Item #575

The town of Aubusson, located in central France, has been producing tapestries dating back to the 15th century. Although the tapestry weavers had sketches to follow during the 15th and 16th centuries, they still had the freedom to adapt the tapestries to their own ideas and skill. During the 17th century the weavers were given more detailed painted designs (cartons) to follow and over the next two hundred years the cartoons became more intricate. Schools were established to train the cartoniers and each had their own speciality: flowers, figures, animals, pastorals. Subjects were taken from the Bible, mythology, historical narratives and the landscapes from the surrounding French countryside.

With the growth in production of furniture, tapestries were used to cover chairs and settees. By the 19th century the cartoniers had developed a lively and bold style giving the cartoons great decorative appeal. Unlike weavers who would incorporate their initials in the tapestry, the cartoniers did not sign their work and thus remain anonymous artists. The few clues to their identity consist of hurried notes over borders or on motifs – a note, a name or the number of a color.

The life of an 19th century cartoon was not an easy one. Although we now consider them works of art in their own right, they were originally working patterns for tapestries and treated as such. In the weaving process the cartoons were pinned below the warp (vertical threads) on the loom. The tapestry was woven with the back of the tapestry facing the weaver. The only means the weaver had to check his work was a hand-held mirror. Each cartoon, by decree, could only be copied eight times as a tapestry. The cartoons could have sections cut out and replaced with a new design, or other alterations pinned on top, to produce a variation for a new tapestry. Each time a cartoon was used it was likely that a new border would be woven to reflect the personal tastes and needs of the customer that was commissioning the tapestry. If the cartoon lived through that process, it was rolled up and stored on shelves. Unfortunately in 1961 the Creuse River that flows through the heart of Aubusson flooded its banks and the rising waters entered the tapestry workshops. All the cartoons stored on the lower shelves, the 18th century designs, were ruined.

What prevailed are beautiful 19th century paintings, either oil on canvas or gouache on paper. Museums in Aubusson, France are home to many cartoons.

Article in World of Interiors, June 1992