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1 May 2023

Unravelling the threads of history at Fyvie Castle

Written by Vikki Duncan, Curator North
A portrait of an older lady, shown seated in front of a large tapestry. She wears a turquoise blue silk shawl over a royal blue dress. She has a silver necklace with red jewels, which matches her earrings.
A portrait of Ruth, Lady Forbes-Leith in the Drawing Room at Fyvie Castle
Recent assessments of the condition of the tapestries at Fyvie Castle have led to some interesting research outcomes.

Fyvie Castle is renowned for its collection treasures but the woven textiles, or tapestries, are not the first things that spring to mind. We often think of paintings and silverware when we think of treasures, but how many of us are aware that tapestries were once considered prize possessions above all?

Tapestry bears a close relation to painting; it is a pictorial art and often done on a large scale. Moreover, some of the best tapestries were designed by artists who were renowned painters. Unfortunately, this connection has all too often cast a shadow on the medium. Tapestries have been regarded as mere copies of paintings or as little more than interior furnishings, leading some viewers and art historians to neglect them or at best consider them of lesser significance. They can also be difficult to assess and evaluate when the colours have faded or become indistinct through loss of fibre.

Tapestry workshops – primarily in France, Belgium and the Netherlands – were the centres of production in the 16th and 17th centuries. These wall hangings were extremely costly to produce and served to demonstrate their owner’s wealth conspicuously on a large wall! Often, these tapestries incorporated metal threads which would have gleamed in the glow of candlelight. They provided both entertainment and food for thought through their dramatic depiction of stories from the Bible, mythology and the classics, or their revealing portrayal of fashionable life.

“Tapestries were a mobile art form, a tool of state and a ritual medium. ”
Helen Wyld
‘The Art of Tapestry’, Philip Wilson Publishers, 2022

Initially, tapestries were a portable luxury; they could be packed and transported to different houses owned by the same person. Tapestries, unlike paintings, could be rolled and reinstated in an unfurnished house, to provide an immediate luxurious backdrop for guests and visitors. In the great courts of Europe, and further afield, this was an important visual reminder to visitors of the significance of both house and owner. The ritualistic element is devolved from the idea that powerful individuals acquired their status from the monarch, who acquired his own authority from God directly. This was the concept of the divine right of kings. The hierarchical nature of society at the time meant that those who derived authority from the King or Church were themselves intimately associated with power and authority. Luxurious goods were symbols of that status.

Woven tapestries could be used to delineate an intimate space as well as a larger area. Because of the value attributed to them, they might be placed behind the ‘best’ chair in the house or in the best bedchamber. Tapestries were often hung behind a monarch’s throne to suggest the sacredness of that space. This was later replicated by the presence of a cloth of state or canopy.

Grand room in a castle, with a large stone fireplace on a wood-panelled wall. There is a grand piano next to the window at one end of the room, and paintings and tapestries on the wall.
Large tapestries on display in the Gallery at Fyvie Castle

An inventory of 1922 lists the ‘tapestry panels’ in the Ball Room (now the Gallery) at Fyvie Castle as valued at £750, which would be over £42,000 in today’s money; a portrait by Raeburn was valued at only half the amount. Both items were collected by Alexander, Lord Leith of Fyvie. He collected paintings, furniture and objets d’art voraciously from the 1890s until the outbreak of the First World War. Archival documents, including bills and invoices, illustrate the vast sums of money spent. Tapestries were expensive and highly desirable to collectors. Lord Leith only wanted the finest examples at Fyvie, and he and his wife displayed these prominently.

Whilst I have been assessing the significance of our tapestries at Fyvie, we have had the benefit of textile conservator Sophie Younger working on site to assess their condition and determine the conservation priorities.

I discovered that several smaller tapestries (which had perhaps sustained damage) have been cut to make door hangings, seat cushions and soft furnishings. This often occurred in the later part of the 19th and early 20th century when the women of the household would assess the hangings on walls and bedchambers for repair. Those that had significant damage but were historically important might be deemed as good candidates to make up into smaller pieces. However, this meant some tapestries were deliberately reduced in size or scale. When hung back upon the wall, they had either a partial scene or the addition of a new scene that changed the original context.

