Peter Pearson on the Ros Tapestry


Peter Pearson discusses the epic embroidered narrative under way in County Wexford that documents the Norman invasion of Ireland

It is not often that one hears of an ambitious artistic undertaking, which involves upwards of seventy people, working together for many years. The making of fifteen large tapestries in County Wexford, which has occupied stitchers for almost seven years is suggestive of a task suited to medieval times, when the pace of life was undoubtedly slower. Indeed, the subject of this great project, which will eventually hang in St Mary's Church in New Ross, is certainly medieval, as it covers the period around the first arrival of the Normans into Ireland in 1169.

The Norman landings in Wexford, along with the founding of the port of New Ross and the various stories attached to s™uch important historical figures as Diarmuid Mac Murrough, Strongbow and William Marshal are all subjects of individual tapestries. Others will depict the Celtic lords and their druids before the arrival of the Normans and illustrate events such as hunting scenes in the forest of Ros (Fig 9). Some of the achievements of the Normans have also become subjects; the building of the walls of New Ross, the completion of St Mary's Church in 1210 and the creation of the lighthouse at Hook Head which has been in operation ever since.

The art of tapestry, whether stitched, woven or embroidered is one whose reputation has suffered, especially since the Industrial Revolution when designs were mass-produced, and in Victorian times when the making of decorative pieces was regarded as a suitably harmless occupation for women! However, textile arts have made a significant revival both in terms of individual artwork and as larger community projects. For instance, the Ferns Tapestry, also in Co Wexford, was recently completed as a community project and is a work that celebrates the heritage of that historic town.

The Ros Tapestry, began in 1998 is now well advanced, with three tapestries complete (Figs 3 & 9; see also Fig 3 page 100), six in progress and the remainder in different stages of preparation. It is arguably the largest tapestry of its kind in Europe. This ambitious project originated when local clergyman, the Venerable Paul Mooney, was looking for a cultural and community focus for his church, St Mary's and for the town of New Ross.

New Ross, possibly Co Wexford's most unspoilt historic town, with its many fine old buildings and a remarkable legacy of beautiful shop fronts, has in the past suffered from an image of industrial decline and unemployment. Now the river Barrow is once again bustling with shipping activity and is of course, also home to the gracious replica sailing ship, the Dunbrody.

The forgotten importance of New Ross along with its Norman origins became the theme for this tapestry project that is led by a committee, and is guided by Alexis Bernstorff, a textile restorer, and her artist mother, Ann Bernstorff (The Countess Bernstorff). The painstaking and time-consuming needlework is entirely carried out by volunteers who come together in different venues each week.

Ann Bernstorff undertook the task of preparing the painted cartoons for each tapestry, every one of which required careful research into the historical events, customs, dress and folklore of Norman Ireland (Fig 11). Opinions differ as to the detail of such historical events, especially those so far back in the 12th century where documentary sources are scarce. But the well-rehearsed accounts usually contain some or most of the truth, if often a little over-embellished, and the gaps have to be filled in from verbal history and songs or by looking at contemporary illuminated manuscripts or at sculpture on tombs and in churches.

A rare instance of a written record occurs in the Charter of Waterford, which dates from 1370 and which contains, in all, seventeen images of kings, majors, bishops and judges connected with the administration in Ireland between 1213 and 1372. Even today, the fact that names of Norman origin such as Devereux, Pettit, Codd or Freney are so frequently found in Wexford after eight centuries, is striking proof of their legacy, not to mention place names like Monamolin or Camolin which derive from the French for mill – moulin. Ann Bernstorff's contribution to the whole project is clearly immense, as she has the task of conceiving the design and then producing each full-size painting or cartoon to scale, from which the stitchers will work. Each cartoon is painted in oil on a canvas measuring 182 x 136.92cm. It is a very happy coincidence that Bernstorff's style as a painter is so well suited to being translated into woollen stitches on linen. Bernstorff's work predominantly combines figures, animals and landscape. Her people inhabit a world that is half real, and half fantasy. The relatively plain backgrounds and spare landscapes with singular trees and isolated country houses form an ideal backdrop to her somewhat stylised figures with their highly decorated gowns and dresses. It is a similar vision, which has been brought into play for the Ros Tapestry. Her style could be described as primitive or naive, but that would not tell the whole story. There is a strong influence of the early Renaissance Italian painters, like Piero della Francesca, who also loved to paint his subject with horses and dogs. Bernstorff's figures are not as retiring or quiet as they might seem, but are placed right to the foreground, poised to step out of the canvas at any moment. There is also a surreal quality in which her characters escape from the pervasive ugliness of the modern world into a type of historical fairytale existence.

