If you’ve ever visited the Cranbrook House library, you’ve probably noticed The Great Crusade, a large tapestry hanging on the south wall. Many people associate tapestries with medieval times, when they were used to keep drafty castles warm in winter. Woven wall hangings were also popular as decorations, especially as a sign of wealth since the extensive labor and pricy materials made tapestries more expensive to produce than paintings. While most of the tapestries that adorn Cranbrook House are fifteenth-century Flemish, The Great Crusade is a toddler; though it utilizes a historic technique, it was designed and produced in the early twentieth century.
In August of 1918, as the Cranbrook House library addition was underway, George Booth visited Herter Looms in New York City to commission a tapestry specifically for the south wall. Herter Looms was founded by Albert Herter, born in 1871 to a well-known family of craftsman who designed cabinetry and interiors for the wealthy. Financially secure, Herter pursued his artistic talent, studying painting in New York and Paris. In 1908, he established Herter Looms, which became renowned for creating superior tapestries. Herter aimed to mimic the spirit of late-Gothic tapestry and thus was an ideal choice to work on Booth’s vision.
Originally, Booth wanted the tapestry to address the Arts & Crafts Movement, an artistic movement near and dear to his heart. To Herter, however, the idea of Arts & Crafts as a theme seemed “somehow remote from the spirit of the time.” Instead, he suggested addressing an issue with greater worldwide impact—World War I. Herter’s son had been killed in action just two months earlier in France, and the war, which would come in an end only a few months later in November, was on his mind. On August 22, 1918, Herter corresponded with Booth: “I suppose that because like many of us the war has come very forcibly home to me – I turn rather instinctually as a medium of expression to what it stands for, which will be as enduring as time itself. I mean of course, the new democracy for which we are fighting.”
Herter wanted to focus on “the new brotherhood of man – the leveling of class – the fighting side by side of the humble and the potentate – the poor and the rich – the man and the woman, all civilized humanity in fact, profoundly stirred for the achievement of ideal.” He expressed to Booth that this might be achieved “without any of the paraphernalia of actual warfare, and yet be symbolic of the spiritual side of this unforgettable epoch of history.” Upon reflection, Booth abandoned his original idea and chose to follow Herter’s advice. In a letter to Herter on August 30, Booth said, “We have embarked on ‘The Great Crusade’ which is to free mankind from a threatened slavery…”
Booth drew up a sketch of his idea and sent it to Herter. Based on the sketch, a cartoon—a preparatory drawing for a piece of art—was created. In this case, the cartoon was a full-sized painting used to transfer the design to the tapestry. Since weavers worked from the back of the tapestry, the final product was a mirror image of the cartoon.
After the tapestry was completed in 1920, it went immediately on exhibition with the Detroit Society of Arts & Crafts. Believing it too fine a piece to hang where only a few household visitors would see it, Booth decided to donate the tapestry to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). The tapestry remained with the DIA until 1944, when it was deaccessioned and returned to Cranbrook House to finally hang in the place of honor for which it had been commissioned.
Note: All quotes from the George Gough Booth Papers (1981-01), Cranbrook Archives.
– Robbie Terman, Archivist