Stirling Castle, Tapestries

22 June 2015

Mystic Hunt for the Unicorn Unveiled

The final tapestry in the series ‘The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn’ was unveiled in the Queen’s Inner Hall today…

The final tapestry in the series ‘The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn’ was unveiled in the Queen’s Inner Hall today (Tuesday, 23rd June), marking the culmination of the biggest tapestry project undertaken in the UK in the last 100 years. Ruth Jones, Associate Weaver explains more about this fantastic project.

James V built the Palace Apartments at Stirling Castle in 1540 as a home for his new French wife, Marie de Guise and his extensive art collection. Royal tapestry collections are known to have dazzled visiting ambassadors, visually representing power, wealth and the right to rule. We know from Royal Inventories housed in the National Archives in Edinburgh that James had over 100 tapestries, but not what happened to them. Dispersal of this glory has been the subject of fascinating conjecture by historians.

When Historic Scotland embarked on their project to restore the Royal Palace of Stirling Castle, patroness Helen Buchanan from the Quinque Foundation offered to help. She stipulated that funds given were for the design and weaving of a new set of tapestries based on the recorded inventory of James V, which includes a reference to a ‘Historie of the Unicorne’.

Helen Buchanan from the Quinque Foundation with the third of the Stirling Tapestries - The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to The Castle

This took the team to the United States, and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is home to a set of seven 15th century Flemish tapestries ‘The Hunt of the Unicorn.’ The MET allowed them to trace newly digitized images of the famous Unicorn Tapestries as the basis for this educational endeavor.

West Dean Tapestry Studio was the educational and administrative partner chosen by Historic Scotland to recreate the tapestries. What started out as six weavers studying originals and weaving modern interpretations became an educational opportunity for many more weavers who came from around the UK and the world, replacing those first weavers and developing their own style of interpretation.

Progress shot of weaver working on 'The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn' tapestry

When I accepted the position of Associate Tapestry Weaver in 2012, the first thing that happened was I was introduced to the special circumstances of weaving on this Project. At West Dean College in West Sussex, I was trained to weave on the front side – a technique adopted from the beginning of the project as a way to allow weavers to learn more about medieval weaving, and to enable visitors to the public studio at Stirling Castle to watch the tapestry grow.

I arrived in Scotland on the shortest day of winter in 2012, and soon found that life in the Tapestry Studio was influenced by extreme weather conditions. This contact with the forces of nature seemed to inform progress on the tapestry, which was itself an allegory of the regenerative force in nature. Over two summers and three winters, the beautiful plants, animals and figures in the tapestry appeared, through the diligent work of a weaving team whose personal initials are immortalized as the last hem to be woven. This was folded back into a muslin lining that protects the tapestry from the slightly acidic conditions of the walls of the Queen’s Inner Hall.

Costumed performer as Mary of Guise inspecting 'The Unicorn at Bay' tapestry hanging in the Queen's Inner Hall in the Palace at Stirling Castle

The tapestry I worked on, the last tapestry to be woven, was based on two small fragments of a larger work in the Cloisters in New York that was badly damaged and cut over its 500-year history. From historical examples in other museums, a cartoon (from the Italian work ‘cartone’, meaning the working drawing sewn behind the warp threads for registration – a weaver will follow this like a road map) was conceived for this final work named after the fragments at the Met: ‘The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn’. It will be seen for the first time this week in the Queen’s Inner Hall.

Detail of the tapestry with the 'cartone' used by weavers to help them see what to do next

I was given the honour of weaving the middle section of the tapestry. Humbled by this dream exposure to the intimate thoughts of top medieval tapestry artists, my job was to understand and interpret visual elements such as velvet, satin, human hands, faces, fur and the expressions of animals. Each day I grew closer to understanding those artists of 500 years ago.

Through this project, the public may now enjoy the fruits of all our study, and see for themselves how tapestry, with its modern threads, cotton warps, archival dyes and art school accolytes, can still inspire and sing from the walls as it did for the Royal Court of the 1500s.

The seven tapestries that tell the tale of ‘The Hunt for the Unicorn’ are now on display in The Queen’s Inner Hall of the Royal Palace at Stirling Castle.