In just a few hours, the modern ideal of a fairy tale wedding will take place at Windsor Castle. A trip I took to the medieval palace several years ago had a legendary feel to it that may not rival the experience of a young American woman marrying her prince charming but it was no less filled with beauty. My excursion began with a life-imitating-art moment in which I felt I had wandered onto the set of a Merchant & Ivory film as an extra in a Henry James or Jane Austen movie and ended woven in a tapestry of history like no other.
I was visiting Coworth Park, and the manor house was glowing in the morning light as I stepped from the car. The estate near Ascot, England, is the spitting image of a fictive universe that would have been realized in a period film. But my view is unspoiled by camera crews and technicians as I walk through the front door to be greeted by a handsomely dressed porter. During the next several hours, I learn that the mansion was built by the prosperous East Indian merchant William Shephard in 1776, to serve as the centerpiece of the estate. Only the Dower House on the property is older.
The estate passed through the ownership of an extensive list of lords and ladies over time, a roster that includes the Earl of Derby. It then became a hub for polo when Galen Weston, the owner of Selfridges and Fortnam and Mason, bought it in the mid-1980s. His transformation of the estate into an epicenter for high-goal matches included the building of classically designed stables for his pampered ponies. Prince Jefri, the brother of the Sultan of Brunei, purchased the estate in 1995 and expanded its presence as a posh polo destination.
But by the time the Dorchester Collection had snapped up the property, the buildings and gardens were far from pristine. The designer of the resort’s renaissance, Martin Hulbert, told me it had quite literally fallen to bits by the time he was commissioned to give the property its makeover. There is no evidence of this as I drop my suitcase in my room and change clothes to meet the other journalists for our afternoon outing.
We leave the 70-room resort that sits within 240 acres of Berkshire parkland, near the edge of Windsor Great Park, to visit Eton. From there, we walk to Windsor Castle along a path that edges the River Thames. The scenes turn magical as we approach a picturesque bend, the wooded banks teeming with graceful swans. I have done my homework on the fortress, which was originally built by William the Conqueror during the eleventh century. At 932 years old, it is the largest continually inhabited castle in the world, which has been among the residences of the British kings and queens since 1086 when William’s sixteen-year building project was completed.
Royal after royal added to the building’s fabric but it was Charles II who brought the most change when he hired architect Hugh May to supervise the modernization of the royal apartments. Completed in 1683, these became the grandest baroque state apartments in England. It transformed Windsor from a military stronghold, which is most evident in the view of the castle from the Norman gate, to an opulent palace. I have to admit, I am quite surprised by the ornateness of the interiors given the muscular view of the old section of the castle that always comes to mind when I think of it.
George III was the next monarch to bring significant change, appointing James Wyatt to turn parts of the exterior into a Gothic façade while maintaining the heavily ornamented character of the state rooms. Then George IV put his stamp on the building by asking his artistic adviser Sir Charles Long, later known as Lord Farnborough, to give the exterior a more imposing character. Long accomplished this by heightening Henry II’s Round Tower, cladding the exterior in masonry that mimics massive blocks of stone, and adding towers and battlements.
I place my flattened hand across my forehead as I peer up at those battlements, the afternoon sun reflecting off of the chalky gray stone as the imposing walls rise toward the sky. As I enter the castle, I am a woman on a mission. I have come to see a set of Gobelins tapestries depicting the “Story of Jason and Medea,” which is hung in the Grand Reception Room. It’s a glamourous French Rococo space that was once used as the main ballroom of the castle, and I am absolutely giddy when I spot them. My excitement doesn’t lessen as I draw closer: they are absolutely breathtaking set within the gilded boiserie of the space, the woven artistry like nothing I have ever seen.
These masterpieces, which were based upon scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, were originally commissioned by Louis XV in 1743 for the throne room at Versailles. The original paintings by Jean-François de Troy on which the tapestries are based were exhibited during the Paris salon of 1748. The cartoons, as paintings depicting such scenes were called then, were turned into tapestries by Pierre-François Cozette and Claude Audran III between 1776 and 1779. The series at Windsor was purchased in Paris in May of 1825 by Sir Charles Long, along with 37 other Gobelins tapestries, on behalf of George IV.
I experienced Jason and Medea’s story by slowly making my way past the seven tapestries in the series that follow the captain of the Argo through a number of mythic adventures he must complete in order to obtain the Golden Fleece. I can’t help but think now what a cautionary tale this is for the young couple marrying in the castle tomorrow, as the story ended badly when Jason couldn’t resist the draw toward another woman. In going astray, he leaves Medea so “unhinged by jealousy” she sends a poisoned cloak and crown to Creuse, the other woman, killing her. She then murders her own two sons by Jason, sets fire to Corinth, and departs from Athens. Now, that’s a woman scorned!
As I end my second turn around the grandly scaled space, I say goodbye to this harried tale by studying the dramatic illustration of Medea’s meltdown. Several years later, I find myself staring at the depiction of her rage again. This time I am standing in the Hall of Tapestries at the Palazzo Reale in Milan. Because the tapestries are not mounted as they were in the more formal setting at Windsor, I am able to see how fluid they are as the fabric billows out from the wall.
As I stand face to face, literally, with Jason in the allegory depicting Medea’s murder of her sons, I can see why she had been charmed by his “manly grace” given the beauty with which he has been rendered. I have to muster all of my self-control to keep from touching the set that was ordered by the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Este, the brother of Marie-Antoinette, just after he married Maria Beatrice d’Este in Milan in 1771. He was expanding and redecorating the state apartments in the palace at the time, creating a stunning backdrop for the tapestries.
