When it comes to intimidating doors on expensive shops, I am daunted by fashion, but not by art — and certainly won’t turn away from a gallery with tapestries.
When walking by Buckingham Palace, to Hyde Park, and over to the American Embassy, we headed back through Mayfair — you know, in case we wanted to order a Bentley, buy a couple of Italian bags, or switch over to the Connaught Hotel (starting at $1200/night). I spied a beautifully tailored dress in a window. It was undoubtedly out of my price range, and even my close viewing range, because I am intimidated by luxurious shop doors with guards behind them, the suave types who would roll their eyes at my hot pink running shoe-clad feet.
However, back in the art dealer district near our hotel by St. James Square, I was not daunted by art galleries with similar doors. Of course I needed to preview items from the upcoming Christie’s auction of European Post-war and Contemporary Art. The Bernard Jacobson Gallery featured a show of Robert Motherwell paintings(!!). Two of my favorites were small enough to carry home on the plane, I fantasized. Though I guessed the answers, I asked the prices: 500,000 pounds and 750,000 pounds.
Next, I happened on a shop with windows filled with tapestries, S. Frances. A small dog barked behind the thick glass-plate, locked doors, and a man came to open them. “Can I help you?” he asked.
“I’d like to look at the tapestries.”
“There are hardly any out,” he replied, a bit curtly. “What size are you looking for? We have over 350.”
So far he hadn’t ushered me in. My polite Minnesota side wanted to retreat, but my weaver inner voice was winning. (Tapestries!) “I’m not buying now. Could I look at the tapestries you have on display?”
“Come in,” he said, ushering me to a large tapestry-lined inner sanctum. “Where are you from?”
“Minnesota,” I told him, and added, “Thank you for letting me see these. I am a weaver, a tapestry weaver, too.”
Those were the magic words. It was David Frances who let me in, and for almost two hours he regaled me with stories of his lifetime of buying and selling tapestries to museums worldwide and to private clients. (Read about his gallery and career here.)
Over the years he amassed an unparalleled archive of tapestry images. “I like the Americans,” he said, who were generous with their help. “We have images of 95-98% of tapestries in museums and colleges in the U.S.” In contrast he disparaged the French, calling them difficult people (and more). They didn’t even respond to his requests.
He told me the story of helping a young man with his dissertation on tapestries, and afterwards employing him. “There were no jobs at that time. He was a hard-working boy.” Mr. Franses relished winding his yarn to its punch line, that the young man is Thomas Campbell, the current head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I knew that Thomas Campbell is a tapestry scholar; I should have guessed the end of that story.
We sat down by a computer with two screens so that he could show me images to accompany his stories of tapestries woven centuries ago and how their ownership changed as they were bought and sold in Europe and the US. A frequent part of his stories was, “They didn’t know what they had.” My private slide show continued: a tapestry made for Charles I when he was the Prince of Wales; one he feels is the finest medieval tapestry; a Swiss tapestry; a Devonshire Hunt tapestry; and many more. His stories continued — of wealthy U.S. clients, of frequent trips to New York to buy tapestries at auction. He was on such a trip on 9/11.
I asked about Scandinavian tapestries, and he showed me images of several smaller pieces, mostly Swedish, and one pillow-sized tapestry of two virgins that appeared Norwegian. He said that he had a full wise and foolish virgin tapestry at one point. One Swedish bench cover featured a lion with captivating crazy teeth. He said he has the largest collection of 18th century seat covers anywhere, in both tapestry and needlepoint.
I scratched a few notes as I listened, too scant to remember any one complete story without further research. However, my most important take-away was not the facts of an individual tapestry, but to observe David Frances’ obvious passion for tapestries — for learning their provenance, and often for saving them. He frequently mentioned the filthy condition of tapestries he bought and his joy in seeing them cleaned and restored. He is ninety years old and still working, and more than once he said that he is not in it for the money. I hardly needed convincing. “Oh, look at this one,” he would say as he typed in a number to bring up another image. “This one I have in my house. I just can’t let it go.”
The time and attention of David Frances was an unexpected gift. I felt he would have kept talking had I not said I’d better return to my husband, who had only received one cryptic text from me (“amazing happening at a tapestry shop. will call soon”).
“Do you have time to look at one more?” he asked, which turned into three “one mores.” And in the end, oddly enough, I never did inspect the real tapestries on the walls.