they are today.
Following an initial grant from the Historic Houses Foundation, the Society is looking to raise £300,000 to conserve the tapestries in sequence and re-hang them configured as they were during the Turner and Morris families' time.
Martin Levy FSA, chairman of the Kelmscott Campaign Group, said: "The importance of returning the Tapestry Room to its original state cannot be overstated. William Morris used the room as his principal workspace as did, later, his daughter May. We hope that you will support our campaign."
Andrew Macdonald, general secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London, said: "We're delighted to be able to borrow these tapestries from Lord Lloyd-Webber. The Holy Grail Tapestries are arguably the greatest achievement of the Morris & Co. company and provide a great contrast to the more faded set in the Manor which William Morris found so inspiring."
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