A close-up of a narrow curtain covering a wooden door panel. The curtain is made of tapestry panels, and hangs between two framed large tapestries.
A tapestry door curtain in the Gallery made up of remnants of larger pieces

Comparisons between the complete tapestries at Fyvie and the smaller pieces that were not listed in early inventories, or on the Trust’s database, illustrate this. When installing the portrait of Lorna Marsali Forbes-Leith at Fyvie Castle in 2021, the re-hang of the paintings included the addition of several 20th-century family members to support Lorna’s story. One of these was a painting of Ruth, Lady Forbes-Leith, who was married to Sir Ian Forbes-Leith and was the grandmother of the present Baronet of Fyvie.

Read more about the portrait of Lorna Marsali Forbes-Leith

Painted by Douglas Hardinge Anderson in 1969, Lady Ruth’s portrait was a companion piece to the portrait of Sir Ian. Whilst the background to Sir Ian’s portrait is easily recognised as Fyvie Castle – a convention used to illustrate his ownership of landed property – his wife asserts her dominance over the domestic sphere with a backdrop of a large tapestry hanging. The backdrop for Ruth has been selected not only because it illustrates the calibre of the historic interior of the castle, but it also places the primary female member of the household in front of an ancient tapestry, redolent of history and continuity.

A portrait of an older lady, shown seated in front of a large tapestry. She wears a turquoise blue silk shawl over a royal blue dress. She has a silver necklace with red jewels, which matches her earrings.
The portrait of Ruth, Lady Forbes-Leith in the Drawing Room at Fyvie Castle

I could not reconcile the tapestry depicted in the painting with the tapestries on display in the castle, whether as hangings or as smaller furnishings. This was puzzling since it had clearly been an important piece. And so I set out to find it, and enlisted Sophie’s help as well as that of Bill Bleakley, Collections Care assistant. I was delighted when Bill discovered a fragment of the tapestry in the form of a re-made door curtain; it had been rolled up and stored away many years ago, perhaps when the castle was sold to the National Trust for Scotland. My perseverance having paid off, I was able to unroll and study the story before me.

The story being told in the tapestry behind Ruth is the Old Testament story of the warrior Jephthah. He vowed to the Lord that if he returned safely from fighting the Ammonites, he would offer the first thing that came out of his house as a burnt offering, as was customary at the time. Presumably, Jephthah was thinking of an animal, but unfortunately it was his daughter who left the house to greet Jephthah on his return. The scene shows a group of joyful women playing musical instruments to welcome Jephthah. Jephthah’s daughter is called Adah in Masonic texts and is one of five heroines, representing obedience to duty. This is an interesting interpretation of the tapestry panel that Ruth chose for her portrait backdrop. Obedience and duty were seen as virtues to aspire to and were thought to be embodied by those in authority.

The portrait of Ruth, Lady Forbes-Leith is fittingly now displayed in the Drawing Room, which adjoins the Gallery that is hung with large and impressive woven stories. It is an even more cohesive story since research has proved that the piece of tapestry is an actual piece that once hung on a wall at Fyvie. Her portrait sits among other family members whose own portraits contain links to the family seat or landscape or objects that are still retained today.

As I highlighted earlier, ladies would repair, adapt and re-hang faded old tapestries themselves to better suit a space, rather than send them away to be worked on. Ruth, in that very tradition, adapted tapestries at Fyvie so they could still be ornamental and functional. There is a wonderful irony in the fact that the tapestry that was chosen to feature in Ruth’s portrait was itself reduced in size and hidden away, forgotten for many years – until our recent assessment of the tapestries enabled dedicated research to uncover it again and link it back to the 1960s portrait.

A portrait of a young Edwardian woman, wearing a floaty white dress and a large bonnet, hangs at the centre of a collection of paintings on a green-papered wall. Smart chairs and a polished wooden chest stand below the group of portraits.
The portraits on display in the Drawing Room

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