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Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, February 7, 1913

Burlington Hotel. W.Burlington Hotel, 30 Old Burlington Street, Westminster, London.

Feb. 7th 1913.Friday.

Dear Mildred.

I have been waiting to thank you for the letter to Moulton,Probably Baron John Fletcher Moulton (1844–1921), an English mathematician, barrister, and judge. See H. Fletcher Moulton, The Life of Lord Moulton (London: Nisbet and Co., 1922). See also letters of January 23, 1913; Feburary 12, 1913; and May 30, 1913. until I had seen the tapestry.This tapestry, which is later identified as having a scene of the Adoration of the Magi, has not been identified. It took Van StraatenMartin van Straaten (ca. 1866–1915), an oil dealer of Dutch and British citizenship and Jewish heritage, who had a Dutch tile business (Martin van Straaten & Co.) with Charles Lam at 28 and 30 Little Britain, Newgate Street in London. Van Straaten lost his life when the Lusitania sank on May 7, 1915. After his death, the Building News wrote: “Mr. Van Straaten . . . was . . . a highly qualified connoisseur in tapestries, furniture, and many kinds of curios; in these and other forms of art his judgment and taste were greatly appreciated by collectors and he will be much missed.” See The Lusitania Resource, "Mr. Martin van Straaten." some time to make the necessary arrangements; and I saw it this morning. This evening, with Van Straaten’s permission, I took Maclagan to see it. He has been in charge of the textiles of the S. Kensington, though now he runs the sculpture and architecture.

If you will let me come to you when I get back to Paris—I arrive there Monday night, next—I will unburden myself of all my views on the object, and give you the benefit of a lot of contingent stuff as well. For the moment, I must try to be brief. The panel represents the Adoration of the Magi. The B.V.“Blessed Virgin.” and child are bang in the middle, the Magi distributed advantageously in front, and on both sides a concourse of old blokes, all rigourously in the first plane—there is no other. The costumes figure brokades [sic] and velvet—more brokades [sic], because they are easier to imitate. The Virgin’s dress is adorned with metal thread; and behind her a dorsal with more brocade—I have an uneasy feeling it ought to be brocade, but you may consider yourself fortunate if that’s the only spelling howler in the course of this missive. A plague on all pedants!

There is no gainsaying the fact that by MorganJohn Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913), an American financier, banker, and art collector. (= Seligman [sic] and Duveen plus Thomas B. ClarkeThomas B. Clarke (18481931), a lace and linen manufacturer in New York who collected contemporary American art.) standards, it is a very fine piece indeed. But its one aim from beginning to end is to ape effects produced normally in painting,Royall Tyler had previously published a similar criticism of “the tyranny painting began to exercise over tapestry early in the sixteenth century,” which he found in some of the tapestries of the Zamora Cathedral. To Tyler, they betrayed “a restless pursuit of effects much better achieved in painting and mark the point at which the art began to lose the proud position it had held for upwards of a century and a half.” The Zamora Tarquinius Priscus tapestry, however, he found “was designed by someone who had first and foremost in his mind’s eye the possibilities and limitations of tapestry and cared not a fig for perspective. This man saw in terms of woven yarn and not in terms of paint. Why it was the designing of tapestry fell more and more into the hands of people who treated it as at best the reproduction of pictures no one knows. At any rate, time has proved the earlier ideas right.” Royall Tyler, “The Tapestries of Zamora,” Saturday Review, August 25, 1911. and it contains absolutely nothing of the foliage, grass, flower decoration which, even in many pieces of the period, often redeems the slavish tendencies of the central figures. There is no horizon, and the general effect is oppressively rich. The heads at each side are all cribbed at random out of contemporary portraits. It cannot be earlier than 1500. Van Straaten himself says it is designed by Van EyckJan van Eyck (Johannes de Eyck) (ca. 1395–1441), an early Netherlandish painter active in Bruges. and contains his portrait, which is all absolute bosh. What, to sum up, prevents me from liking the thing is that it is the work of a vulgar designer full of nothing but the desire to make people say his tapestry looked like painting, and who had entirely lost sight of the lines tapestry must follow. There’s no choice. In spite of its sumptuousness, its wonderful state of preservation, its lovely colour, the thing has no more art in it than—prepare yourself—a Chinese lacquer screen. I believe we shall live to see the day when the little pieceHC.T.1913.04.(T). Bacri has will be worth more money. It certainly is immeasurably finer in every respect; and so is your pieceHC.T.1912.03.(T). from Demotte. Once you have a piece like that in your house, and it sinks into your eyes, you would be unable to put up with the other, except as part of a general scheme of decoration, and if you want that, Van Straaten himself has 17th century Brussels tapestries at about 1/20 the price of the other, & much better as tapestry; much more within tapestry possibilities. Not that I care so very much for them.

