A "lost" Caesar tapestry
As every regular reader of this blog knows (probably more than they want to), I am working on images of The Twelve Caesars (the Suetonian set from Julius to Domitian) in later art.
One of my favourite case studies has been the lost set of Caesar tapestries commissioned from Henry VIII. None of these survive, but thanks to some brilliant work by Tom Campbell and others, their composition has been reconstructed through a series of later weavings up into the seventeenth century. The key article, not generally available online (but you can get it on JSTOR), is in Studies in the Decorative Arts vol 5, 1998.
The overall weaving history (on which I am no expert) seems to have been sorted out. But my own interest is in the iconography. And it is clear that here tapestry experts have missed a few tricks. To put it simply, it seems to me that the original weavings were based on designs drawn from Lucan’s Pharsalia, but as the captions of later weaving show, that became gradually reinterpreted as a series of illustrations of Suetonius’ Life of Caesar.
The really classic example of this is a clear design of Lucan’s witch Erichtho (being consulted by Pompey’s son, as in Lucan) being labelled in the captions of some later weavings as Spurina (the soothsayer who in Suetonius tells Caesar to ‘beware the Ides of March’). The trouble is that Spurina was a man (despite the ‘a’ ending of his name) and the figure illustrated is female.
My interest here is partly nerdy, and partly political. The idea of King Henry VIII’s walls being hung with scenes from one of the most mordant ancient critiques of autocratic power is an intriguing one.
Anyway a couple of months ago I was preparing a lecture partly on this subject and searching, as you do, through Google images I came across what looked like one of this series that I had not seen before. It was for sale in a New York carpet gallery and when I was shortly after in the USA I went to see it, with a friend.
It was a really impressive piece (to my untrained tapestry eye) and matched very closely one of the later weaving series of the 1560s-70s. If you can get the Campbell article it is a twin of fig 8, a scene of Caesar breaking into the treasury, auctioned in Berlin in 1935. It’s a nice piece in the jigsaw.
Anyway, when the word of this got out, I agreed to speak to a journalist – partly because it really is about time that tapestries get their share of the limelight. They were once the most prized items. Henry’s Caesar tapestries were the second most valuable item in the inventories of the royal possessions after the execution of Charles I (and the first most valuable item was also a tapestry set). Now people mostly walk past them in museums and galleries, despite some great recent work (of which I been a beneficiary). Here was a chance to give a tapestry a bit of publicity.
As I recall, I gave the story much as above, and responded negatively to some wilder speculations about the tapestries. And I insisted that M Beard should not emerge from this as some Indiana Jones style discover. Anyway, what appear is this article in the Times (to see it all, you need to subscribe) , and the BBC Radio news has an item on how Mary Beard has found one of Henry VIII’s lost tapestries. Aggghh.
To be fair to the writer of the article, he never actually says that I said that I had discovered Henry’s lost tapestry. But that is the strong impression that a quick reading would give you (as it gave the news broadcasters). The idea that this is a Henry original is ascribed to unnamed sources. I wonder who they were. I may not be skilled in tapestry dating and there is obviously a theoretical chance that I might be wrong. But the parallel with the Berlin is convincing to me and I would be decidedly unconvinced by any such claim (for that and other reasons).
I suppose that “Cambridge prof discovers on Google a later version of a lost tapestry owned by Henry VIII” isn’t much of a story. I should have known this, by now.