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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Tapestry Panels

Object 56 - Even fairly modest houses during Shakespeare’s lifetime were decorated with colourful imagery depicted in hangings or painted directly onto the wall surface, such as this tapestry woven with hunting scenes.

Tara Hamling

This week's insight into Shakespeare's World comes from Dr Tara Hamling, Senior Lecturer, Department of History and Fellow of The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham.

A late 16th/early 17th century Sheldon tapestry border, from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections.
A late 16th/early 17th century Sheldon tapestry border, from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections.

“for thy walls, a pretty slight drollery, or the story of the Prodigal, or the German hunting in water-work, is worth a thousand of these bed-hangers and these fly-bitten tapestries.”

 Falstaff to Mistress Quickly in 2 Henry IV: Act 2, Scene 1

 These lively hunting scenes woven in tapestry were produced in England around 1600. A stag, boar, fox and hare flee from dogs and huntsmen in a lush landscape with country houses in the background. These long narrow strips were almost certainly intended as a border to a cushion cover, such as the long cushion cover discussed in Object Number 12 - a cushion cover. This kind of English tapestry has long been associated with a ‘Sheldon tapestry workshop’ thought to have been established by William Sheldon in Bordesley, Worcestershire or Barcheston, Warwickshire. New research, however, suggests that many of the tapestry wares in this style were produced by émigré tapestry weavers working in London. This website contains more information about this rethinking of The Tapestries called Sheldon.

Similar sections are found incorporated within numerous tapestry cushion covers long associated with the ‘Sheldon workshop’ and these decorative strips are very similar in style and content to the charming bed-valance now in the V&A. This longer strip of tapestry is designed to hang around the tester of a bedstead and combines hunting scenes with other idyllic pastoral scenes, such as a group of people dancing and courting outside a pub (as indicated by the tiny inn-sign hanging from a tree). This quaint little scene may reflect the sort of ‘drollery’ imagined by Falstaff.

Even fairly modest houses during Shakespeare’s lifetime were decorated with colourful imagery depicted in hangings or painted directly onto the wall surface. Geometric and floral patterns were most common but there was also a vogue for pictorial imagery, including stories from the Bible (such as the Prodigal son, as mentioned by Falstaff) or figures copied from popular prints. Hunting scenes were fairly popular in larger houses and an outstanding example of this sort of wall decoration survives at Madingley Hall in Cambridgeshire. Such fantastically well-preserved wall painting and the wonderful details depicted in this woven tapestry border allow us to experience the sort of imagery Shakespeare (through Falstaff) identifies as fashionable home decor in late Elizabethan England.