The Portland Collection contains some beautiful examples of historical tapestry.

Three huge tapestries by Michiel Wauters are on display in the Museum. These are from a set of eight designs (two more can be seen at Welbeck Abbey, on tours of the State Rooms that will run in August and September) – and it is believed that only six full or partial sets are still in existence. The designs are taken from illustrations by Abraham van Diepenbeke from William Cavendish’s book ‘The method and new way to train horses’. William was an ancestor to the Dukes of Portland, and one of the great horsemen of his day. His book was a pivotal work for the art of horsemanship and led to the modern sport of dressage.

Visitors to Welbeck Abbey on the State Room Tours will also see the Red Tapestry Drawing Room, which is decorated with a set of vibrantly coloured Gobelins tapestries.

These tapestries were made in around 1783 but were stored away until they were discovered in a box in the attic by the 6th Duke of Portland in 1879. The 6th Duke remodelled the Drawing Room for these beautiful textiles.

In this article, Susan Sherrit will unpick the history of these tapestries, and will give a brief background into the making process.

Gobelins tapestry from the Red Tapestry Drawing Room at Welbeck Abbey

Detail from the Gobelins Tapestries at Welbeck Abbey © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection


“I was a weaver some years ago.  I studied tapestry weaving at Duncan Of Jordanstone in Dundee before coming to Welbeck to work as a studio weaver for the artist Joan Baxter, here at the Harley Foundation studios, just behind the museum. After which I moved on to work at the Harley Gallery.

There are in fact several fine examples of tapestries in the Portland Collection, and the three on display in the museum are 17th century Flemish examples.

For many centuries tapestries were considered the highest form of art. They were extraordinarily expensive and demonstrated the wealth and status of those who owned them.

They were the primary decorative art form of the royal court, far exceeding painting or other forms of art, and were transported and hung during royal visits, official business, and public celebrations.

In fact, there were 2,500 tapestries listed in Henry VIIIs inventory after his death. When they were later valued for sale, many were priced at thousands of pounds – which was far in excess of any other item in his art collection.

The Flemish tapestries on show were created during the Civil War, and woven at a time when tapestries were becoming more permanent fixtures in rooms rather than portable decorations.

The tapestry rooms at Hampton Court and Windsor Castle,  which Charles II arranged after his restoration, are a good example. These rooms featured tapestries from different sets, due to the fact that full sets had often been disrupted or partially lost during the war. This inevitably meant they were cut to fit rooms. The tapestries became the backdrop for paintings which became increasingly popular and were often hung on top of the weaves. This can be seen in the Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall.

The tapestries in the Harley Museum were commissioned in 1660 by William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle, the grandson of Bess of Hardwick, who was a passionate patron of the visual arts.

William was a staunch royalist who fought for the cause during the Civil War, before retreating to exile in Antwerp.  He rented the former home of the late painter Rubens, and to occupy his time he focused on his primary passion, horsemanship, establishing a riding school which attracted aristocracy from all over Europe.

Maintaining status and royal allegiance were critical concerns for William during exile. His riding school, and the horsemanship manual he published during this time, would have fixed his status in a way that would have been meaningful among his peers. These tapestries would have enhanced his status too.

Titled The Method and New Way to Train Horses, can be seen in the the Museum. It features 43 engravings by Abraham van Diepenbeeck, which illustrate William training horses in the complex art of manège.  The book set out William’s humane methods for training horses which were based on persuasion and kindness in place of force, and this seminal book laid the foundation for modern dressage.

Detail from one of the Horsemanship Tapestries

Tapestry, Weaving by Michiel Wauters, design by Abraham van Diepenbeke, around 1660. © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection


Van Diepenbeeck also produced designs for the renowned Flemish tapestry workshop owned by the brothers Mikeel and Feeleep Wauters. At the time, Wauters were the leading producers for the English market and it is believed William commissioned Diepenbeeck to create five designs based on his book illustrations.

