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A Newly Discovered Tapestry Commissioned by Henry VIII Makes its London Debut

'The Holy Grail' will be on display at Franses

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A lost monumental tapestry, originally from Hampton Court, specially commissioned by Henry VIII around the time of the Act of Supremacy, has been rediscovered in Spain.

In London for conservation, it will be go on public view for the first time as the centrepiece of a loan exhibition, Henry VIII: the unseen tapestries at historical tapestry specialists, Franses, from 1 October –19 October 2018.

A Newly Discovered Tapestry by Henry VIII Makes its London DebutSt Paul

The tapestry, which depicts a spectacular bonfire at its centre with Saint Paul directing the burning of irreligious books of magic, was ordered by Henry VIII to assert his religious authority during the destructive phase of the English Reformation. The strongly political work raises timeless issues of  power, censorship, the control of ideas and justifications for the destruction of cultural  property. The tapestry was designed for the King by Pieter Coecke van Aelst (the preparatory drawing survives in Ghent and a fragment of the full cartoon in New York). It is woven with gold and silver threads and is one of the most sumptuous and important Renaissance tapestries ever to be shown in the UK, from both an artistic and a historical point of view.

To coincide with the exhibition, Thomas P Campbell, former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and an authority on renaissance tapestry will be giving a lecture ‘The Art of Majesty: Henry VIII’s  Tapestry Collection’ at the Royal Academy of Arts on Saturday 6 October 2018 at 3pm, which will be open to the public. Admission is by ticket only and is free of charge. Due to limited availability, tickets will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis and must be applied for via S Franses ([email protected] / 020 7976 1234). 

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Dr Campbell  has  described the rediscovered tapestry as ‘the Holy Grail of Tudor Tapestry’. Before 2007, he had examined all the documents around this lost set for his book Henry VIII and the Art of Majesty: Tapestries at the Tudor Court (2007). Though at the time assumed destroyed- with meticulous detective work using archival records such as the Great Wardrobe Accounts, inventories, other Saint Paul tapestries and original artwork,  he had been able to reconstruct and describe the missing set and its measurements.

This tapestry- nearly 20 ft wide- is the only surviving from the remarkable set of nine known as ‘The Life of Saint Paul’, depicting the principal events from the Saint’s life.

Recent research shows that this tapestry had been in England until the late 1960s when it was acquired by a dealer in Barcelona.  Currently the tapestry is part of a private collection in Spain, but is in England temporarily to be cleaned and conserved. It will be shown for three weeks only before returning to Spain after Franses’ exhibition.

The tapestry is one of four Henrician tapestries and two important Tudor period textiles that will be exhibited at Franses this Autumn 2018.