The subject of what constitutes a tapestry can form a number of different parameters for different people. To some a tapestry can only ever be of the woven variety constructed on an upright loom, while others are happy to extend the parameters to include cross-stitch and other forms of needlework.
In our contemporary world, the definition of tapestry is now encouraged to embrace many aspects of textile art from both the two and three-dimensional forms. Whatever the argument of the use of the word, tapestry has been a flexible subject heading for the last century and a half.
The embroidered tapestries produced by Dora Wheeler, the daughter of the celebrated American artist, interior and textile designer, stretch some people's designation of what constitutes a true tapestry. However, the examples shown in this article, all produced in the 1880s, were known as either embroidered or needle-woven tapestries at the time of their construction, so it seems only fitting to call them as such.
Illustration: Dora Wheeler. Aphrodite needle-woven tapestry, 1883.
It is thought that Dora's mother Candace Wheeler first developed the idea of embroidered tapestries and this is born out by the fact that Wheeler took out a patent on the process in both the US and the UK. A number of artists did produce these specific patent protected embroidered tapestries, but they tended, as with Dora, to be employed by Candace Wheelers Associated Artists company.
The process itself entails using a heavy woven silk canvas as a base and then introducing different coloured and textured threads along the warp or weft of the base fabric with a needle. Silk and metal threads were used to much effect, giving a shimmering richly laden impact. Interestingly the original base fabric was never fully disguised or concealed by the process and therefore became part of the original work and the subsequent composition.
The process allowed a much greater degree of detail and accuracy, producing very fine compositions that were perfectly suited to the aesthetic qualities admired by so many within an interior context in the 1880s. It can be no coincidence that Candace Wheeler was one of the premier interior designers of the period. On a practical interior level, because silk and metal threads were used within the design process of the embroidered tapestries, damage by moths was drastically reduced and was seen as a particular selling point for the process.
Illustration: Dora Wheeler. The Winged Moon needle-woven tapestry, 1883.
It is the use of both the techniques and the raw materials that made these embroidered tapestries so eloquent and spectacularly accomplished for a textile medium. Although three of the examples are unfortunately only available in black and white and so therefore cannot possibly convey the subtleties of the woven thread, the Penelope Unravelling her Work at Night example surely makes up for this. It is a great example of what can be achieved with embroidery when twinned with another medium. The fragile, almost antique quality of the piece, along with the iridescent effect produced by the introduced threads, must have given the impression of the tapestry as being a literal textile gem.
All of the examples shown and others besides tended towards the figurative. Figurative work has always been a particularly problematic aspect of woven tapestry work. Many figures within traditional tapestry work as well as those found in other needlework genres, tend to appear as anatomically lumpy, with extremities such as hands, feet and facial features appearing extremely limited. However, this particular form of embroidered tapestry even allowed for images and figures to be conceivably drawn from life. Most of the artists who used this textile technique produced compositions from sketches, photographs or original observation. However, a number that were produced from both experience and imagination. This could be said to be a potentially fruitful medium for a creative exploration of composition, but perhaps more importantly for that of a textile technique, is the more exciting possibility of a full creative exploration of colour and texture.
Illustration: Dora Wheeler. Minnehaha needle-woven tapestry, 1884.
Both Dora and Candace Wheeler were aware, as were a number of critics and artists of the period that this delicate and visual technique of embroidered tapestry work could very easily become both heavy and gaudy. There was a tendency to produce work that had rather more gold thread than was needed for the composition. This was usually at the behest of the buyer who was sometimes more concerned with the idea of quantity over quality. This heavy handedness with materials quickly cancelled out any of the forms of subtlety that had been built up by the process. Embroidered tapestries became for some a means of advancing the illusion of immense wealth and taste. Two words that often do not sit well together in the same company.
Further reading links:
Content in a Garden
Prize painting book : good times
Principles of Home Decoration With Practical Examples
Principles Of Home Decoration With Practical Examples - Candace Wheeler
The Development of Embroidery in America
Yesterdays in a Busy Life