The Bayeux Tapestry, as some of my followers will know, often attracts my attention. This great relic of the romanesque period will always be in the forefront of comment as it is such a valuable contemporary record of the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings. The original social media with just a sprinkling of fake news.
Reading Museum holds one of our best replicas, embroidered in 1885 by a group of Staffordshire women. It is probably the jewel of Reading’s collection and has been very well presented, enabling the viewer to follow the story of Duke William, Bishop Odo and King Harold Godwinson all those years ago. There are other replicas worthy of note of course. I never tire of visiting this exhibit, but a word of warning – go in the afternoon after the school visits have been!
The Guensey replica, created between 2012-13, concentrates on the final scene. The original work appears unfinished with the end of the story showing the English soldiers running away from the battle after Harold’s death. It is not known how much of the original piece is missing but the new section is about 10 feet long and concludes with the coronation of King William at Westminster Abbey. This mirrors the coronation of Edward the Confessor earlier. The new conclusion can be seen at Bayeux when the museum re-opens in 2024.
James Cundell produced six photographic replicas in 1874, one of which was sold at Bonham’s in 2009. The only other usable version is in the V&A together with the 185 glass plates with the tapestry’s black and white images. It took Cundell two years to create the photographic plates, convert them into one photograph and then, hand colour the work at The Royal School of Art. The wide scan photograph was then finished on linen paper.
My interest in the tapestry has been wakened by a great story in the news recently. Mia Hansson, a teacher from Cambridgeshire, is recreating the masterpiece. She is currently about half way through after about six years. She was surprised that the original contained so many mistakes, such as faceless soldiers and men with two left hands. This made me ask whether it was ever meant to be perfect. You would not expect romanesque castles or manuscripts to be perfect in their construction. But why did they make visual errors when they were more than capable of getting it ‘right’. My thought is, like the odd figures in the margins, the mistakes were deliberate – a sort of signature of the artist. If a woman working in a Norman sweat shop wanted to leave a message of her existence; what better way than let an error get through.
What do you think? Whatever I continue to be amazed by this piece of history and the hold it continues to have over us… and as I always remind you it is a work of embroidery – not a tapestry at all!
Photo image: Joe Giddens