Production brief for the remake of a series of 16th Century tapestries, 'The Hunting of the Unicorn'.

Context of the Tapestry project:

Before 1990 the Royal apartments at Stirling Castle, which for many years had served as a military barracks, were largely unfurnished and historical interpretation was very limited. It was proposed that copies of tapestries from the 16th century Palace Inventories should be reinstated within the Queen's Lodgings (Guard Hall, Presence Chamber and Bed Chamber). The theme selected was 'The Hunting of the Unicorn', a popular mediaeval design to be copied from a series owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and displayed at the Cloisters, New York.

I was asked to produce a brief and specification for the series based on analysis of the original pieces. What impressed me were the skilful weaving, dramatic and engaging interpretation, abundance of detail and remarkably extensive palette, which was unusual for the late mediaeval period: I was astonished by the sheer quality and opulence of the work.

The hunting scenes demonstrate the importance of the chase and the various symbols and matters of etiquette associated with it. The legendary Unicorn is a creature embodying both religious and secular identities: it is represented in pre-Christian times as an animal of incredible strength, invincibility and healing, attributes that in later times became associated with Christ and have been celebrated in innumerable works of art of all kinds. The Cloister Unicorn series is a product of this legacy on a monumental scale.

The titles of the pieces in the series are:

  • The Start of the Hunt
  • The Unicorn at the Fountain
  • The Unicorn Leaps from the Stream
  • The Unicorn Defends Itself
  • The Capture of the Unicorn - (a tapestry now divided into two fragments)
  • The Unicorn is Killed and brought to the Lord and Lady
  • The Unicorn in Captivity

The historical interpretation of the series became truly absorbing. A.S Cavallo suggests that the tapestries illustrate three separate themes associated with the Hunt of the Unicorn . He categorises the first and last tapestries as elements of 'the Hunt of the Unicorn as Lovers'. The second, third, fourth and sixth are part of 'the Hunt of the Unicorn', an Allegory of Christ's Passion, and the fifth is 'the Mystical Hunt of the Unicorn'. This last theme became popular in the 15th Century and represents Gabriel hunting the Unicorn/Christ - who then finds Himself being received and subdued by the Virgin Mary in her domain, an enclosed garden.

I analysed and described the techniques, materials, colours and weaving method of the Unicorn tapestries as a guide to producing accurate reproductions. The details of thread types, warp counts, techniques and palette were minutely examined and recorded; the specification that I produced set out material standards for light and wet-fastness and provided recommendations for the lining and display of the completed works. An important requirement of the tendering brief was the submission of a 300 x 300 mm sample, woven to 12 warps per inch, designed to demonstrate candidate workshops' technical mastery and interpretation of the design using materials, colour union and modeling techniques in imitation of the originals.

The Tapestry Studio of the Edward James Foundation at West Dean was successful - it was the only bidder for the tender - and its task continues today - take the opportunity to go and see the weavers at work. The following two tapestries have been completed The Unicorn in Captivity (started 2002 - finished 2003) and The Start of the Hunt (started 2003 - finished 2004)

Unicorn in Captivity
Unicorn in Captivity

Start of the Hunt
Start of the Hunt

The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle on tapestry loom

The Unicorn is Killed & Brought to the Castle on the vertical tapestry loom

The Unicorn is Killed & Brought to the Castle is now 70% complete;
The Unicorn is Found is 50% completed and the projected start and completion dates are included for the remaining three titles;
The Unicorn at Bay (2007-2011), The Unicorn Leaps out of the Stream (2008-2012), The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn (2011-2013).

It is very exciting to see a tapestry project of this importance happening in Scotland and I am very pleased to have played a part in its inception: substantial sponsorship was received for these magnificent works, which provide significant educational value and restore a sense of the quondam opulence of the Stuart monarchs' Palace. The project is part of the larger Stirling Palace Project managed by Historic Scotlandís Major Project Team.

The images are reproduced with the kind permission of Historic Scotland: © Crown Copyright, 2006, Historic Scotland Images.