by Ian Walker, Office of Public Works, Farmleigh.
David Teniers II (1610 – 1690), otherwise known as David Teniers the Younger was a Flemish painter who came from an artistic family, his father (another David) was an artist as were three siblings and his son, who was also called David.
Teniers was a very prolific and versatile artist and was probably the most famous painter of peasant scenes in the 17th century. He has been referred to as a ‘Staffage’ painter.
‘Staffage’ refers to an artist adding background figures of people or animals to a picture that are not part of the main subject; almost like extras in a drama or even as ‘mini stories’, these additions complement the principal focus of the work and there are examples of ‘staffage’ in each of the four tapestries at Farmleigh.
Teniers has been described as a forerunner of the satirical artists of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as William Hogarth. While he does poke gentle fun at the rustic life of peasants, his ‘satire’ comes nowhere near the pointed bellicosity of those later exponents.
During Teniers’ lifetime, the area of Europe where he lived, known as the ‘Low Countries’, was part of the Holy Roman Empire and was referred to as the ‘Spanish Netherlands’; it came under the control of the powerful Habsburg family.
Early in his career Teniers had received commissions from King Philip IV of Spain, and later he was appointed as a de facto court painter by the Governor General of the Habsburg Netherlands, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria. The Archduke also persuaded him to take on the task of curating his huge collection of art that was kept in a gallery at his palace in Brussels.
The set of four Flemish tapestries at Farmleigh are based on Teniers’ works, they may have been designed by him but it is more likely that his designs were the inspiration for them. He was not involved in their manufacture. They were produced at the Brussels factory or workshop run in partnership by the weavers – Jacques (Jasper) Van der Borcht and Jeroen (Hieronymus) le Clerc. They are among the earlier works from this partnership.
The two craftsmen were to collaborate on future tapestries which interpreted Teniers’ paintings, as did factories run by rival weavers; however, their work is considered to be of the highest quality and their business was continued by their descendants. The set of four in Farmleigh House were made in 1690, the year of Teniers’ death, so it’s unlikely that he ever viewed them.
Like Teniers, Van de Borcht and le Clerc received commissions from royalty and aristocrats throughout Europe such as Elector Maximilian II Emanuel of Bavaria and many other German and Austrian princes. The Guinness family had some of their later tapestries on display at their huge mansion in Norfolk called Elveden.
The Farmleigh tapestries were purchased by Edward Cecil Guinness in 1884 from the antique dealers Duveen, having previously belonged to a wealthy English banker, Lord Overstone, then his daughter Lady Wantage; they originally formed part of a set of eight; the four at Farmleigh are ‘The Milking Scene’, ‘Return from the Harvest’, ‘The Kermesse’ and ‘The Gipsy Fortune Teller’; the others have intriguing titles: ‘Summer (Pastoral Scene)’, ‘Sportsmen Resting’, ‘Fish Quay’ and ‘Winter Scene (Skating and Pig Killing)’. The last record pertaining to the others suggests that they are in the United States.
The Milking Scene
Section of The Milking Scene
The first tapestry is called The Milking Scene; the title here refers to the milkmaids busily milking cows. Considering the title of the tapestry, the main scene only takes up a very small part of the whole work, an example of ‘staffage’ as mentioned earlier. Elsewhere, there is plenty going on, other animals featured are ducks, geese, chickens, horses, more cattle and sheep, as well as dogs and even fish in the pond. In contrast to the busy milkmaids, there are two men who are having a great chat; maybe they’ve finished their work for the day! There is a steep hill, not something you would normally associate with the low terrain in this part of the world, but there are hills in the Netherlands, mostly in the southerly areas. At the top of the hill is a substantial stone building, castle-like, with a farming scene directly in front of it.
At the bottom of the tapestry David Teniers has been credited; this also applies to the other ones in the set.
Return from the Harvest
This broad scene shows peasants or farm workers returning from their day’s work. It must have been a good day; these people have smiles on their faces and they are dancing. There’s also music with a man playing the hurdy-gurdy. There is a farmer on his donkey, he looks very happy as well, with a wide smile on his face; at the end of the day, the profits from the harvest will go to him after all. Also in the scene there is a bit of realism; a man can be seen quite plainly relieving himself. In modern times it may seem that he was included as an example of ‘toilet humour’, but in the late 17th century, this would have been very much part of everyday peasant life; similar characters appear in the next tapestry.
This tapestry portrays a Kermesse or Village Fete. Compared with the other tapestries, there are a lot more people in this one. The word Kermesse is still used in the Netherlands; recent visitors to Farmleigh recalled the term – they had been to a cycling festival in the Netherlands which the Dutch locals referred to as the Kermesse. As in Return from the Harvest, the peasants and village inhabitants are in happy mode. There is plenty of celebration going on here with drinking and feasting along with music and dancing. The children are being entertained by a musician with a hurdy-gurdy and there is a bagpiper performing for the main group. Some of the behaviour of the men appears quite bawdy and even questionable, not sure all the women appreciate that kind of attention. As can happen when copious amounts of drink are taken, there appears to have been some kind of altercation where a man is flat on his back and another being physically supported by his friends, possibly he is drunk or there has been an alcohol fuelled fight.
The Gipsy Fortune Teller
This final tapestry is a little smaller than the others and there is lot less action included in it. A Fortune Teller with quite an intense expression on her face, earnestly tells a man his fortune. Next to the man is a little boy, probably his son, clinging on to him. In the middle of the scene is a gipsy girl wearing a smock; she appears to be heavily pregnant. Engaged in conversation are two more gipsy women with their donkey. At the top of a wooded hill there is a bit of activity – animals in a farming environment.
There is a coat of arms on each of the tapestries; this is for Filippo Archinto of Milan, together with his Latin motto: “Laus et Laurus Archintaea”. He definitely wasn’t a modest man, it translates as “Praise and Glory to Archinto”. Archinto was a wealthy lawyer and landowner from Milan. He must have had plenty of influential contacts for he was appointed to several ambassadorships including Vienna and the Spanish Netherlands. Like his aristocratic counterparts it was common for them to commission works of art such as these tapestries.
Also shown on the tapestries there are two symbols of the letter B either side of a heart, this signifies the twin cities of Brussels/Brabant.
Included on the border is the weaver’s signature or mark: ‘I.VR. BORCHT ACASTRO’. The A Castro here is the Latin version of Van der Borcht’s name. It seems he included this on his tapestries to differentiate his work from that of his father. Le Clerc also put his name on the tapestries he co-produced, but not on any of these ones.
As a tribute to the Archduke who sponsored Teniers, this Latin inscription: Teniers Seriess II Leopoldo Archidvci Ioanni Avstriaco Pictor Famliais et Vtriq Acvbicvlis Pinx, was included on some of the tapestries, for example on the Kermesse. This dedication was only included on some of the early tapestries made by Van der Borcht and Le Clerc.
All the borders on these tapestries feature acanthus leaves in a repeating pattern; acanthus was very much used in Corinthian architecture.
The tapestries had been removed from Farmleigh in 2011, they spent some time in storage and after substantial conservation work were returned in June, 2019. In the days of the Guinness family living in the house, they hung above the main staircase and over the years had faded in the light and had shrunk, as well as suffering some water damage.
The work of restoration was carried out by De Wit of Mechelen, in Belgium, not that far from where they were originally made in Brussels. De Wit were manufacturers, but branched out around forty years ago and applied their expertise to conservation and repair of tapestries from all over the world, of which there is no shortage. In their premises they use the latest state of the art technology for the painstaking task of restoring tapestries; their clients include The Louvre, The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg and the National Trust in the United Kingdom. De Wit patented an aerosol suction method of cleaning the tapestries, then they are meticulously repaired millimetre by millimetre in the workshop which has a ‘wall of wool’ (see below) with a multiplicity of colours and shades so that the craftspeople can achieve a perfect match between the old and the new.
The Wall of Wool
The tapestries are manufactured from a combination of wool and silk with a strong backing of linen to keep them reasonably rigid. The restoration has returned them to their correct size and they again impart that vibrancy from when they were first manufactured.
The Teniers tapestries and many other important and historic works of art from the Guinness and state collections can be viewed as part of a guided tour of Farmleigh House, opening times and booking details can be found on the website www.farmleigh.ie as well as general information about the estate.
Having belonged to the Guinness family for over one hundred years the four Teniers tapestries now belong to the state and will probably remain here at Farmleigh in perpetuity.