However, the designs were altered for this new medium with the figures transformed into classical images wearing pseudo-Roman costumes. This was a style which had been popularised earlier by the painter Rubens.

And like the illustrations, these tapestries also show William’s houses at Welbeck and Bolsover Castle in the background.

The Wauters workshop produced several sets of these tapestries, each set with different borders. Three of William’s set are on display in the Museum, and the other two are on display in Welbeck Abbey which can be seen during the Summer tours of the house.  Those are much larger in scale and detail featuring epic battle scenes.

Van Diepenbeeck’s designs would have been transformed into a schematic plan called a cartoon. This was a full-scale model made on paper or canvas which featured strong outlines to guide the weavers alongside indications of colour, shading, and techniques.

Making a Tapestry

To make a tapestry, warp threads which run vertically, are stretched between the two beams of a loom which could either be vertical or horizontal in form. These threads will not be visible in the finished tapestry so are left undyed. The design is created by passing coloured weft threads horizontally, over and under the warp by hand.  The weft is then compressed to cover the warp entirely. Each colour is only used in the place it is required which is referred to as discontinuous weft. This differentiates tapestry from other loom-based cloth production where weft is past entirely from one side of the weave to the other.

Most tapestries were woven on their side so that when the work is completed and turned around, the warp threads then run horizontally, and they were also woven from the back. All of this meant that weavers saw very little of their work as it progressed, which meant that every area had to perfectly align with the plan.

Tapestries were woven using a full-scale model, or cartoon, made of paper or canvas. The Dutch name for this model however was patroon, or plan and similar models were used for stained glass designs which Van Diepenbeeck also worked on.

The cartoon had strong outlines to guide the weavers and are schematic indications of colour and shading. Sometimes they contained written instructions.  The cartoon was usually based on a smaller model prepared by the artist who designed the tapestry.

In European tapestry production two types of looms were used, a high warp, or vertical loom, and a low warp or a horizontal loom. The tapestry structure remains the same, but the position and actions of the weaver differ slightly. On a vertical loom the warp is attached to rollers top and bottom allowing the tapestry to be rolled down as work progressed.  The cartoon, or design would be placed close to the weaver so they could see it, sometimes even behind with the weaver viewing it using a mirror. The outlines of the design were inked onto the warps to ensure that areas were not over-woven and the design distorted. One of the benefits of a vertical loom is that weavers could see the front of the work and again mirrors were often used so that weavers could constantly inspect their work. Above the weavers would be a swag of chords attached to a bar and alternate warp threads and the weavers would pull the chords to separate the warps and create a space to pass the weft bobbins through.

The low-warp, horizontal looms, stretched the warp out horizontally before the weaver, and instead of being hung nearby, the cartoon was cut into strips and placed directly behind the warps so that the weaver could follow the pattern. As work progressed and the tapestry was wound onto the roller, the strips of the cartoon would be replaced.  Using this method, the weaver was unable to see the front of the tapestry unless they squeezed under to loom. The benefit of the low-warp loom was that the chords were attached to treadles operated by the weavers’ feet, meaning their hands were free to weave continuously, resulting in a faster process.

Becoming a Weaver

Becoming a weaver required an undertaking of a seven-year apprenticeship, and traditionally weavers were male. While women spun yarns and stitched up the completed weave. Apprentices would work on less complicated areas such as the sky, before progressing to foliage and flowers.  There would also have been a master weaver who worked on the most critical areas such as the faces of figures.

For large tapestries such as those in the Harley Museum, a small team of weavers worked intimately side by side. And despite working rigorously to the plan under the instruction of the master weaver, inevitably there would still be differences in their work. If you were to study these tapestries closely, you would become familiar with these nuances such as different tensions.

My own experience as a studio weaver, followed this pattern. I began on simple areas of the design before progressing to more complicated patterns and I vividly remember when the artist took a holiday, leaving me to work alone for a week. I spent hours unpicking and reweaving the same area of oak leaves. I was like Penelope weaving in the day and unpicking in the dark nights, as I had to make sure my work followed her plan. Needless to say, I had not completed much on her return.

