Great tapestries in our collections
For hundreds of years, tapestries were the status symbol of the wealthy across Europe, covering the walls of palaces, cathedrals and chambers, and owned by monarchs, clergy, courtiers and the very rich.
These were the great art of their day, woven in wool and silk threads and made by outstanding craftsmen with a level of aesthetic and technical skill long since lost.
Today, we look after the largest collection of tapestries in Britain and one of the largest in the world, with around 650 items in over 200 historic houses. Here we explore a small selection of great tapestries in our care.
Hardwick Hall's Gideon tapestries: the largest tapestry set to survive in Britain
At Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, there is an internationally significant collection of tapestries – over 100 in total – many of them still hanging as recorded in the 1601 will of Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury ('Bess of Hardwick').
Although now covered with paintings, the Gideon tapestries in Hardwick's Long Gallery still define the space as they did in the 1590s. They were originally woven in 1578 for the flamboyant Elizabethan coutier, Sir Christopher Hatton, but were acquired a decade later by Bess.
Comprised of 13 separate panels, each tapestry is nearly 20 feet high and over 230 feet in total length. Few tapestries could have come close to being able to fill Hardwick's 160-foot long, double-height Gallery, so it was an extraordinary stroke of luck that such an enormous set was available for Bess to purchase at the time.
Ham House's sumpter cloths: portable luxury in the 17th century
The 17th-century tapestry collection at Ham House in Richmond was once rich and richly documented, providing insights into tapestry patronage at the highest level under both Charles I and Charles II. Sadly, most were sold in the 20th century before Ham House came to the National Trust.
Despite this, six identical tapestry panels, known as sumpter cloths, survive. Sumpter cloths were portable textiles, used to cover luggage and to signify the wealth and magnificence of travelling nobility from the Middle Ages onwards.
These sumpter cloths would have covered the luggage of the Duke of Lauderdale, as his coat of arms appear at the centre of each panel. Sumpter cloths remind us that in the 17th century, tapestries were by no means immovable fixtures.
From St Petersburgh to Norfolk: The Peter the Great tapestry at Blickling Hall
Some tapestries had clear ceremonial and diplomatic functions. In 1765, a vast tapestry depicting Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltawa was presented to the Earl of Buckinghamshire, possibly by Catherine the Great, when he was Ambassador to Russia. The Earl later installed it at Blickling Hall as a memorial to his mission.
Even before it became a very grand diplomatic gift, this tapestry played an interesting role in the Russian czar's quest to aggrandise his image as sovereign. It was Peter the Great's ambition to set up a national factory at St Petersburg that would emulate, if not rival, the Manufacture des Gobelins, the royal manufactory under Louis XIV that produced tapestries for the French crown and nobility. Following a visit to France in 1716-7, Peter brought to Russia French craftsmen to run his new workshop and train Russian apprentices in the art of weaving.
The Peter the Great tapestry marked the high point of the St Petersburg workshop’s production. Despite his grand ambitions, Peter was reputedly not entirely satisfied with the initial products of his manufactory, and its activities soon slowed.
The Tapestry Room at Osterley: 'the most superb and beautiful that can be conceived'
The spectacular tapestry room at Osterley Park demonstrates the transformative power of the tapestry medium. It is comprised of 18 separate pieces of tapestry, ranging from narrow strips just a few inches wide to large panels covering entire walls.
Although entirely woven in tapestry, these hangings imitate a number of different media. The pink background is woven to create the effect of silk damask, and each roundel imitates a painting set in an oval frame, complete with a frame resembling carved and gilded wood.
The tapestries were commissioned by Robert Child from the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris. Woven in 1775, they were delivered and installed at Osterley the following year.
" [The Tapestry Room at Osterley is] the most superb and beautiful that can be conceived."
The designs are based on the paintings of François Boucher who was appointed designer-in-chief at the Gobelins Manufactory in 1755. For this reason, the tapestries are known as the ‘Tenture de Boucher’. 'Tenture’ is the French word for a series of tapestry designs.
Montacute's masterpiece: Knight with the Arms of Jean de Daillon
Other tapestries have been acquired more recently. Montacute is home to a small but outstanding group of late medieval tapestries bequeathed by Sir Malcolm Stewart in 1968, including the 15th-century masterpiece Knight with the Arms of Jean de Daillon.
It depicts a chivalric knight in full armour, his standard fluttering, his horse richly decorated in what resembles red and gold brocade.
The dark blue ground is scattered with hundreds of tiny star-like flowers – a technique known as millefleurs. Many of the flowers are identifiable, including poppies, daffodils, scillas, wallflowers, thistles, honeysuckle and fritillaries.
This rare and highly decorative piece was commissioned by the town of Tournai in 1477-9 as a gift to the Governor of the Dauphine, Jean de Daillon, Seigneur de Laude, whose coat of arms appears in the top left corner.
It is one of very few surviving examples from the late 15th century which may be precisely identified.
Commissioning tapestries in the 20th century: Anglesey Abbey and the Cambridge Tapestry Company
During the 1920s and 1930s, the immensely wealthy Lord Fairhaven assembled an excellent collection of mainly 17th-century tapestries for Anglesey Abbey. However, he also commissioned brand new hangings from the local Cambridge Tapestry Company, including a view of Anglesey Abbey in 1934.
Designed by Clifford Barber, it depicts an aerial view of the Cambridgeshire landscape with Anglesey Abbey and its garden in the centre. A stream runs through a wooded landscape in the foreground and the distance landscape is dotted with Cambridgeshire landmarks, each of which is named. The borders are composed of leaves, fruit and flowers on a light brown ground, and the arms of Lord Fairhaven appear in the upper centre.
The Anglesey Abbey tapestry was the first to be woven at the Cambridge Workshop. At the time of weaving, Queen Mary (then Duchess of York) visited the workshop and expressed great interest in the work. This led to the commission, in 1935, of a tapestry of Windsor Castle to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of the same year.
A superlative collection
Many of our tapestries are displayed in the houses for which they were originally acquired, allowing us to trace their history, the changes in their use and the way people have appreciated them. The examples shared here represent a monument to the tapestry industry of Europe, to a medium whose importance is often forgotten, and to the changing tastes of English patrons and collectors over the last 500 years.