This section is from the book "Tapestries; Their Origin, History And Renaissance", by George Leland Hunter. Also available from Amazon: Tapestries; Their Origin, History, And Renaissance.
During the XIV, XV, XVI centuries, tapestry weaving in England was not an important industry. The English were content, with a few sporadic exceptions, to ship wool to Flanders and get back arras (tapestry), in exchange. And what tapestries were woven in England, we may feel quite sure were woven by Flemish weavers. The frequent occurrence of the word tapissier in early documents proves nothing, for it denotes not only tapestry weavers but also weavers of rugs and carpets, and draperies not tapestries, and the upholsterers who kept local wardrobes in repair. The term "weaver of arras," as employed in Edinburgh in 1467 to designate John Dolace who, until 1486, received a regular annuity, is more significant. In 1561 the municipal authorities of Sandwich sent to Secretary Cecil as a present, six arras cushions, the "first work of the strangers in town," Flemish weavers who had emigrated because of religious persecution.
That a tapestry factory was established in England about the middle of the XVI century, at least one tapestry remains to prove. This was illustrated in colour in the Art Journal for November, 1911, and described by Mr. Thomson in the Art Journal for July, 1911. In the centre is the coat of arms of William, First Earl of Pembroke (1501-1570). On the right, a small circular panel picturing Luxuria, one of the seven deadly sins; on the left, Superbia. The ground and main part of the tapestry that is 7 feet 8 by 13, is covered with quaint designs in the Grotesque style that Raphael and his followers copied from ancient unburied Rome, and that is incorrectly called Arabesque. The Grotesque designs in this tapestry are rich with all the exuberance of the Italian Renaissance.
It was woven about 1565 at Barcheston by Richard Hyckes, who had recently established a tapestry plant there and at Weston, under the patronage of, and with financial backing from, an English country squire, William Sheldon. It was at his instigation that Hyckes had visited the Netherlands to study the weaving of tapestry, and doubtless bring back with him Flemish weavers. Squire Sheldon was anxious that his son should continue to foster the infant industry, because it supplied a trade to train youths in and was a means of retaining great sums of money within the kingdom. His words were listened to, for in 1592, twenty-two years after Squire Sheldon's death, "Bess of Hard-wycke," Countess of Shrewsbury, paid Mr. Sheldon's man for "seventene armses to set upon hangings XXXs. iiijd." and also ten shillings to hang the tapestries.
In the Bodleian Library at Oxford University are preserved two large fragments of tapestry maps, one of which is signed Wigorn. Comi. Com-Pletata Ric. Hycke which filled out and translated means: Warwickshire (the county of Warwick) executed by Richard Hyckes. Below the signature that is on a ribbon half-way up on the left side of the tapestry is a compass and a scale of miles, three to the inch. The various towns, villages, churches, manor-houses and bridges are shown on the map after the manner of a birdseye view, and accurately. The second Bodleian tapestry map shows the valley of the Thames and the counties of Oxford and Berks. Especially interesting is the Thames from London Bridge to Brentford, showing Westminster Palace, Hampstead Heath with its three windmills, etc. The borders of both maps are definitely Italian Renaissance in style like that of the Pembroke Grotesque tapestry.
Much later in date as the borders show - borders woven in imitation of heavy wooden frames, with a Cupid-borne cartouche above containing a blue oval, and a cartouche below containing a tiny landscape with the goddess Ceres recumbent in the foreground - are the three tapestry maps preserved in the Museum of the Philosophical Society at York. One of them is signed by Francis Hickes, Oxonii Et Bercheriae Comitatus Completata Per Franciscum Hickes. The panel is 13 feet by 17 feet 9 inside of the border that is 20 inches wide. It bears the coat of arms of Ralph Sheldon, born in 1623 and died in 1684.
Among other tapestries attributed to the Sheldon factory is the magnificent set of the Seasons at Hatfield House. One of them, Winter, was illustrated in half-tone in the Art Journal for August, 1911. All the four tapestries bear the coat of arms of Sir John Tracey of Doddington in Gloucestershire, who was knighted by James I, appointed High Steward in 1609, and became Viscount Tracey in 1642. The style of the tapestries and borders is pronouncedly Renaissance - luxuriant floral and fruit ornament. The borders are filled with a wealth of small round medallions that illustrate Latin captions placed above or below each. Three signs of the Zodiac also in small round medallions appear in the body of each tapestry at the top. The colours are strong and fresh, and the texture is fine.
The composition of the four tapestries is similar - a large central figure, Ĉolus for Winter, Venus for Spring, Ceres for Summer, Bacchus for Autumn. Ĉolus in Winter is a majestic almost nude figure seated on the four winds, crowned and holding a bridle. On the left an ox is being slaughtered, on the right a pig. In the background on the right ships struggling in a Wintry sea, on the left dogs and men hunting. In one of the borders, appended to a Latin caption, appears the date 1611.
Mr. Thomson suggests that there is "reason to believe" the fine set of four tapestries in Holyrood Palace, picturing Children Playing after Giulio Romano, came from the Sheldon looms. Under the name of the Naked Boys this was a favourite set at Mortlake. But the almost complete similarity of the borders of the Holyrood tapestries with the borders of the York maps mentioned above, suggests a common origin. These borders are certainly as late as the last half of the XVII century.
In the latter part of the XVII century some of the Mortlake workmen appear to have set up for themselves on a small scale. In 1670 through the influence of Sir Sackville Crow, William Benood, tapissier of Lambeth, secured an order from the Countess of Rutland for six pieces of Vulcan and Venus tapestry 9 feet deep at 25s. an ell. The set was as follows: