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More on Tapestry Use and History

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Tapestry was a useful and versatile furnishing medium.
It could be woven at sizes large enough to cover and decorate walls.


©Hilary L Turner

It could be small enough only to cover a book.... Like this bible >

It might form the outer casing of a cushion or hang from the wooden frame of a bed. Portable, it made the owner feel instantly at home. At its most costly, tapestry was the means to impress, to carry the message of power and demonstrate wealth. Its cheaper, smaller forms served the same purpose for those less well-off, though still with money to spare. It is to this clientele that the tapestries described here, most of them around half a metre square or less, must largely have appealed.


Like all decorative fashions, tapestry has its own history. From being the 'must have' possession for the ruling classes of western Europe, intended for display in the hall and principal rooms, the pieces moved steadily higher up the house, into bedrooms used either infrequently - by guests - or into attics occupied by servants . One groom in the 1620s even slept under 'the old tapestry cloth that once covered the banqueting table'.

During the eighteenth century tapestry fell out of favour, replaced by wallpaper. Much was simply thrown out and today we have only chance survivals. Families who preserved the prized possessions of their own ancestors are rare, and it is uncommon to find a tapestry still hanging in its sixteenth century home. So much part of the furnishings that they were little noticed, even expensive tapestry sets or parts of sets were seldom inventoried in sufficient detail to make identification of themes possible today. Small wonder then that their departure from the house, whether to the rubbish tip or to the second-hand market, was still less often recorded.

Subject matter had always been varied. Subjects might be religious figures or, more ambitiously, complete Biblical stories. Classical history and mythological tales were also chosen, while scenes from daily life, in particular hunting, and landscapes can all be seen.


The impact on the viewer of a large set of tapestries illustrating a single story can still be almost overwhelming. Some tapestries hanging today where they were first placed in the sixteenth century can be seen at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, and Hampton Court. Their size, detail and colouring remain impressive. At Cotehele, Cornwall, the family used second-hand sets to create atmosphere in a Tudor residence too old-fashioned to inhabit regularly.

Cotehele, Cornwall

Cotehele        ©Hilary L Turner


It was really only towards the end of the nineteenth century in England, perhaps influenced by William Morris - himself a designer of tapestries - and by the Arts and Crafts Movement that some interest in tapestry revived. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O72515/tapestry-the-orchard-the-seasons/

And it was on the back of this consciousness that an effort was made to rediscover the tapestries which came to be given the name 'Sheldon' in honour of the man whose will suggested he made an attempt, assumed to be successful, to establish tapestry weaving in his manor house at Barcheston, Warwickshire.




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