Tapestry was used as a wall covering and, unlike needlework, was woven on a loom. Also, it was made in much larger sizes than would normally be worked in hand-stitched embroidery; panels of tapestry ten or twelve feet in height and twenty feet long are not uncommon. Wool was the material employed principally, but for special purposes silk was used. Gold and silver threads appear in many of the finest examples. Brussels was the principal centre of tapestry-weaving from about the year 1500, and the enormous output over the years varied greatly in quality. Subjects included Roman and Biblical history, mythology, and peasant scenes after Teniers. Seventeenth-and eighteenth-century examples are often marred by the fact that time has faded their red dyes to a murky brown. Many Brussels tapestries bear a mark: a shield with a capital B at either side, and individual weavers sometimes added their names or initials.
In France there were two important factories: Beauvais and Gobelins, both founded in the second half of the seventeenth century. The former was a private concern with State support, the latter was a Royal factory and not until late in the eighteenth century could any of its productions be purchased. Both did work of high quality, Beauvais being especially famous for a series of panels based on the Fables of La Fontaine, and for many sets of chair and settee covers. The latter were made also at Gobelins, where in about 1775 they made some noteworthy sets of matching wall hangings and furniture covers.
A superb example of this decorative harmony, in a room designed by Robert Adam, remains at Osterley Park, near London, and a suite of furniture (parted from its wall- hangings but still with its Gobelins covers) made for Moor Park in Hertfordshire, is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A few more of these rich ensembles are still intact, but a set of tapestries made for a salon at Croome Park in Warwickshire was sold some years ago for the sum of Ł50,000, and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. At Aubusson, also in France, tapestry panels, chair covers and also tapestry carpets were made. Much of the output dates from the nineteenth century, although it is similar in pattern to work of an earlier period. Tapestry was woven in Antwerp by Michael and Philip Wauters, who specialized in supplying foreign markets. Many of the panels made popular by other factories were copied with success, and these Flemish tapestries are confused frequently with the English productions they imitate.
It can be assumed that tapestry was woven in England from an early date; a Royal decree of 1364 refers to the corporation of Tapissers, but nothing of their work has been identified. The earliest surviving pieces, positively of English make, bear dates between about 1580 and 1600 and were made on looms set up at Barcheston, Warwickshire, by William Sheldon. Some fragments of tapestry maps of English counties, and other panels, have survived, and prove that Sheldon sponsored excellent work. More important was the factory started at Mortlake in 1620.
This was under the patronage of Charles I (both as Prince of Wales and as King), and operated successfully until the Civil War, which inevitably caused a decline in orders. After 1670 little work was done at Mortlake, and the factory removed eventually to Soho, London, where production was continued throughout the first half of the eighteenth century. Although the later work was not of the outstanding quality of the earlier Mortlake tapestry, it was adequate for normal usage in both town and country. Tapestry is subject to damage by that enemy of all woollen fabrics: the moth. In addition, its very size and weight lead to deterioration over the years, and the action of sun, damp air and heat and smoke from fires tends to perish the ageing fabric. Repair is feasible, but is apt to be expensive as there is a declining number of experts to whom such work can be entrusted. Almost all tapestries left the loom complete with a border, varying in pattern from factory to factory and over the years, after the manner of a picture frame. In the course of time, these borders have often been mutilated or replaced, and it should be borne in mind by the collector that the presence or absence of the original border greatly affects the value of a panel.