Mortlake Tapestry Works
The Mortlake tapestry workshops were established over 400 years ago. In August 1619 Sir Francis Crane purchased two properties from John Juxon which stood by the river on the north side of Mortlake High Street, opposite the parish church of St Mary the Virgin. James I had witnessed the excellent quality of tapestries in Paris and he wished to emulate those achievements in England. An advisory panel was set up and Crane was appointed to run the works under the patronage of the king.
It was necessary for the works to be situated by the river for the humidity in the air. The chosen position also allowed for the easy transportation of both raw materials and finished goods at a time when the river provided the most efficient mode of transport.
Fifty skilled Flemish weavers (some of the finest craftsmen in Europe) and their families soon arrived in Mortlake despite the attempts of the authorities in the Netherlands to prevent the emigration of skilled workers. They were made welcome by the villagers and many of the weavers married local women as their names in the registers of marriages and baptisms testify. The weavers were mostly Dutch Lutherans; the Archbishop of Canterbury authorised their ministers to conduct services and to administer the holy sacrament in the parish church. In 1636 the Flemish workforce was 140.
Philip de Maecht, one of the most talented weavers in the Netherlands, came to Mortlake to be "overseer and director of the tapissiers". Sir Francis Clyne had been appointed master painter and designer of the tapestry works in 1625, and the two men worked successfully together producing tapestries of considerable artistry and quality. There were also a few weavers who were specialists in their trade, for example Louis Vermoule would weave faces and Peter de Craight naked figures. For these specialists higher wages were paid.
Mortlake's tapestries have been described as being of "splendid decorative quality and unequalled technical achievement". They are renowned for their rich and elaborate borders some of which were designed by Van Dyck. Several designs or cartoons were created by Rubens and Raphael. Multiple sets of tapestries could be produced using the same cartoon several times. The tapestries were woven in striking colours in silk, fine English wool and gold thread. The first commission produced in Mortlake was a series of nine tapestries for the Prince of Wales (later Charles I) depicting the Amours of Vulcan and Venus. The illustration above is entitled Mars Approaching the Palace of Vulcan from that series. Many such sets described religious subjects such as the Acts of the Apostles and the Story of Abraham. But mythical stories were also popular, as were the months of the year and tapestries depicting children playing.
By 1623 the tapestry works had become a great success and the golden period of Mortlake tapestries began. Charles I visited the works in March 1629. However, in June 1636 Sir Francis Crane died and his brother Richard took over the works. He was no businessman and did not pay the weavers what they were due. So, they petitioned the king and the tapestry works were sold to Charles I in 1637. They were then referred to as the King's Works and Sir James Palmer was put in charge.
A survey was commissioned in 1649 into the state of the works and its assets. The main building, the Lower Dutch House, had residential quarters for some of the weavers on the ground floor which opened onto a courtyard. On the first floor was the “great working-room” 82 feet by 20 feet containing 12 looms with another working-room of 40 feet by 20 feet containing a further six looms. On the second floor were two long galleries divided into several other rooms. Francis Clyne and his family (five of his children were born in Mortlake) lived in a house built for him opposite the works, and other cottages were built for workers with families nearby.
Under the Commonwealth the works were managed by Sir Gilbert Pickering with John Hollenberche his chief workman. The workshops continued to produce large numbers of tapestries but by 1663 the number of workers had dropped dramatically, many having moved to London. The works were in constant financial difficulties and their ownership changed hands many times. By 1701 the buildings were old and ruinous and in April 1703 the Mortlake manufactory came to an end. The production of tapestries may have ceased but some of the workers remained in Mortlake and made it their permanent home.
The Lower Dutch House was demolished in 1951. There is a granite memorial on the small green next to Tapestry Court that records the site of the tapestry works. It was placed there in 1996. The only remaining building from the tapestry works now forms part of Suthrey House at 119 Mortlake High Street.
Innumerable fine tapestries were produced in Mortlake for rich patrons during the 84 years the workshops were operating; they can still be viewed in museums and stately homes throughout Britain and abroad. Mortlake tapestries remain world-renowned for their quality and beauty, and are much sought after.