One of the quirkier and more unusual offerings to feature in Christie’s £3.7m sale of English furniture and works of art on June 7 was this rare Elizabethan map fragment, one of the first tapestries ever produced in England.
The 6ft 2in x 4ft (1.9m x 1.2m) wool and silk fragment
constitutes a substantial portion of a tapestry of the Midlands and
takes an eastward-looking perspective. It shows part of
Monmouthshire, Gloucester-shire, Somerset and Avon, the Rivers
Severn and Wye and the mouth of the Avon and the Forest of
It forms part of a series of four cartological tapestries
commissioned by Ralph Sheldon (d.1613) from his own tapestry works
for the dining room of his home, Weston House, which he built in
Sheldon is the man credited with introducing the technique of
tapestry weaving to England and producing the earliest English
He appointed a Fleming, Richard Hyckes, to manage his workshops
and set them up to provide indigenously produced weavings for home
consumption by wealthy customers who would otherwise have had to
look overseas to acquire them. The enterprise prospered
sufficiently for Sheldon to have acquired the title of Queen's
Arras Maker by 1569.
Sheldon's cartological series represented the counties of
Worcestershire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire and
was based on Christoper Saxton's Surveyes of the Counties of
England of 1579.
At least one other series was produced in the mid 17th century for
Ralph's great grandson, but of this original earliest quartet, the
tapestries of Worcestershire and Oxfordshire are owned by the
Bodleian Library and on view at the V&A.
Warwickshire is in the Warwick Museum, while four fragments have
survived for Gloucestershire, one of which was the piece offered at
Most of the history of Christie's fragment can be traced back via
a long and detailed provenance. The fragment remained at Weston
House until 1781 when Christie's sold the contents at auction. It
then appears in a curiosity shop in Davies Street London in 1864-5,
and was acquired a decade later by the brothers Robert and Henry
Birkbeck of Westacre, Swaffham, Norfolk, the contents of which were
sold by Sotheby's in 1920. Thence acquired by Sir Philip Sassoon
and Viscount Ednam, it next appeared in
the Vigo-Sternberg Galleries in South Audley Street in 1971. It
was then purchased by Captain Edward Guinness, whose wife's maiden
name was Sheldon, and thence passed to the vendor by direct
With so many of the other elements from this set in institutions,
the chance to purchase such a key piece of early English tapestry
was not likely to arise again soon.
Clearly there were enough bidders who appreciated the scarcity of
the opportunity and the historical significance to take the price
to £78,000 (plus premium).
But this piece, too, will now be off the market having been
secured by the Bodleian. Having been alerted to the impending sale
by one of their researchers, the library quickly arranged to obtain
the necessary funding to make the purchase.
The Art Fund provided £47,375 towards the total cost of just over
£100,000, with additional funds from the John R. Murray Charitable
Trust, the Library's support group, the Friends of the Bodleian,
and a number of private donors.
The Library's acquisition of the Gloucestershire tapestry will
make it possible to reunite this substantial portion of the fourth
map with the two from the original set which it already owns. It is
considered an important addition to the Library's existing holdings
of Tudor cartography.
"The stunningly beautiful map depicts the late 16th century
Gloucestershire landscape with remarkable clarity and precision and
the prospect of displaying such a striking artefact at the Bodleian
is tremendously exciting, especially as it will now be housed only
26 miles from where it was created," said the Bodleian's map
librarian, Nick Millea.
By Anne Crane
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