The Work

The Tillett Tapestry of the Conquest of Mexico is a unique work of textile art conceived by the master textile designer Leslie Tillett, and embroidered by many hands. 100 feet long and 28 inches high, the work presents the full narrative of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec world by Hernan Cortez and his Mexica allies, along a single hand woven manta cloth. There are 230 scenes, 1,490 human figures and fifty-five million stitches. The result is a visual feast, celebrated not only for its immensity, intricacy and profound emotive power, but for the way in which it illustrates the clash of two great civilizations through their respective visual languages. Though largely composed of images culled from Aztec pictographic records, the assembly presents years of wide research by Tillett, as well as a close reading of the eye-witness account of Bernal Diaz. The borders of the work give a narrative of the conquest in Spanish and English. While visiting the Palacio Cortez in Cuernavaca in 1944 with the great muralist Diego Rivera, Tillett became enthralled with the artist’s historical frescoes and with the subject of the Spanish invasion of Mexico. It was Rivera who suggested that Tillett consult the Florentine Codex to see the Mexica perspective on the conquest. After decades of research, a visit to the Bayeux Tapestry in 1962 gave Tillett the inspiration to narrate the Conquest of Mexico in an immense embroidery. The ground drawings began in that year and the stitching itself was undertaken in Mexico soon after. The work was completed in 1976 after fifteen years of effort. 'El Tapiz Tillett', as it became known, was widely exhibited during Tillett’s lifetime, including at the Palacio Cortez, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the Museum of Natural History in New York. It was always Tillett’s wish that the embroidery would find a home in a great institution and forever play a role in the teaching of the rich and tumultuous history of his beloved adopted country, Mexico. 

Leslie Tillett

In 1940, two English brothers, Jim and Leslie Tillett, established a textile printing works in Cuernavaca and a shop in Taxco. Their vibrant fabrics were highly successful in Mexico and soon gained world renown. Sent by the New York magazine Harper's Bazaar to photograph the brothers, Doris Doctorow fell in love with Leslie and they were married in Taxco that year. In the hotbed of creativity in Mexico at the time, the Tilletts met Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Bill Spratling and others. Jim married Nieves Orozco, the brilliant model of Rivera and Nieves modeled the Tillett’s prints on the undiscovered beaches of Acapulco. The Tilletts flourished in Mexico until 1946, when Leslie and D.D. went on to New York. 

In New York they achieved extraordinary success as creators of custom fabrics and clothing, furnishing many of the grand houses of the period, most notably the Kennedy White House. Their designs are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum, The Smithsonian Institution, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. In 2012 the Museum of the City of New York mounted a lavish exhibition celebrating their life and work. 

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