But when one considers that at the present day, owing to the prevalent vulgarity among rich people, the worst among the great classes of tapestry are far more expensive than the best, one stops and wonders what is the reason. Is it because people insist on thinking that tapestry is fine in proportion as it apes painting? Is it because the metal thread enmeshes them?—Metal thread! Unless used with exceeding discretion and a most sparing hand, metal thread always indicates perversion in tapestry; and the needle veers ‘round in the direction of Morgan.John Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913), an American financier, banker, and art collector. When Van Straaten began telling me it was the greatest work of art in tapestry he had ever seen, I found some difficulty in holding my tongue. But the Jew always and ever accepts the scale of values of the market-for-the-moment as immutable laws of aesthetics. By the way, would you tell Robert that Van Straaten wants to know as soon as possible your decision, as the very high and mighty owner wants a reply at once?

When you are next here, see the four great tapestries of hunting scenesThe “Devonshire Hunting Tapestries,” a group of four Flemish tapestries dating from the mid-fifteenth century that entered the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in 1957. ca. 1440, belonging to the Duke of Devonshire,Victor Christian William Cavendish, 9th Duke of Devonshire (1868–1938), a British politician. now lent to S. Kensington. And BensonRobert H. Benson (1850–1929), a British connoisseur and collector of paintings and Chinese ceramics. Part of his ceramics collection was auctioned in 1924 in London (see Catalogue of a Portion of the Collection of Early Chinese Porcelain and Pottery Formed by Robert H. Benson [London: Christie, Manson, and Woods, 1924]). His collection of Italian old master paintings was sold en bloc in 1927 to the dealer Joseph Duveen for four million dollars (see Charles Sebag-Montefiore, “App. 3 R.H. Benson as a Collector,” in Jehanne Wake, Kleinwort, Benson: The History of Two Families in Banking [Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997], 480ff). has some very lovely Chinese pots—clair-de-luneClair-de-lune (“moonlight”), a pale, lavender-blue glaze of low colbalt content first used in the Kangxi period (1662–1722) and reserved exclusively for imperial porcelains of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). etc. And I was absolutely swept off my feet by the Astec [sic] masks in the British Museum, the most marvelous things ever existed; there is a limestone oneProbably a mask of Xipe Totec (British Museum, 1902.11–14.1), now generally considered to be a nineteenth-century fake. which might just as well come from S. Denis ca. 1150. And Kelekian’s Persian pottery;Dikran G. Kelekian was an expert in Islamic, especially Persian, ceramics and sold important pieces from the finds in Rayy of the late 1880s to early 1890s and the excavations begun in Raqqa in 1896 and Sultanabad and Varamin in 1905. and the Assur-Bani-Pal reliefs;Carvings from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal (685 BCE–ca. 627 BCE) at Nineveh, depicting the king hunting and killing lions, British Museum, London. and the English 11th cent. ivories, and with one thing and another this is a very great place for seeing works of art indeed. French art is not here, but the rest is, or nearby.

Tomorrow morning I shall make Moulton’sProbably Baron John Fletcher Moulton (1844–1921), an English mathematician, barrister, and judge. See Hugh Fletcher, The Life of John Fletcher Moulton (London: Nisbet and Co., 1922). See also letters of January 23, 1913; February 12, 1913; and May 30, 1913. acquaintance. Breakfast at 8.45 was the only time we were both free, and it is most charming of him to give it to me.

With love to Robert.

Yours always sincerely

Royall Tyler

Associated Places: London (United Kingdom)