"The Wolf Hunt:" a Mortlake Tapestry
In our collection at Agecroft Hall, we have about ten tapestries. Tapestries were very expensive and indicated that the owner was a wealthy person. Tapestries also brought warmth and color to drafty manor homes and castles--some tapestries were even hung over doorways with slits cut in them to cut down on drafts. While most of our tapestries seem to be predominantly green or blue, these woven pieces were once vibrantly hued to provide color in dark rooms, especially in the colder months when natural light becomes scarce so early in the day.
Tapestries were also teaching tools, illustrating any number of stories as the most common designs for tapestries are based on biblical stories, and historical or mythological narratives, but a design could be a scene from almost any story that a customer chose. The tapestry in discussion today is a circa 1650 object we call the Mortlake Tapestry, one of our largest pieces.
Woven at the Royal Mortlake tapestry factory, this scene depicts three dogs attacking a wolf at the base of a dead tree. Two hunters are poised to kill the wolf with their spears. There is a large blue border around the scene and the Mortlake emblem, a red St. George cross on a white shield, can be found in the lower right border. This tapestry is part of a series called “The Hunter’s Chase,” based on “The Wolf Hunt” from the Hunts of Maximillian. Maximilian (1459-1519) was the Archduke of Austria and became the Holy Roman Emperor in 1493, ruling as such until his death
This tapestry is important not necessarily for the scene it depicts, but because of where it was made. King James I established the Royal Mortlake tapestry factory in 1619, prompting the comment that James was ‘the wisest fool in Europe.’ James basically bribed expert weavers from Flanders, the center for tapestry weaving and design, to come to England and work at his new royal factory. His agents recruited the workers from the Low Countries with great secrecy and promises of great benefits—the factory was in full production before the authorities in the Netherlands realized that many of the best weavers had left for England. After four years in production the factory was in financial trouble. When Charles I ascended the throne in 1625, he fostered an interest in the English domestic arts and lent financial support to the factory. The Mortlake prospered, almost without competition, for the next ten years.
As mentioned before, tapestries were important to status, and the fine English wool combined with excellent weaving made the Mortlake tapestries both superior to others and quite popular. The cartoons (patterns used to weave the tapestry) used were the finest, created by great artists including Raphael and Peter Paul Rubens. Anthony Van Dyke lent his skills to some of the borders found of the Mortlake tapestries. Political and financial troubles contributed to the decline of the Mortlake factory and the company closed in 1703.