The plaster work by Giocondo Albertolli and the frescoes by Giuliano Traballesi and Martin Knoller are truly beautiful. Leaving the Palazzo that day, I realize it is time to see what it was about Gobelins that made the manufacturer so accomplished. I begin my search with the book A History of Tapestry from the Earliest Times Until the Present Dayby W. G. Thomson. The tome is a treasure trove of details about the tapestry industry as it blossomed in Europe. It was France’s King Henry IV who laid the groundwork for the quality that would set Gobelins apart.
He lured two Flemish tapestry makers, Marc de Comans and François de la Planche, to Paris, asking them to bring their low-loom method of weaving with them. It was a faster mode of production than the technique being used in France at the time, and he gave them incentives to set up shop in Paris. They established 80 looms in France, sixty of which were in Paris and 20 of which were outside the city.
“Situated in the faubourg St. Marceau, the manufactory of Comans and De la Planche soon became the most successful in France,” Thomson notes. “Their unique advantages and rapidity of manufacture destroyed all competition, and after the fifteen years of the first contract had expired an extension of time was granted.” The other royal workshop in Paris at the time was directed by the celebrated tapissierPierre Lefèbre and his son Jean, who carried on the work after Pierre returned to Florence. Along with Comans and De la Planche, this young man became one of the master weavers of the high loom in the Gobelins.
Henry IV dreamed of bringing them together under one roof but he wasn’t able to convince his ministers it was a worthy expense. It wasn’t until Louis XIV was in power that the task was accomplished. “A family of dyers of the name of Gobelin settled in (5) Paris in the beginning of the fifteenth century,” Thomson wrote. “They chose the banks of the small river Bièvre for the site of their works, on account of its water being exceptionally suitable for trade purposes. The descendants occupied the Hôtel de Gobelins in 1662, when King Louis chose the hôtel for the nucleus of his grand manufactory, not of tapestries alone, but of nearly every applied and fine art.”
The king explains his motives in this written account of his push to create a great artistic center: “The desire to make commerce and manufacture flourish in our kingdom has made it our first care on the establishment of general peace to revive them, and render their establishment more secure by placing them in a convenient and safe locality. We have purchased the Hôtel of the Gobelins with several adjacent houses, and have sought out artists of the highest reputation, tapissiers, sculptors, goldsmiths, cabinet makers and other most able workmen in all sorts of arts and crafts, whom we have lodged there, giving apartments to each of them, and according them privileges and advantages; ministers of refined taste have been brought from Italy, and the most capable artisans from the Low Countries.”
The superintendent was Jean-Baptiste Colbert, and the professional director was Charles Le Brun, whom the king described as a “person, skillful and intelligent in the art of painting.” He would create the designs for tapestry, sculpture and other works assuring “that they were correctly rendered.” He would also oversee all of the workmen employed. Thomson adds, “The artistic strength of the staff of the Gobelins was extraordinary,” as it consisted of the artistic elite of France and other countries notable for the finest aesthetic values.
One of the reasons the quality of the tapestries being produced was so high is that the weaving staff was retrained contractually rather than employed with the promise of individual salaries being paid regardless of the caliber of production. This allowed the more rapid and efficient craftsmen to earn wages in proportion to their capacities. It also gave the contractors and master-weavers full power to engage or dismiss workmen. This, Thomson says, “must have been a powerful factor in the production of the huge quantity of hangings that emanated from the manufactory of the Gobelins in the first thirty years of its existence.”
Among the contractors were Jean Jans, a Flemish weaver who oversaw the largest workshop of sixty-seven weavers. “Jans had come to Paris to work in the royal buildings in 1654,” Thomson explained, “and the works executed under his charge in the Gobelins were of such excellence they commanded a higher price than similar productions of any other shop in the establishment. There were five workshops turning out tapestries at this time, the only one that could rival Jans was Lefèbre’s.
The combined workforce, sans apprentices, was 250 master weavers who produced 19 complete sets of high-warp and 34 sets of low-warp tapestries during the first 28 years Gobelins was in business. You have to see these creations up close to understand what a feat this is. The finest set, which the King must have seen as a reward for his efforts, celebrated Louis XIV’s life and accomplishments at court and on the battlefield. “The elaborate ceremonials of his stately court, the richness of detail in the dress of the period, and the tendency towards the dramatic element in national functions, gave Le Brun a splendid opportunity for compositions in the grand historic style,” wrote Thomson.
The only thing that could slow the momentum of such a success was war-time: the coffers were empty after so many military misfires, which forced the closure of the factories in 1694 for three years. Even though its output was interrupted, it was a recognized fact that Gobelins had “earned unqualified and well-merited success, eclipsing the Brussels manufactory, and that of Mortlake in England, which was dying a slow death.”
Once reopened, Thomson says, “The early years of the eighteenth century in the history of the Gobelins were marked by the monotonous repetition of hangings from old cartoons, and new designs were few.” But by 1736, the necessity for new ideas was recognized so the school of drawing was reopened, and new cartoons were purchased from eminent artists.
Thomson mentions that the “History of Jason and Medea” was one of these, and it became one of the most successful series of this era, which set the manufacturer on a triumphant trajectory once again. I will be watching with great eagerness tomorrow morning to see if any of the festivities during which Meghan Markle will marry her handsome Prince Harry will glide past the Gobelins tapestries in the Grand Reception Room.
An addendum: I didn’t learn until after I had posted this that Prince Harry stayed at Coworth Park the night before the wedding: such a fun coincidence! I also wanted to say what a sweet wedding this was. Did anyone notice that the young couple walked across Henry VIII’s grave as they entered (separately) and exited (together) the church? I love how the layers of history are woven through the fabric of my writing in such surprising ways!
The Modern Salonnière and The Tapestry of History© Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns. She is also a top writer in several categories on Medium.