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“Swan and Otter Hunt” Tapestry

March 4, 2017

Tapestries were the prized possessions of the wealthy and revered. This piece depicts the aristocratic hunt of otters for fur and swan meat. Made in 1430-40, the museum has conflicting information on its province. The plaque says Southern Netherlands but online explain it would likely have been made in Arras, France – a centre famed for its wall hangings (V&A, 2007). Situated in Materials and Techniques, I feel the emphasis should be more of the designers and craftspeople who have mastered these techniques and where they came from. The museum writes its signage and explanations as infatuations of grandeur. It seems the medieval and royal connections play a big role in how they voice the importance of the the tapestry over the makers. Tapestries would hang on cold castle walls for insulation, decoration and entertainment and the notion of a tapestry still holds the connotations of money and power. This particular piece hung for centuries in Hardwick Hall before being acquired by the museum in lieu of tax payable on the estate of the tenth Duke of Devonshire. I find it interesting that it is important for the museum to display that is how they hold such a piece when most items in their collection do not mention how they were acquired. Today they are seen as mainly historical objects, fallen out of favour with modern home decoration. Sitting in the gallery you feel its imposing detail. It is so large there is not space to take it all in. The museum has put its tapestries into a small room, side by side, situated in an area mainly used as a cut through to the theatre design, where many people were wondering to and from. However, unlike many objects on display at the V&A, this piece is almost not out of place. It is presented on the wall, closely packed with other tapestries, as would have been done at the height of their fashion. The tapestry hangs in an an institution, itself named after royalty, and the museum visitors enjoy the scenes depicted within. It may not be situated in a home, but I feel this piece is not too far from its context. The gallery has a sign priding itself on owning some of the world’s most famous tapestries, including this piece. It seems to imply a notion that fame equals important and good design. I feel it is humbling to look at a tapestry like this when you imagine the hours of work laboured into such an item. I feels the museum’s humbling aspect is who owned it. To collect and to preserve it so carefully with permanent barriers to the piece and dimmed lights, suggests the museum sees itself as a saviour of art and design. It see its job as protecting what they feel is the best from history so this tapestry, with its royal history, will be the item viewed in the future for people to understand their past. Tapestries are seen by us as a certain standard of quality and words such as “fine” and “decorative” arts imply a higher calibre of value, one inapplicable for work from many cultures (T. J. Barringer, Tom Flynn, 1998). To me this adds perhaps a sense of false greater importance to European works, such as this tapestry.

Bibliography:

T. J. Barringer, Tom Flynn ed., 1998. Colonialism and the Object: Empire, Material Culture, and the Museum. London: Routledge.

Victoria and Albert Museum, 2007, The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, [online] Available at: <https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/the-devonshire-hunting-tapestries> [Accessed 4th March 2017].

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