The more usual speed of weaving depends on the number, or the fineness of the warp threads.  Finer warp threads are required in higher numbers per centimetre to create intricate detail and take longer to weave.  A high warp count was typical in the 17th century and was and having measured these tapestries, they are 8 warps per centimetre, which is very fine work and would have taken a weaver around one week to complete a square foot.

Weaving techniques

There are a few techniques that are helpful to be aware of if you are interested in how these tapestries are made.

The first is in fact the principal weakness of the discontinuous weft structure – the occurrence of natural slits when two colours meet in a straight horizontal join, such as along the borders of the designs. While there are various techniques to overcome these weaknesses such as interlocking or dovetailing weft threads together or simply sewing them up; there are some instances when these slits were purposely used to create shadow, the impression of form, or outlines, especially on delicate areas such as on flesh, where colour changes could be overpowering.

The second technique overcomes the fact that in tapestry weaving, colours cannot be blended or shaded as they can with paint.  Instead, a system of hatching was developed.  This technique involves passing different shades or colours of weft thread over each other in stripes of increasing or decreasing size which is called hachure, or in elongated triangles of colour which is called battage.  The darker colours were often wool and the paler, silk. The use of silk thread increased the cost by four times, while adding gold thread perhaps by fifty times that of wool.

As with many historic textiles, these muted colours are a far cry from the original splendour of these works of art. This colour change is caused by centuries of sunlight altering the structure of the original dyes. Some dyes and colours are known to be particularly susceptible.  Natural yellow and pink dyes fade very quickly, whereas blues tend to be more light fast as we can see demonstrated here in the remaining dominance of strong blues.  Weld was a common yellow 17th century dye and Madder may have been used to create the pink tones of flesh, both which have greatly faded in these works. They are however fully lined, and while we do not know, it may be presumed that some of the original vibrancy may remain on the back of the weaving. It is so tempting to unpick and peek.

The Gobelins

There is however another set of later tapestries in Welbeck Abbey which can be seen on house tours which retain all of their original vibrancy. This is a set of French Gobelins which were made around 1783, inspired by a famous set called the ‘Hangings of François Boucher’ who was a director at Gobelins.

Although we don’t know when the family acquired these tapestries, they may have been purchased by the 3rd Duke of Portland, during the time of the French Revolution and intended to be hung in his London residence, Burlington House.

However, these tapestries rested, hidden, for almost a century, until the 6th Duke of Portland, inherited Welbeck in 1879. His young half-sister, Lady Ottoline Morrell, discovered the tapestries preserved in tin trunks in the attic. ‘How well I remember the smell of the peppercorns as they tumbled out onto the floor when the long roll of splendid pink tapestries was undone and spread out.’

These now hang in the Red Tapestry Drawing Room, and as they were not intended for this room, the ceiling and fireplace had to be re-modelled so that the tapestries could finally be hung and seen in all their glory.

These tapestries are full of typical Rococo detail with vivid pink backgrounds woven to imitate walls hung with crimson silk damask.

The Red Tapestry Drawing Room at Welbeck Abbey

The Red Tapestry Drawing Room at Welbeck Abbey © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection


Also on show in Treasures of The Portland Collection is The Talleyrand Bed, an example of Louis 16th style furniture. This was bought by the 6th Duke of Portland for the State Bedroom at Welbeck Abbey at the beginning of the 20th century, and once belonged to the Prince de Talleyrand. It was a key feature of the reception rooms at the Abbey and has been rested in by King Edward VII, the Sultan of Zanzibar, and the Queen Mother.”

Susan Sherrit

Susan is the Gallery Manager at the Harley Foundation. She trained in tapestry weaving at Duncan of Jordanstone, Dundee, before moving to the Midlands where she was a studio weaver before joining the Harley team. She now manages the contemporary Gallery and our award-winning retail.

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