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The story and study of the remarkable Toms Collection of tapestries

Invitation to a hanging

As anyone with professional responsibility for a tapestry collection (however small!), knows only too well, the resources—temporal, practical, technical, scholarly and, above all, financial—required to conserve, store, exhibit, document and publish tapestries to their best advantage are formidable enough to contemplate, let alone to provide, activate and complete. That the international committee responsible for the safe-keeping and promotion of the Toms Collection of tapestries has successfully assembled the best possible team for all of the purposes listed above is little short of miraculous. This handsome catalogue is the scholarly product resulting from the generous bequest of more than 100 tapestries and tapestry-woven items to the canton of Vaud in Switzerland by the English-born entrepreneur Reginald Toms and his second wife, Mary, in 1993.

The Toms tapestry collection cannot and does not vie in size or quality with those collections formed by European royal families and higher nobility, or indeed those in museums’ collections throughout the world which include tapestries from the same date-range (16th to19th centuries). These are the collections which were represented so spectacularly in the recent exhibition and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s catalogue Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor. However—as the “exception that proves the rule”—one highly-important Italian tapestry from the Toms Collection was included in this exhibition; others were mentioned or illustrated. This overlap, though apparently minimal, is on the contrary, crucial; it implies and emphasises the extremely pertinent continuum of potential for future research into the output of tapestries situated between the “high end” and the so-called “lesser products” of the workshops active during this period (and indeed, including the “lesser products” themselves). Neither does the Toms Collection invite close comparison with the between-the-wars boom in tapestry collecting by American magnates such as William Randolph Hearst and—on a smaller scale in Europe—private collectors such as Sir William Burrell.

The context of the Toms Collection is all important. Formed in just over ten years, throughout the 1960s, the collection can be accurately described as a “private” collection in all senses of the word. Reginald and Mary Toms were emphatically not public figures who entertained lavishly in order to show off their home, but lived quietly, with and among their collections. The couple even refurbished two barns for the purpose of housing the larger tapestries which had not been used—as appears evident from the photographs in the catalogue—for their more intimately and selectively laid-out domestic quarters.

Having received the bequest, the future of the collection’s care and security seems to have been taken in hand relatively quickly. The tapestries were rescued from poor conditions in the Toms’s château, cleaned and restored to the highest standards, thanks to the timely intervention of local politicians, the scholarly community and—in particular—the Belgian specialists in tapestry cleaning and restoration, the Manufacture De Wit. The challenge of cataloguing the collection was accepted by the best known senior experts covering the three major geographical areas (Flanders, France and England) represented in the collection, respectively Guy Delmarcel, Nicole de Reyniès and Wendy Hefford. The catalogue very cleverly, and apparently seamlessly, guides the reader/researcher (for this is a primary research tool in the fast-growing field of tapestry studies as well as an interesting and informative read for non-specialists) through the disparate groups of designs and manufacturing methods represented in the collection.

The catalogue authors have managed to keep a delicate balance. They have done justice to each of these tapestries, without over-emphasising every one’s individual importance in a world-wide context. The individual entries vary in length, and some are very basic indeed. In this regard, the “Introduction to the Tapestries” essay by Candace Adelson (in this English-language version—the catalogue is also published in a French edition), rather self-consciously serves to pre-empt potential critique of the catalogue’s form and content. Andelson makes specific references to what she informs the reader would previously have been defined as the “uneven quality” of the collection, and its “heterogeneous” nature. This caution is understandable, but perhaps unnecessary; even in the shorter entries, footnotes generally guide the reader to further references or research potential. A “Note to Readers” also prefaces the main body of the catalogue. This explains and justifies the definitions and limitations of the entries to come, but again, although this is useful, it is rather random in its content (the mention of the non-inclusion of needlework pieces in the present catalogue, for instance, would perhaps have been more pertinent in one of the introductory essays). The clear illustrations of marks and signatures found on the tapestries are very useful, and the index is laid out in such a way as to ensure that it is of maximum use to researchers seeking comparative examples for reference purposes. The full-page illustrations and details are superb, though very occasionally their placing in relation to the relevant text entry is slightly confusing. This is a worthy volume which more than meets expectations, and does justice to the as yet little known collection which it documents and celebrates.

The writer is Curator, Medieval and Renaissance Art, Glasgow Museums

o Giselle Eberhard Cotton, ed, Guy Delmarcel, Nicole de Reyniès and Wendy Hefford, with Eric Rochat, Denis Weidmann and Candace Adelson, The Toms Collection: Tapestries of the 16th to the 19th Centuries (Fondation Toms Pauli in association with Verlag Niggli), 340 pp, €60 (hb) ISBN 9783721207309

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Invitation to a hanging'