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New Acquisition: a 17th-century Mortlake tapestry depicting gardens in March

By Emma House, Curator

On 12 July the museum team waited anxiously by their computers for a rare tapestry to come up for auction at Bonham’s. Development Manager Molly Prentice and myself had spent two frantic weeks visiting the auction house to view the tapestry with a conservator from the V&A and carrying out research and then putting together reports, assessments and funding applications to the Art Fund and the ACE/V&A Purchase Grant Fund which helps museums acquire pieces for their collections. All of our work was more or less done in secret as we didn’t want to alert anyone to our interest. But Simon Franses an expert on tapestries and a specialist dealer confirmed that it was an early and fine example in good condition. He agreed to bid on our behalf and all of our hard work paid off because few people had noticed it was coming up for sale and we managed to purchase it without significant competition in the sale room.

This finely woven tapestry of the gardeners working and welcoming their patrons is from a popular series depicting the months of the year featuring different occupations, an example of which was commissioned by Charles I from Mortlake weavers. The only surviving group of tapestries from the series is in the collection of the Musei di Strada Nuova, Genova. This tapestry is a contemporary of the Tradescants and will provide incredible context for the Garden Museum in telling the story of gardeners from this period in the Museum’s Ark Gallery. There are lots of fine details to illustrate the hierarchy of head gardeners and undergardeners working for a patron. The tools that they used and style of the garden. The Garden Museum has no tapestry in its collection, and it is particularly special to add an example from this period (the early 17th Century) as this was the finest period for English tapestry production and very little of it survives.

Charles I made concerted efforts to develop, protect, and stimulate tapestry production in England. With their vast scale, expensive materials, intricate figurative designs, and the mobility he recognized their ability to convey power, wealth, and superior artistic appreciation. With his financial and political support, courtier Sir Francis Crane opened the Mortlake factory on the banks of the River Thames in 1619, downstream from the church of St-Mary-at-Lambeth, which is now the Museum’s home. Crane arranged for fifty Dutch weavers to travel to London and assist in establishing the workshop. The Archbishop of Canterbury granted them dispensation to practice their own faith and weavers continued to come to England to escape religious persecution.

This important and rare tapestry illustrates the month of March and the occupation of gardening. Traditionally this is the month when daylight hours become noticeably longer, and the spring equinox occurs and many gardeners start to plant out half-hardy seedling and seed potatoes.

In the foreground of this tapestry a woman is kneeling. Dr Catherine Horwood author of Gardening Women (and Garden Museum Patron) has identified her “as a very rare depiction of a Weeding Woman”. Custom and clothing at this time dictated that hard digging was left to paid male help. But a little weeding was recommended to ‘gentlewomen’ by Botanist William Coles in The Art of Simpling published in 1656. Despite extensive research with primary source materials Horwood notes it is “incredibly difficult to find images of women of any sort actually doing any sort of practical gardening.” Horwood found some examples in early modern manuscripts and woodcuts but very few, and none in the medium of tapestry. But women of stature did take gardening seriously and perform practical gardening tasks. In 1605 Lady Margaret Hoby recorded in her diary “I bestowed to[o] much time in the Garden, and thereby was worse able to performe spiritual duties.” Now that the Garden Museum has acquired this piece, it is the earliest example of women gardening in the collection.

The intentionality of this tapestry series is to display occupations – suggesting a professional status to the female’s role and as such a totally unique example. She is finely clothed in a long-sleeved dress with puffs of material cinched into a bow at the shoulder and with ruffled cuffs at the wrists. She wears a finely decorated headdress decorated with quatrefoil flowers alternating in rows of blue and red. The couple in the picture wear finer clothing and the other gardeners wear simple smocks depicting a variety of economic status and therefore its likely to be a rare illustration of patron, head gardener and his wife and under-gardeners.

Indeed, at this time some women were skilled in tasks surrounding plant cultivation. When Mistress Thomasin Tunstall sent John Parkinson hellebore roots of her favorite specimen from her garden near Hornby Castle on the banks of the River Greta, he was happy to write to her within the year that they had ‘born faire flowers’ and in his work Paridisi in Sole Paradisius Terrestris (published in 1629), he bestowed her the courtesy of mentioning her.

I had the pleasure of viewing the tapestry before the sale with a conservator from the V&A who had previously worked on tapestries at Hampton Court. She was incredibly excited about it as it features some repairs but hasn’t been rewoven. She was especially touched by the care and skill shown in the depiction of the rich gentleman’s fine leather shoe, conveying the suppleness of material and comfort and the softness of his fur collar. Care was often lavished on important details such as faces and hands but here it’s also translated to shoes, headdresses and architectural details. This kind of care to details and the overall imagery illustrates the skill of the weavers who produced this tapestry and its quality.

We are absolutely delighted to be able to add this tapestry to our collection and will shortly carry out a little bit of conservation on it before we put it on display in The Ark. We will be carrying out further research into the dress and clothing worn by the gardeners and the plants illustrated in the tapestry. We will also be looking to see if any of the plants were grown by the Tradescants at Lambeth.

The tapestry was purchased thanks to support from the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and Art Fund. And we are especially thankful to our Patrons who supported its purchase and whose contributions will enable us to carry out conservation work so that it can go on display shortly.

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