Great tapestries in our collections

Tapestry depicting the Homecoming of Ulysses

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.

The Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall

The Long Gallery, Hardwick Hall

The Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire is the largest (though not the longest) surviving Elizabethan long gallery and the only one to retain its original tapestries.

Detail of tapestry depicting Gideon Building an Altar to the Lord

The Gideon tapestries

The Gideon tapestries have adorned the walls of Hardwick's Long Gallery since 1591. This tapestry, Gideon building an altar to the Lord, is one of 11 tapestries from the series that have been cleaned and conserved at the National Trust's Textile Conservation Studio in Norfolk.

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.

One of six Armorial sumpter cloths at Ham House, c.1672-74
Armorial Sumpter Cloth
One of six Armorial sumpter cloths at Ham House, c.1672-74

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.

Blickling Hall's Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltawa, Saint Petersburg Manufactory, after a design by Louis Caravaque, 1764
Tapestry of Peter the Great
Blickling Hall's Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltawa, Saint Petersburg Manufactory, after a design by Louis Caravaque, 1764

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.

In the background of the tapestry a battle rages between Russian forces and the army of Charles XII of Sweden
Detail showing battle
In the background of the tapestry a battle rages between Russian forces and the army of Charles XII of Sweden

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.

The Boucher medallions in the Tapestry Room at Osterley
The Boucher medallions in the Tapestry Room at Osterley
The Boucher medallions in the Tapestry Room at Osterley

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. 

Cupid and Psyche from the Tenture de Boucher, Manufacture des Gobelins, c.1775-7
Tapestry depicting Cupid and Psyche
Cupid and Psyche from the Tenture de Boucher, Manufacture des Gobelins, c.1775-7

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."
- Horace Walpole, 1778

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.

Knight with the Arms of Jean de Daillon by Guillaume Desremaulx, c.1477 - c.1483
Tapestry depicting a Knight
Knight with the Arms of Jean de Daillon by Guillaume Desremaulx, c.1477 - c.1483

It depicts a chivalric knight in full armour, his standard fluttering, his horse richly decorated in what resembles red and gold brocade.

The knight wears armour trimmed with gold, long spurs, a sword round his waist.
Detail on knight on horseback tapestry
The knight wears armour trimmed with gold, long spurs, a sword round his waist.

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.

The tapestry is scattered with hundreds of tiny flowers, including scillas and fritillaries, seen here
Detail of millefleurs on Jean Daillon tapestry
The tapestry is scattered with hundreds of tiny flowers, including scillas and fritillaries, seen here

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. 

Anglesey Abbey, Cambridge Tapestry Company, 1934 / NT 516774
Tapestry depicting Anglesey Abbey
Anglesey Abbey, Cambridge Tapestry Company, 1934 / NT 516774

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.

Detail of showing Anglesey Abbey and its garden at the centre of the tapestry
Detail of tapestry showing Anglesey Abbey and its garden
Detail of showing Anglesey Abbey and its garden at the centre of the tapestry

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. 

Video

Conserving Hardwick's Gideon tapestries

Discover the original colourful exuberance of Hardwick’s Gideon tapestries and how they were the 'cinema of their day'.