Thread bears

30th January 2004 at 00:00
Hunting was once considered a noble sport. Stuart Frost and Ruth Singer unravel the stories from a 15th-century tapestry

This magnificent tapestry, depicting a boar and bear hunt, is one of the largest surviving pictorial compositions from the 15th century, a time when Gothic was the dominant artistic style in England. The words "Gothic" and "Medieval" conjure up images of doom and gloom, plague, blackness and notions of primitive art, yet this hanging is full of life and movement and a tremendously rich source of evidence about art and life in a period often misunderstood and frequently underestimated in its significance. Its sheer scale is impressive and it takes a little time and sustained looking to unravel the scenes.

The righthand side of the tapestry depicts the hunting of bears by nobles dressed in luxurious and extravagant finery. Bear cubs are also shown. To the left, magnificently dressed men and women participate in the hunting and killing of wild boars, or dispassionately observe events from a distance. Boars were hunted for both the chase and their meat, but bears were pursued primarily for the sport. By the time this tapestry was created, bears had already been hunted to extinction in England, although they still survived in the mountains of Europe. Boars also became extinct on the British mainland.

These hunting scenes may appear brutally cruel to us today, particularly the bear hunt, where one animal can be seen being savaged by dogs, but in the 15th century, hunting was considered a noble sport. It was an exciting and appropriate leisure activity for the aristocratic elite, and participants would have had no qualms about their actions. Hunting had been established as a sport for centuries. Hundreds of years before the tapestry was made, the Norman kings enlarged royal forests and enforced strict laws to protect their hunting rights. Hunting in the 15th century was governed by sophisticated etiquette and several books for the courtly hunter were written. The author of one, the Count of Foix, Gaston Phoebus, died after a bear hunt: it was a dangerous activity.

Tapestries like this resulted from a great deal of highly skilled labour over a considerable period, and hence were expensive. Luxury items confined to the homes of the wealthy, they were used to decorate the entire walls of a room, creating an inner chamber that sometimes covered even the doors.

They made rooms more colourful and comfortable, insulating stone walls, while at the same time proclaiming the owner's wealth, power and status. At a time when the court was often on the move they could also be taken down, rolled up and moved from place to place. This tapestry was woven from wool coloured with natural dyes, which would have been brighter when new.

It is a valuable and straightforward source of evidence about daily life and fashion in England. Very little secular clothing of this date survives.

The nobles' stylish and extravagant costume denotes wealth and status. One of the men, for example, wears a spotted fur garment, possibly made from leopard skin. The lady to the right on the bridge displays the white fur lining her garment. Miniver, as it was known, required hundreds of imported furs from the bellies of Baltic squirrels.

Yet not everything is as straightforward as it first appears. It is unlikely that clothes as rich as these would been worn on a real hunt. In the tapestry, trees are in full summer leaf, whereas in reality such a hunt would have taken place in winter. There is a message in these alterations of reality: in an ideal world, from the nobles' point of view, man asserts supremacy. The lady on the bridge who wears a spectacular white horned headdress also wears a dress bearing letters which spell "Much Desire", while the teardrops on the man's sleeve next to her probably have an erotic significance, hinting at quite a different sort of pursuit and quarry. Like Gothic art in general, the tapestry is complex.

Further reading The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries by Linda Woolley, pound;30 The Medieval Treasury by Paul Williamson, pound;14.95 Textiles (at the Vamp;A): A Handbook for Teachers, pound;5.95. All available from the Vamp;

Stuart Frost and Ruth Singer are education officers at the Victoria amp; Albert Museum, London

Lesson ideas

Key stage 2 history - Britain and the wider world in Tudor times. Although this tapestry was made before the first Tudor came to the throne, it was used in the Tudor period and was probably owned by Bess of Hardwick who may have displayed it at Hardwick Hall. King Henry VIII owned more than 200 hunting tapestries - Jhunting was a popular pastime for the Tudors, as it had been for earlier kings.

KS2 art and design: make card looms to explore the basics of weaving.

KS3 history: Britain 1066-1500. There are few sources to rival the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries. Compare the clothing on the tapestry with costume shown on earlier objects or in manuscript illuminations. How is clothing used to demonstrate status and social position today?

KS3 English Hunting provokes heated debate. The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries show how old hunting is in Europe and Britain. Is it cruel?

KS34 art and design

How does the tapestry treat space? It lacks the strong central focus of a painting because of its scale and the way it was intended to be seen. The castle in the left corner is used to give a sense of distance; this now appears rudimentary but it was representative in a period when art was moving from a medieval depiction of space to a modern one. Contrast the stylistic characteristics of the tapestry with art from other periods.

KS5 art and design - textiles

Look at weaving techniques. The clothing and headdresses represented in the tapestry can inspire students' own work. Trace any characteristics that may have influenced today's designers.

The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries are on permanent display at the Victoria amp; Albert Museum in Room 94.

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