Bernstorff is renowned for her portrait paintings of individuals and family groups, usually standing in front of their house which, in many cases, is a Georgian doll's house type of residence, somewhat in the style of Mount Ievers in Co Clare, a tall perfectly proportioned 18th-century house set in a parkland. The Mount Ievers 'dolls house' is a favourite type and has featured on several occasions, along with other Palladian villas, complete with symmetrical curtain walls and pavilions. This fabulous world, inhabited by a range of real and imagined historical characters is the world of Ros Tapestry; slightly surreal yet convincingly historical. Sheep and rams also appear in the portraits, occasionally becoming the principal subject of an individual painting. Ann Bernstorff maintains a flock of sheep and rams at her home in Berkeley Forest in Co Wexford, where she has ready access to her sitters!

In the portraits, as already noted, great attention is paid to the costumes of the sitters. This is not surprising when we learn that Ann preserves a highly important collection of costumes at her 18th--century house, where two rooms are given over to its display. The dresses and other costumes, which are mostly 18th and 19th century in date, are highly patterned and are clearly a source of inspiration in the artist's work. The Ros Tapestry has provided great scope for the use of the pattern and of patterned costume, where botanic and heraldic motifs frequently occur.

To what extent do the tapestries draw on the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry? Both certainly record and celebrate the arrival of the Normans into new territories – the invasion of Britain in one and the more gradual arrival and assimilation of the Normans into Ireland in the other. As we shall see, the initial 'invasion' of Wexford was at the behest of Diarmuid MacMurrough who needed new allies. In artistic terms, the tapestries differ in that the Bayeux is composed of a continuous frieze while the Ros project is clearly subdivided into fifteen different images. There are also practical considerations for this, as it is intended that the finished tapestries will hang like banners from the galleries in St Mary's Church. The relatively large scale of each tapestry should ensure that each may be easily seen from the body of the church.

The only other obvious reference to the Bayeux Tapestry is the use of a unifying top and bottom frieze, which provides anecdotal information, or vignettes, which further illuminate aspects of the main subject. So we see incidents from battlefields, symbolic events and domestic details which cannot be crowded into the main picture, but which shed light on the period in general. These narrative friezes will reward close study as some humour and irony has often slipped in. For instance, the friezes of the first tapestry, The Celts: An Island Fastness (Fig 1) show aspects of pagan Ireland on top of those of Christian Ireland below. On top we see Celtic women warriors, cattle grazing on the hills and a Buddha–like Celtic god, suggesting the ancient Celtic links with Hindu culture. Early Christian Ireland is represented by the figure of St Brigid, a chalice and two bishops in debate.

The Lighthouse at Hook Head (Fig 3) showing the lighthouse with its blazing beacon, is perhaps the design that owes most to the Bayeux Tapestry, in that the composition is formed by two planes in which the narrative unfolds. The upper band shows a fleet of ships navigating rough weather while the main picture depicts the remarkable stone-built lighthouse with a man unloading firewood for the beacon, along with other figures and animals, all set in a linear composition. As this was one of the first tapestries to be completed, it could be suggested that the style and composition of each new one is evolving, and answering different requirements. For instance, it is striking that the scale of the principal figures varies from tapestry to tapestry, although the top and bottom friezes remain a unifying element.

In the first tapestry that representing the Celts before the arrival of the Normans (Fig 1) we see the initiation of a Celtic king taking place in a clearing in a magical oak forest. The strong greens of the summer trees have a powerful impact and remind us that the oak was regarded as sacred. The young king is shown naked, wearing only a gold torc and bracelet to emphasise his purity and status. A bearded druid is administrating the sacred rite and holds a ceremonial white hazel wand, while, to the left, the symbolic marriage of the king to a white mare is represented. Beside the king we see a multicoloured cloak, which only he is permitted to wear. Though the cartoon for this tapestry is in fact less worked than a finished painting, it has great vigour that should translate well as thread. Stitching on The Celts: An Island Fastness has been recently started, and is underway at the Deeps near Wexford Town.

The Abduction of Dervogilla (Fig 2) the wife of Tiernan O' Rourke of Breffni, by Diarmuid Mac Murrough, the king of Leinster, is the legendary event which is said to have ultimately led to the Norman invasion of Ireland. Diarmuid's action, his subsequent lack of remorse and then flight to England would lead to his eventual return with the support of a strong force of Normans – what history books call 'the invasion' of Wexford.

It is suggested by some historians that Dervogilla was not really abducted or taken against her will, but in fact had a previous attachment to Diarmuid with whom she eloped, bringing her cattle with her as they ran off to his stronghold at Ferns. This tapestry, which appropriately enough is being made in Ferns, shows the couple on horseback, riding from the O' Rourke stronghold in Dromahair with her irate husband in hot pursuit. The composition, with its hunting dogs and wagons snakes around a pre-Norman castle at Ferns, where cattle are being driven into nearby pens.

