This fire screen, standing 104 cm (3 ft 5 ins) tall, must in the summer have graced fireplace of a well-to-do eighteenth-century individual, probably in France. When I first noticed it, I thought it was embroidered, perhaps by a daughter of the house, but on closer inspection, and after looking it up on the Fitzwilliam Museum‘s ‘Search the Collections‘ page, I discovered that it was woven in the tapestry manufactory of Beauvais, and indeed that Beauvais tapestry is in fact a Thing.
We spent the night in Beauvais once on our way to the Loire valley, and I remember two things: the statue of Jeanne Hachette in the market square and the temporary loss inside the bedding (it seems to run in the family) of a very small teddy bear, which petit ours was happily reunited with its owner in the course of our return journey. Jeanne Hachette was one of those redoubtable French women, like Ste Genevieve or Joan of Arc, who saved the situation when the men were giving up.
In her case, the Burgundian enemy had reached the battlements of Beauvais and planted their standard when Jeanne leapt forward with her hachette and hacked down both the standard and the man holding it, who fell into the moat. Thus encouraged the (male) defenders fought off the assault and the city was saved.
King Louis XI quite literally gave Jeanne a parade, as well as marrying her to her fiancé and showing her other favours. There used to be a religious procession on 27 June every year to commemorate the event, and this seems to have been revived in recent years as a touristic spectacle.
But the Beauvais tapestry factory was, apparently, in its day second only to the much more famous Gobelins works. Both were founded by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the finance minster of Louis XIV, to encourage manufacturing and trade inside France (tapestry par excellence coming at this time from Flanders). The output of Gobelins was for the various royal residences and for the king to give as diplomatic gifts, while Beauvais products were for people rather lower down the social scale. Colbert’s 1664 initiative got off to a rather bad start, as the director, one Louis Hinard, a Beauvais native who had weaving workshops in Paris, was arrested for debt in 1684. The works were taken over by Philippe Behagle, who was born in Oudenarde and had worked in Tournai.
It appears that this Low Countries entrepreneur had more of an eye for the market than Hinard, who seems to have specialised in verdures, flower-and-foliage combos which may have seemed a bit passé. Behagle had bolder ideas, and produced a set of wall-hangings depicting the Acts of the Apostles, based on cartoons by Raphael, for the cathedral of Beauvais, and a well received line of scenes from village life based on the works of David Teniers the Younger (1620–90). But his most successful new product was as series known as Grotesques, dancing figures drawn from the Commedia del’ Arte against backgrounds of vases, foliage, fruit and birds.
All these background elements appear in the fire screen, though it is thought to date from about 1740, during the great period of Beauvais from 1726, when the painter, engraver and designer Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686–1755) took over, reorganised the training of young workers and introduced a whole series of new products, including tapestry seat covers and, presumably, fire screens. (Just to demonstrate yet again how everything is connected to everything else, Oudry was to paint Clara the rhinoceros in 1749.)
The fire screen is of the type known as cheval, presumably because it has a leg at each corner. The wooden frame is carved in rococo style and the decorations are gilded.
The back is covered with green baize (or felt) which looks to my ignorant eye to be a modern replacement? A brightly coloured red-and-blue parrot perches at the centre on a long vine tendril curving up from a seriously rococo flourish of red and pink leaves which are supported by nothing, while on the right a shelf with classical embellishments supports a basket-weave vase of vine-leaves and grapes. The background, though discoloured, appears to be the characteristic mustard-yellow of the Beauvais style.
What is not clear is whether the piece was originally intended to fit the frame, or whether a larger rectangle has been cut down – there is a slightly odd, cut-off motif to the bottom right which makes one (me) wonder.
The screen was given to the Museum ‘by Miss Marjorie McInnes Claye in accordance with the wishes of her brother, Charles Claye’ in 1960. There is a Cambridge connection – Marjorie and Charles’s brother Hugh, who won the M.C. as an observer/gunner in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, later became (from 1927 to 1953) Assistant Registrary of the University – but there is no more in the Museum’s catalogue entry about the screen’s provenance.
This sort of fire screen is of course decorative rather than functional: it sits in front of the unused fireplace in the months when a fire is not needed, hiding the bare grate and the blackened fire bricks behind it. Originally, the fire screen was a metal or metal mesh device (like the modern fireguard) to prevent sparks from the log fire falling into the room, and to shield people standing close to it from the heat – fabric would obviously have been impractical/lethal for this purpose.
But for quite a long time in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the words were also used to mean a hand-held fan which protected the complexion of a well-bred lady sitting close to a fire – probably to no greater literary effect than the scenes in Bleak House where Lady Dedlock uses her fire screen as an attempted defence against her tormentors, the half-comprehending idiot Mr Guppy, and the merciless lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn. They were made of papier maché, embroidered linen, beadwork, or sometimes even feathers, and were solid rather than folding, the idea being to shield the face rather than to cool the air.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Beauvais factory declined after the Revolution. It did eventually reopen, and for many years made mostly tapestry chair covers.
The factory was destroyed by German bombs in 1940, but since 1984, the tapestry tradition has been revived and is maintained in a modern workshop and exhibition space. Perhaps it’s time for another visit …