The day I was happy meeting three trolls: The Tolkien Tapestries at Aubusson
In the southwest of France, in the beautiful région Nouvelle–Aquitaine, you will find Aubusson, a small town known for its tapestries and which in 2009 was inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO for its traditional craftsmanship. This boost in recognition of an ancient art has reinvigorated efforts to promote interest in the making of tapisseries and led to the opening of the Cité internationale de la tapisserie, a state‐of‐the‐art museum, in 2016.
And it led to the Aubusson Weaves Tolkien project: 14 designs by J.R.R. Tolkien are being turned into tapestries and I went to see the unveiling of the sixth of those, “The Trolls.”
How the Tolkien Tapestries came to be
Some of you may still remember one of the rare and certainly one of the most interesting interviews ever given by Christopher Tolkien, published with Le Monde. It came out in 2012, just in time when the organisers behind the Cité internationale de la tapisserie were considering how they could best present the centuries old craftsmanship which is at the heart of Aubusson. After the interview apprentice weaver Thomas Mondon suggested including J.R.R. Tolkien’s original art and after presenting the idea to Christopher and Baillie Tolkien ‐ who is a regular visitor to the tapestry presentations ‐ the family was very happy to have this project go forward.
Basic facts about the project
End of 2016. Agreement signed by Christopher Tolkien for the Tolkien Estate, and French senator Jean-Jacques Lozach for the Cité internationale de la tapisserie.
Jan 27, 2017. Official launch of the project and start of the digitisation process for the 14 original works at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
April 6, 2018. First tapestry publicly unveiled, “Bilbo reaches the huts of the Raft‐elves.”
2021: Weaving comes to an end, presentation of the entire tapestry work.
Illustrations to be turned into tapestries
The Father Christmas Letters: Christmas 1926*, Christmas 1928, Christmas 1933.
The Silmarillion: Halls of Manwe ‐ Taniquetil*, Glorund sets forth to seek Túrin*, Númenórean Carpet**, Mithrim.
The Hobbit: The Trolls*, Rivendell*, Bilbo woke up with the Early Sun in His Eyes, Bilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft‐elves*, Conversation with Smaug*.
The Lord of the Rings: The forest of Lothlorien in the spring, Orthanc.
Note: * tapestry woven at the time of writing; ** Númenórean Carpet is not a ‘regular’ tapestry but will be a woven floor-covering of about 130 square metres, possibly about 13,5m*9,5m.
The concept behind the Tolkien Tapestries
The art of weaving in Aubusson goes back to the 15th century and to best present this centuries old tradition the idea was to bring back great narrative wall-hangings, a series of tapestries illustrating the different parts of a story, which were very popular in the 17th and 18th century. With the wide range of different genres of Tolkien’s four stylistically very different works this is going to be an incredible sight.
How I ended up in Aubusson
In August 2019 we had another major Tolkien conference in the UK, Tolkien 2019, and the director of the Cité International de la tapisserie, Emmanuel Gérard, presented the project at the conference. Some of you may know that I married into a French family (my wife’s not quite sure whether that was such a great idea 😀 ) and that I do speak a bit of French so I used the opportunity of congratulating him and the outstanding artists working on this project. He invited me to come along and guess what: I did.
And then this happened.
And you did it well! pic.twitter.com/VCr3s7xZg5
— Citédelatapisserie (@CiteTapisserie) September 11, 2019
Emmanuel Gérard was so kind as to invite me to cut a piece of the thread and under the very watchful eye of the lady you can see in the picture I managed to do it 🙂
The tombée de métier, the cutting of the loom thread, is a very lovely ceremony where guests of honour, the people involved directly and indirectly in the tapestry and members of the community are invited to cut the thread of the loom. The artist directly responsible for weaving The Trolls was Patrick Guillot who told me how Tolkien used many different shades of black and white in this illustration and how he had to represent those shades in the weaving process. Do try and have a close look when you see the tapestry!
A museum worth visiting
The Cité International de la tapisserie is a museum worth visiting, with or without the Tolkien Tapestries! If you take an interest in traditional craftsmanship and arts and what efforts are made to preserve and further them in the 21st century it is a great place to be. It has a state‐of‐the‐art exhibition my pictures cannot show in its scope and content but as I’m married to a museologist who has me running through museums the world over I do have a pretty decent idea how a good exhibition looks like.
And this certainly is one!
Aubusson, a beautiful village
Another piece of good news: If you plan on visiting the museum the village of Aubusson with its 3,000+ inhabitants will offer you lovely places to stay, great food as only the French can do it, and a beautiful historical city centre to boot. And their clock tower certainly inspired Sauron’s Red Eye as surely Tolkien must have passed through here 😉
From Tolkien books on display in bookshops to parts of the Tolkien illustrations used in promoting interest in the tapestries, Aubusson is a lovely place to visit. It took me 16 hours to get there from Berlin by train and bus and 24 to get back but I am sure there are other options available. The closest larger cities are Limoges and Clermont-Ferrand, more info at the tourist office’s website (the gentleman at Aubusson was very friendly and helped me with all of my questions!)
Tolkien Tapestries: What next?
If you feel like knowing more about the Tolkien Tapestries and maybe even visit Aubusson check out their website and social media sites:
Four of the tapestries will probably be with the Tolkien exhibition at the French National Library, and I will certainly try and see them there or visit Aubusson again for another tombée de métier. 🙂
Oh, I almost forgot: There might be some crowdfunding coming up, I’ll keep you posted!