The Tapestries that decorated the Hall
(none remain in the Hall – either destroyed or are in collections)
The Holy Grail Tapestries – from The Holy Grail Tapestries, Helen Proctor, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery
The subject chosen for illustration is the Quest of the Sancgreal which forms the latter part of the worldwide romance of the Morte d’Arthur, and is on the whole the most illustratable part of it, apart from the fact that as literature it is the most beautiful and complete episode in the Romance’.”
The involved the decoration of the first two floors and included the dining room which contained Morris’s most ambitious interior’.” The architectural features of this large and imposing room, with its wide chimney breast and enormous windows, were determining factors in the choice and scale of its decorative scheme. A memorandum from Morris states: ‘I have had a careful discussion with Mr Burne-Jones and after considering the spaces to be filled, the light in the room and other circumstances ….. the subject chosen for illustration is the Quest of the Sancgreal’.” Morris later recorded that the Quest was chosen because it comprised the most beautiful and complete episode of the Arthurian legends and was ‘in itself a series of pictures”‘ suitable for illustration in the form of a narrative series of tapestry panels. Significantly, Burne-Jones had already depicted scenes from the Grail quest in four stained glass panels of 1886. Originally intended for his London home, they were subsequently installed in his country house at Rottingdean.”
In accordance with the nineteenth century practice of dividing walls horizontally, the tapestries were conceived as two tiers. The principal division consisted of a series of six narrative figure subjects, presented in the form of a continuous frieze and designed to hang from the moulded cornice to the top of the dado. The subsidiary set of six smaller verdure panels bore explanatory inscriptions in Gothic characters describing the scenes above and summarizing their narrative content. These were designed by Dearle to hang below the first four figurative tapestries and showed deer in a thicket with the knights’ shields suspended from the branches of trees. A number of scenes were considered by Burne-Jones and Morris before deciding on the following:
|The Knights of the Round Table summoned to a Quest by the Strange Damsel. 245 x 535. Part of a set woven for George McCulloch 1898-99|
|The Arming and Departure of the Knights of the Round Table on the Quest for the Holy Grail|
|The Failure of Sir Lancelot||The Failure of Sir Gawaine|
In his treatment of these subjects, Burne-Jones’s designs for tapestry were not intended, either in subject or detail, to show any period of history. He believed that the Arthurian legends had evolved over long periods of time and were assimilated from very diverse origins. Although it was possible to express the ‘spirit’ of these legends in the tapestries, the artist regarded the attribution of a chronological character to them as inappropriate.
The designs for the series are characteristic of Burne-Jones’s mature style which reveals the influence of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance. Responding to the work of Botticelli, Mantegna, Signorelli and Michelangelo, the artist’s brilliant figurative compositions for the tapestries are determined by classical linearity. They also demonstrate his facility for decorative design, revealed in the elaborate patterns made in the folds of the drapery and in the sinuous rhythms of the impenetrable forest. Contributing to the overall atmosphere of the series, the artist’s treatment of the Quest is imbued with richly polychromatic medieval ornament provided by Morris and Dearle.
Burne- Jones’s assured treatment of large scale compositions, evident in his painted subjects, was fundamental to the success of the tapestries. Designed to be viewed some thirteen feet above the ground, the heads of some of the artist’s elongated figiires were deliberately cropped in order to maximize their dramatic effect. The height of the narrative tapestries was uniformly 2.4 metres (eight feet) and the verdure subjects were 1.5 metres (five feet) high. The length of each narrative panel was determined by the area of wall to be covered; the longest being The Attainment at almost 7.6 metres (25 feet). This particular panel was completed in time for inclusion in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition at the New Gallery in 1893 (89).” The series was woven between 1892 and 1895 and occupied Merton Abbey’s three looms for much of this period.” The tapestries were extremely expensive costing D’Arcy £3,500, of which £1,000 was paid to Burne-Jones for his designs.
“The Arras Tapestries of the San Graal at Stanmore Hall.” The Studio. 15 (1898): 98-104.
Examples of the now famous arras tapestry made after designs by Sir Edward Burne-Jones for Stanmore Hall, have been pictured in The Studio. The first time in connection with an article on Artistic Houses. (September 1893); the second (July 1894) as illustrations to an interview with William Morris, on the revival of Tapestry Weaving. But at neither date was the series so complete that the whole scheme could be brought together for the interest of those who are debarred from seeing the originals.
Now, thanks to the courtesy of Mr. D’Arcy, the owner of the beautiful house wherein these notable examples of a revived craft do duty as decoration of the dining-room, some of the completed tapestries and many of the preliminary cartoons for the series have been seen at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition. We find that the original designs by the late Sir Edward Burne-Jones “are not above fifteen inches high,” and that beyond slight indications of colour they are merely elaborate and carefully drawn studies, which the workers at Merton Abbey, taught by Mr. Dearle under Morris’s supervision, translated to the actual fabric. These were worked from enlarged Scanned images of portions of the original designs touched up by Burne-Jones, who usually limited his attention to the heads and hands, leaving the purely ornamemntal details to to Messrs. Morris and Co. In Mr.Aymer Vallance’s monograph there is a description of the tapestry so accurate and sympathetic that it seems better to quote literally in place of describing it anew.
“The scheme of this decoration is to illustrate the Arthurian romance, more particularly that part of it which deals with the quest of the San Graal. The main division consists of a series of figure-subject panels. Their height is uniformly eight feet, but they vary in width according to the dimensions of the several spaces they have to fill round the room. Of these panels it will suffice to describe one which, though neither the largest nor the most conspicuous, is yet, in point of beauty, second in none in the set. The subject is the Failure of Lancelot. It contains but two figures. In the foreground Sir Lancelot is represented lying asleep, his back leaning against the stone side of a water-cistern, his feet pointing to the door, shut against him and guarded by an angel warder of the Temple of the Holy Graal. The angel’s wings, blue as the depths of a sapphire, harmonise with the pale blue of his sleeves, while his white and yellow brocaded robe contrasts with the rich crimson surcoat of the mailed knight, whose limbs are encased partly in plate, partly in chain armour. . . . The whole composition is in a subdued tone of colour, with beams of strong light streaming through the chinks of the door, where they fall upon armour and blades of grass.”
Other panels represent The Arrival of Sir Galahad to take his place in the in the Siege Perilous, The Knights Departing on the Quest, The Failure of Sir Gawaine, The Vision of the Holy Graal,’ and a ship at anchor.
|The Attainment. The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Perceval. Stanmore Hall , Studio, XV,1899.|
The illustrations here reproduced show, for the first time, the effect of the tapestries in silk, and give sufficient idea of the other decorations of the room, the lightly-wrought ceiling in moulded plaster, the paneled embrasures, doors, and buffet, and its simply designed furniture.
With hangings as sumptuous as these tapestries it is obviously essential that the rest of an apartment; this size should be kept simple; or rather it is more in accordance with modern taste, for precedents to the contrary exist both in Gothic and Renaissance. Indeed, it may be left an open question whether pattern and colour as sumptuous as these efforts of Morris and Burne-Junes do not need rather ornate treatment of the accessories to keep it in rightful place. Be this as it may, the whole room is a noteworthy monument to the art of the two great men who produced it, and to the energy of the one who not merely revived the ancient craft but reared up a number of trained workers to carry on its best traditions. Among the many works of the decorative revival, as initiated and developed by Morris, there is scarce one so complete and so important as this. For it is the only example of a complete series of arras tapestries designed and wrought for a given room, and so stands alone and memorable.