Tapestries and their Influence on Early American Colonial FurnitureHistory of Early American Colonial Furniture

Sixteenth Century Flemish Tapestry in the Early Renaissance Room at 31 Old Burlington Street

Sixteenth Century Flemish Tapestry in the Early Renaissance Room at 31 Old Burlington Street

Any description of decoration of English and American mansions during the seventeenth century would be incomplete without reference to the use with early American Colonial furniture of tapestries; but the space here available only permits of them briefest sketch of this important subject. Tapestries have been made at Mortlake and other places in England at various periods, but those of home manufa1ure can only form a very small fraction of the numbers in this country, by far the greater quantity having come from the Netherlands, for the manufacture of which England supplied the wool.

During the Middle Ages tapestries were considered movable, and were usually taken down and carried, together with the furniture, on journeys from one castle to another. From the frequent reference to the subject in State­papers, wills and other documents, the numbers of tapestries in England previous to the accession of Henry VIII must have been very large. That monarch, imitating the example of his contemporaries, was enthusiastic in collecting specimens, and the quantity he obtained can be judged from the inventory which was taken of his goods after his death. At the various royal palaces, such as the Tower, Westminster, Hampton Court, Oatlands, Nonesuch and Windsor, he possessed no less than 2,600 pieces.

Probably many of these were formerly Church property, the subjects being mostly religious; certainly a considerable number had belonged to Cardinal Wolsey, as the description, " Having a border of the late Cardinalls Armes," frequently occurs. A few were of Italian origin, the remainder being from the Netherlands.

Queen Elizabeth herself had little money to spare on such luxuries, but Lord Cecil and other of her nobles continued to import tapestries from Flanders. Mary Queen of Scots owned upwards of thirty in the Palace of Holyrood. References exist of about this date to tapestry weavers at Canterbury, Norwich and other towns, but, as in every case these were Flemish refugees, it is probable their occupation was repairing rather than manufacturing important pieces.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century the manufacture of tapestries was almost the only trade in the Netherlands which her former rulers had not succeeded in ruining; indeed, many Flemish cities, notwithstanding their former great reputations, discontinued the weaving industry and Brussels became the principal centre of the trade. However, the Archduke Albert and his consort Isabella did their utmost to revive this, the national industry.

The fame of Rubens did-much to assist, extensively utilized. Although the output had declined it was still far greater than in any other country, and large numbers of tapestries were imported to England.

The history of weaving in the Netherlands during the seventeenth cen­tury shows a gradual but steady falling off, both in the quality of the work and the number of people employed. The examples illustrated on pages 85 and 81, which are both in the collection at No 31 Old Burlington Street, may be taken as typical of Flemish work at the latter part of the sixteenth and at the earlier part of the following century respectively; in the border of the latter may be seen a shield with the letter B on each side, one of the marks of the Brussels weavers.

At the end of the eighteenth century the trade, which had been the glory of Flanders and which had once employed many thousands of operatives, only found work for one hundred and fifty craftsmeneven with exports to the Americas for use with early American Colonial furniture.

In 1607 Henry IV started a royal manufactory in Paris; at once this proved successful. Some ten years later King James I decided to imitate his example, the enterprise at Mortlake being the result. Sir Francis Crane was the leading spirit from the first; in return for erecting the necessary build­ings and starting the enterprise, he was granted the fees for the making of four baronets and a monopoly of production in this country for twenty-four years. About fifty weavers were secretly obtained from the Netherlands, and Philip de Maecht, who had assisted in starting the royal works in Paris, was appointed manager of the works. Ailing under the advice of Rubens, the Raphael cartoons, which Pope Leo X had sent to Brussels to be translated into the tapestries now at the Vatican, were acquired in 1630 for use at Mortlake; for upwards of two hundred years these cartoons were at Hampton Court Palace, but they are now at South Kensington Museum.

Through the services of Sir Henry Wootton, Francis Cleyn came to England about 1623 as principal designer of English and early American Colonial furniture, and continued in this capacity for about thirty years; his abilities did much to promote the success of the enterprise. He also decorated several mansions, notably Bolsover and Holland House, with paintings.

Sir Francis Crane received plenty of royal orders, but experienced much difficulty about payment; in 1623 he writes to the King: " I am already over, £6,000 in the busynes and never made returns of more than £2,500, so that my estate is wholly exhausted and my credit is spent, besides the debts that lye upon me." Under Charles I he was more fortunate, not only in obtaining payments grants, but in receiving even more liberal patronage; indeed, it was from the accession of Charles I until the death of Sir Francis in 1636 that the prosperity of the Mortlake factory was at its height. Its success created considerable envy, and petitions were presented by persons anxious to obtain favour representing that the profits made were unreasonably large.

Brussels Tapestry, Early Seventeenth Century

Brussels Tapestry, Early Seventeenth Century

Mortlake Tapestry "The Story of Vulcan and Venus" in the Victoria and Albert Museum

Mortlake Tapestry "The Story of Vulcan and Venus" in the Victoria and Albert Museum

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