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Book Review: The Bayeux Tapestry – The Life Story of a Masterpiece

First and foremost, Carola Hicks was a British art historian, described by Angela Thirlwell as a ‘glamorous academic and a serious populariser of art who swept the dust off old masterpieces, explained their cultural contexts, and infused them with a life for a new public.’

And that’s exactly what you get with this book ‘The Bayeux Tapestry – The Life History of a Masterpiece.’

Carola unlocks a world of compressed time – over ten centuries, in fact, showing the actions of people from the remote past to the present day.

Written with remarkable energy, using engaging storytelling Carola conveys the tapestry’s enduring fascination through her evocative text.  Her confident and cogent depiction of this medieval embroidery as an object, a document of history as well as a symbol of power and authority is worth reading more than once.

This is a story of repeated resilience and versatility, embracing mysteries and controversies – and in most cases offering the answers needed to fully understand this epic frieze as a symbol of power and art.  A fascinating combination, teased out by Carola through each strand of this narrative.

Beginning with the story of the plot leading up to the Battle of Hastings, quickly followed by suggestions as to who may have commissioned such a stupendous embroidery, Carola moves onto the making of the Tapestry offering fascinating insights into the making of linen, along with the production and dyeing of the worsted wool thread used to stitch the design.  The design scheme or cartoons and transferring the design onto the linen are also discussed as is the main stitch used throughout the work, the Bayeux stitch.

But it’s the actual history of the Tapestry, after its making, that forms the greater part of Carola’s book, surely creating challenging research, but resulting in fascinating insights through the many facets of its long life.

And Carola extends and expands this history to incorporate the spin-offs, links with Bletchley Park, the global image, tourism and marketing, all brought about by a medieval embroidery about the right to the Kingship of England.

Thrilling and compelling, this book is romantically entertaining and readable.  Each new chapter opens vignettes into one of the worlds greatest treasures and is a worthy tribute to its history.

A 10/10 read for me, with mostly black and white images peppered throughout – although there is a small grouping of coloured images located centrally.  If you want to deep dive even further into a particular topic, Carola’s provided wonderful Sources and a Bibliography at the end of the book.  Published by Vintage Books, London, 2007.

I’d go even further and suggest checking out some of her other books.  I couldn’t resist purchasing ‘Girl in a Green Gown’ on Kindle – also written by Carola about the 1434 Arnolfini portrait by Jan van Eyck.

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The Bayeux Tapestry - The Life Story of a Masterpiece
Carola Hicks
Carola Hicks's enthralling and perceptive book invites us into a world of well-researched, entertaining storytelling surrounding an iconic, much-loved and admired historic embroidery.

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