Arrogant Trespass (Fig 5) which shows the arrival of the Normans on Bannow Strand is the subject of the third tapestry, which is being worked in Duncannon Fort. It depicts a lively and colourful scene of men and horses that are assembled on the sandy beach and seem to be longing for action after their tedious sea journey. Unlike the Celts who are depicted by the artist as fighting naked in reference to an ancient system, the Normans come dressed in chainmail and steel helmets.

Diarmuid Mac Murrough is seen in the centre with a red beard wearing extravagant check trousers or 'trews' and a green tunic. His smaller Irish horse touches noses with the horse of the Norman leader, FitzStephan; a suggestion that the ultimate mingling of the two breeds would produce the Irish draft horse. It is here that we see Ann Bernstorff's painting at its best where her strong colours, love of animals and costumed people create a highly successful composition. The scene has a festive and orderly aspect, provided by the rows of horses and tents in the background. The Normans adopted the use of such tents on the Crusades, and they are a familiar feature of medieval and early Renaissance battle scenes.

The role of William Marshal is given prominence in several tapestries. In The Flower of Chivalry (Fig 4) various stages of his dramatic life and career are revealed. William was the second son of a second marriage of the king's Marshal (a marshal or maréchal was a farrier and cavalry sergeant). This meant that he had no inheritance and so must prove himself in the field. Following his training as a knight in France, he became a very skilled tournament player and went on to win over 400 jousting competitions. However, a small vignette on the top frieze suggests that life was not all roses for Marshal, as we see him having his head extracted from his twisted helmet by a blacksmith following a tournament!

The main image depicts him as a protector of Henry and Richard, the sons of Henry II, then as a warrior and tournament player on the Crusades, and lastly, as an elder statesman, becoming Regent of England because of the extreme youth of Henry III. The Marriage of Isabel de Clare and William Marshal (Fig 8) is a slightly larger tapestry than the rest, reflecting the strategic importance of the marriage, which was to bring the Kingdom of Leinster under Marshal's control, not to mention much land in Wales and France as well. In the upper part of the tapestry we see the earlier marriage of Strongbow and Aoífe, with an image of Reginald's Tower in Waterford behind them.

The friezes illustrate excerpts from the lives of William and Isabel, hinting at their Viking-Norman origins. On either side of the marriage picture, six richly-coloured heraldic banners float symmetrically from tree-like supports. A distant river winds through the background landscape, showing their respective territories.

William Marshal's stormy crossing to Ireland, his prayers and eventual safe landing is the subject of Ex Voto Tintern Abbey (Fig 7) the tenth panel in the series, where we see his storm-tossed ship and vow to build a new religious foundation, which he did at Tintern in Co Wexford. The Virgin appears in a vision, holding up a model of the church – the Cistercian abbey that he was to erect there.

The Thriving Port of Ros (Fig 6) is one of the most exotic and colourful tapestries. This panel, which is being stitched by volunteers from the Clonroche area, depicts a group of finely-clad Italian merchants doing business on the quays at New Ross. In the background we see a collection of sailing ships and barges, which are tied up close to the medieval timber bridge.

Various Italian business and banking families are represented; for instance, a Ricciardi of Lucca, who is dressed in blue and bears the arms of his native city, and a Frescobaldi in red, coloured robes ornamented with the Florentine lily. The imports and exports of the thriving port are laid out in the foreground: wine, spices and building materials were being imported while wool and horses were exported. A man dressed in green is shown leaning against his horse for which he is trying to get the best price.

Gothic Glory: The Building of St Mary's (see Fig 3 page 101) most recently finished by the group at Bawnmore near New Ross, depicts the building of the parish church of St Mary's in New Ross. The large 13th-century church is shown under construction and looks not dissimilar today, in its semi-roofless state.

The 19th-century church of St Mary's was incorporated into the nave of this ancient church, and this is where the completed tapestries will hang. William Marshal again appears, this time holding a scroll, the plans for the church perhaps, while overshadowed by a larger-than-life ghost of Diarmuid Mac Murrough. All about we see men felling trees, sawing planks, carpenters and masons busy with their work.

The Ros Tapestry is a highly ambitious project, not least because the making of each one is so laborious and time consuming, but also for the challenge of translating a painted image with all nuances of light and colour into a textile. One of the greatest challenges for the stitchers is the learning and relearning of stitching skills, while developing a comfortable working relationship with the other volunteers. All of the stitchers found that the absorbing nature of the work and the relaxed atmosphere highly therapeutic. Under the expert guidance of Alexis Bernstorff, the tapestries take shape, gradually filling out until the last stitches are put in place.

Peter Pearson is an artist and an author. Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Eithne Scallon for assistance in the preparation of this text.