His knowledge of the 950-year-old chronicle of the Norman Conquest of 1066 richly embroidered on a 230-foot-long linen canvas runs deep.
Like the intricate needlework that weaves vegetable-dyed woolen thread into the artwork, the tapestry is woven into Leavitt’s personal history. It began in the 1980s when through graduate school research he tied his ancestry to the historical period.
“I have no illusions we were part of the nobility,” he explained. “We were more likely peasants like everybody else.”
The campus where he accepted his first academic position, University of West Georgia, had a partnership with Bayeux, France, and possessed a full-scale replica of the tapestry–this one acrylic paint on linen, but painstakingly reproduced to be true to the original. In 2004, he made a pilgrimage to Bayeux, France, to see the original.
“It did not disappoint,” he said. “The tapestry is a wonderful example of visual storytelling.”
He has collected items related to the tapestry, including a 1966 copy of National Geographic magazine that illustrates the Battle of Hastings with photographs of every tapestry panel. He has a miniature version of the tapestry in fold-out paper format that he uses to educate the uninitiated on its value, richness and historical significance.
In 230 feet the tapestry tells the story of battle, of chivalry, of the camaraderie that existed in the contemporary Middle Ages, Leavitt said. “It’s a wonderful glimpse of what life was like in the 11th century.”
The tapestry is a visual account of the ascension of William as the first Norman king of England, the death of King Edward, the betrayal of Harold and the Battle of Hastings. The Battle of Hastings made England once more a part of Europe, something it had not been since the Roman Empire.
Shortly after Leavitt moved to the University of North Georgia, the man who made the replica possible put plans in place to move the tapestry there as well. When Leavitt moved to Oshkosh, he carried in his mind an idea to bring the tapestry to campus for temporary exhibit.
North Georgia was more than willing to share its replica. And, in March, Leavitt and his wife Karen drove to Georgia to pick it up and bring it to Wisconsin.
UWO has a history of placing campuswide focus on academic interests, Leavitt said. The tapestry is a very visual example of that focus.
“I’m a scientist by training and some people will say ‘why would a scientist care about a piece of art or a piece of history,’” Leavitt said. “To me it’s a focal point for the accessibility of both art and history.”