In the Alentejo region, literally “beyond the Tagus”, is the town of Portalegre, the capital of the region and known for the production of silk and textile products.
Portugal boasts a long textile tradition, not as a direct producer but as a client of works for trade and export. The spread of the tapestry began in Portugal around 1700 but, in 1755, following a tragic earthquake, it stopped abruptly due to the loss of numerous collections.
It was thanks to the initiative of the Marquis of Pombal that the textile art was reborn from its ashes.
He opened tapestry ateliers in Tavira and Lisbon where French and Flemish works were exhibited, he also founded a school and a Real Fabrica of wool textiles in an old Jesuit college in the city of Portalegre. Unfortunately none of this survived his death.
It will be necessary to wait two centuries before a new interest in textile art reappears in Portugal. In 1946 Guy Fino and Manuel Celestino Peixeiro decided to open a factory to produce hand-knotted rugs in Portalegre. The socio-economic conditions of the immediate post-war period certainly constituted an obstacle to the success of the initiative, in fact after two years of scarce activity the two partners converted the production into hand-knotted tapestries.
A balança, Cruzeiro Seixas. Source www.mtportalegre.pt
The conversion of the production was encouraged by the father of Manuel Celestino Peixeiro who had attended the textile school of Roubaix, in France, perfecting a method of knotting congenial to the transposition of paintings into tapestries.
The first work dates back to 1948 and is based on an original by Joāo Tavares, but the great occasion arrived in 1952. That year a large exhibition of French and Flemish tapestries was organized in Portugal which attracted numerous tapestry makers from beyond the Alps. The works of the Portalegre manufactory also participated in the same exhibition, as native examples of ancient art. The comparison between the two types of cloth aroused a lot of admiration and interest for how the different technique used was able to render the pictorial effect of the model with extreme precision.
But the two Portuguese producers yearned for the definitive approval of the father of modern tapestry, Jean Lurçart. As a matter of fact, the artist had shown himself rather skeptical about the new weaving technique. To demonstrate the effectiveness and validity of Portalegre’s technique, a small tapestry was made from a model by the French artist and compared with one woven by Aubusson, taken from the same model. Faced with the two works, Jean Lurçat chose Portuguese cloth, making the Manufacture renowned throughout Europe.
“Jeu d’Artifice” tapestry, designed by Jean Lurçat
The birth of each tapestry is marked by the choice of an original subject by a known artist. This is reported on squared paper with great attention to every detail, the weaving takes place on a vertical loom through a knotted stitch which consists in completely wrapping two threads of the canvas interspersed with a connecting weft to ensure stability and structure to the tapestry.
In all its years of activity, the Manufacture has collaborated with numerous Portuguese and foreign artists producing about 3300 works. In 2001 a museum was inaugurated that houses many of these cloths, the production is also visible in a special atelier in Lisbon.
Proclamation of Independence (detail) João Tavares
The photos in this article were taken from Portalegre Manufacture web site.