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Detail from a tapestry of Vulcan spreading the net

The Mortlake tapestry manufactory was the preeminent producer of English tapestry in the seventeenth century. Under the patronage of James I (1566–1625) and Charles I (1600–49), the workshop created some of the finest tapestries in the Collection.

The manufactory was established in 1619 in the village of Mortlake, west of London, during the reign of James I. Before this time, there had been only a fledgling tapestry industry in England, and royal collectors were reliant on continental centres like Brussels and Paris for high-quality textiles.  The king and his son Charles, Prince of Wales particularly hoped to rival the French king Henry IV (1553–1610), whose patronage had caused tapestry production in France to flourish in the early years of the seventeenth century. Under the direction of Sir Francis Crane, some fifty Dutch weavers were therefore invited to London to establish a workshop to help fulfil royal collecting ambitions.

In its early days, the Mortlake manufactory copied existing designs from the great tapestries collected by Henry VIII (1491–1547). Among them were The Months, Vulcan and Venus, Solomon and Sheba and the Playing Boys, to which borders were added based on designs provided by artists at the Stuart court.  In 1623, Prince Charles also purchased the outstanding cartoons of the Acts of the Apostles series made by Raphael's workshop, and several high-quality sets and individual panels were woven to this design for him.  After 1626, an official designer – Francis Clein (1582–1658) – was appointed at Mortlake, and over the next twenty years the workshop produced some of the finest tapestries in Europe.

The success of the Mortlake works owed much to royal patronage, and its output therefore suffered during the Civil War period. Many weavers relocated to London, while those who remained reverted to making lower-quality tapestries from existing designs.  Nevertheless, when works of art in the Royal Collection were valued for sale by the Commonwealth government, one-third of the most valuable were Mortlake tapestry sets.  After the Restoration, Charles II (1630–85) continued his father's collecting practice by acquiring further Mortlake pieces for the Royal Collection. Among them was the Diogenes series, now at the Palace of Holyroodhouse (RCINs 27949-51, 28899, and 27903).

In the early nineteenth century, the Queen's Drawing Room at Windsor Castle was hung with a series of Mortlake tapestries of The Months (see RCIN 1404), over which six landscape paintings by Zuccarelli were hung.  The paintings obscured the central panels of the tapestries, but allowed their 'richly ornamented borders [to] appear as margins to the picture-frames', producing what Pyne's Royal Residences called 'an agreeable effect'.  Queen Victoria acquired several panels of Playing Boys in 1864 (RCINs 28160-3), which she used to decorate the Palace of Holyroodhouse.  Today, Mortlake tapestries are on display at St James's Palace, Kensington Palace and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.