The Lady and the Unicorn

During half-term, Caiti needed to go to Paris for an appointment. So, since I’d be having to drive her to the station anyway (an hour’s journey) to catch her train and then pick her up again in the evening, I decided I’d tag along with her. I’m not a city fan but I do need the occasional dose of Paris as it really is an amazing city. And I’d been wanting to see the famous Dame à la Licorne - the Lady and the Unicorn - tapestries for many years. The previous time I was in Paris sightseeing (as opposed to scuttling to airports for long-haul flights to visit our itchy-footed daughter) I had Rors with me, and a museum of medieval life held a lot less interest than a visit to the zoo and to WHSmith’s for some Cadbury’s chocolate buttons and salt and vinegar crisps. The time before that the museum was closed for some reason, but this time it looked like it was all systems go.

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Why did I want to see these six tapestries so much? Well, they were found in Boussac Castle, our château, by a well-to-do eccentric personality and major author from neighbouring Indre, George Sand. (George Sand is the pen name of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin.) By all accounts they were in a sad moth-eaten and rat-chewed state. In both 1847 and 1866 she wrote of the tapestries in various accounts of visits to the area. She came up with some highly imaginative interpretations of what they represented too, and talked of their being eight of them too. This is the time before mobile phones with cameras and the Internet and so she was writing from memory many years after the event. She also mentioned them in one of her novels, Jeanne, an English translation of which I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to find. I find modern French novels hard enough to read, given their strange tenses and tendency to flowery language, so I’m sure a nineteenth-century one with its added verbosity would be way beyond my grasp.

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It’s believed George Sand brought their existence to the attention of the Inspector of Historic Monuments of the time, Prosper Mérimée. He viewed them in 1841 and recognised them as being quite remarkable. However, the tapestries stayed in their general state of neglect in Boussac until 1882, although it’s thought some gentle restoration work may have been undertaken in the 1840s in Aubusson, the tapestry-making capital of France.

In 1833, the castle’s owner, Comtesse de Ribeyreix, had sold the castle and its contents to the municipality of Boussac, who moved in and used it for offices. Now, it’s possible that when she moved out, the Comtesse cut down two of the tapestries to cover the wagons containing her goods, intending also to use them as carpets in her new home. These details emerge in a letter written by Prosper Mérimée. This would explain why George Sand saw eight tapestries, but only six remain. If so, I wonder where these missing works of art are now.

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Running short of money in 1882, the town’s elders decided to sell the tapestries for the princely sum of 25,000 francs to the Cluny Museum. Trying to get to a value in euros for this sum, the closest I can get is the value of the franc in 1908. At that time 1000 francs had the current purchasing power of 3,065 euros. So, Boussac received somewhere in the region of 75,000 euros. The money was used to pave what is now the central square in the town. I shudder to think what the tapestries are worth now so can’t help thinking Boussac was rather short-changed. Henri de Lavillatte, a local contemporary artist, was dismayed that the townspeople allowed the tapestries to be sold without putting up any sort of protest. He said they should have started a revolution!

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These amazing tapestries now hang in their own room in the Cluny Museum of Medieval Life. Boussac Castle only offers one very small copy of one of the tapestries so I’d been expecting originals of the same size. Not at all - they’re huge! They take your breath away when you walk in, not only because of their size but because of their beauty. They are truly astounding. They are examples, and most likely the finest in the world, of the millefleur style tapestries. These are characterised by their backgrounds which are of flowery meadows. The tapestries were created around 1500, which was the classic period for the millefleur design. The weavers improvised the flowers as they went, and with incredible skill as each flower variety is recognisable - pansies, dandelions, daisies, daffodils and so on. (Later tapestries in this style had mirror images of the bunches of flowers depicted, thereby indicating that they were working from a pattern, which wasn’t the case with the earlier ones.) The flowers are joined by birds and animals, from rabbits and weasels and foxes to monkeys and birds of prey. And this particular set of six are called the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries because each depicts a lady of high society, sometimes with her maid, and accompanied by a lion and the unicorn who present the coat of arms of the La Viste family, who paid for the tapestries to be created. They commissioned an artist, most likely Jean Perréal, to draw the cartoons. Perréal had done a famous portrait of Mary Tudor (sister of Henry VII) and it’s possible the woman he depicts is based on her. The cartoons were sent to Flanders for weavers there to create their magic. Five of the tapestries represent the five senses - sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell - while the sixth is harder to interpret. It is entitled ‘Mon seul désir’ (these words appear on an ornate tent) with the initials A and I at either side. It’s generally believed this represents love, but it’s by no means certain and there are quite a few books dealing with what this tapestry is actually all about.

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I could go on about the tapestries for ever, but I won’t, you’ll be relieved to hear! If you ever get the chance, do go and see them for yourself. They’re truly unforgettable.

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