Victoria Jackson is studying for her PhD in the History Department at Birmingham.
Where's the cook? Is supper ready, the house trimm'd,
rushes strew'd, cobwebs swept, the serving-men in their
new fustian, their white stockings, and every officer his
wedding-garment on? Be the jacks fair within, the jills fair
without, the carpets laid, and everything in order?
The Taming of the Shrew, 4.1, 40-4.
In this scene from The Taming of the Shrew, Grumio arrives at Petruchio’s country house to ensure that the servants are prepared for the arrival of their master and his new bride. He asks if everything in the house has been put in order, if the serving-men are dressed appropriately and whether the carpets have been laid. On reading this, we might think that Grumio is asking if the carpets have been laid out on the floor, where we commonly find our carpets today. In actuality, the carpets he refers to here are ‘table carpets’, heavy woollen carpets that were commonly decorated with brightly-coloured geometric patterns or narrative scenes and used to cover tables.
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust holds a wonderful table carpet in its collection, which was made sometime between 1566 and 1633. Its governing theme seems to be the phenomena of the natural world: it depicts fruit trees and flowering vases within ‘foliate roundels’, a design where the leaves of a plant or tree join together to create a spherical form. These roundels are enclosed within a border of flowers and various fruits. The border of the table carpet would have hung down vertically from the table’s edge so as to be clearly visible to anyone present.
Table carpets were high status objects that were used by the social elite in early modern English society. Descriptions of table carpets in inventories provide us with an idea of how elaborately decorated they could be. For example, Bess of Hardwick’s inventory of furnishings at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire in 1601 lists ‘a long table of white wood, a fayre Turkie carpet for the same table, an other fayre long carpet for it of silk needlework with gold frenge [fringe] lined with crimson taffetie sarcenet…’. This detailed description evokes the image of a highly-worked carpet incorporating different kinds of rich fabrics, but what is meant by the term ‘Turkie carpet’? It might refer to a carpet of Turkish origin, many of which were imported into England during the sixteenth century. But it could also imply an English carpet embroidered in imitation of a Turkish one. These were often referred to as ‘turkie carpets’ or ‘turkie work’.
A table carpet is visible in the painting of The Somerset House Conference, 1604, held in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Depicting the commemoration of the peace treaty between England and Spain, the members of the Hispano-Flemish delegation and the English delegation assemble around a long table covered with an elaborate table carpet. I wonder if the carpet represented here resembles the type of carpets that were ‘laid’ in preparation for Petruchio and Catherine’s arrival.