The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries
Bess of Hardwick's tapestries
These four 15th-century tapestries with hunting scenes came to the V&A from the estate of The Dukes of Devonshire. Made between 1430 and 1450, possibly in Arras, in modern France, they depict 'Falconry'; 'Swan and Otter Hunt'; 'Boar and Bear Hunt' and 'Deer Hunt'. They probably belonged to the celebrated Countess of Shrewsbury, known as 'Bess of Hardwick', and were probably from Hardwick Hall, one of her houses in Derbyshire. In the 1601 inventory of the newly built Hardwick Hall are recorded:
'In my Ladies Bed Chamber: too peeces of tapestrie hanginges with personages and forrest work Fyftene foot and a half deep', with four more pieces in the Hall.
The tallest of the tapestries, 'Falconry', is now no more than 14 feet 6 inches deep, but it has obviously lost some inches at top and bottom. All four tapestries have undergone many restorations and lack a little in height or length. But the length remaining, some 133 feet in all, engulfs the spectator in forest glades bounded by trees on the high horizon, with glimpses of toy-like castles, hilly pastures and ships on a distant sea.
The foreground is filled with tiny trees, bushes and flowers, rocky caves for bears and turbulent streams flush with water-fowl. In this delightful setting the huntsmen and their prey crowd across the tapestry in two great tiers subtly linked by intermediate figures, which lead the eye from group to group. The designer has taken no thought to the season of the year suitable for the hunts in the tapestries. Boar and bear were usually hunted in the winter, but the trees in that tapestry are in full foliage and the flowers suggest perpetual spring.
'Falconry' is the only tapestry to confine itself to a single hunt. 'Deer Hunt' contains scenes of hawking, while the right side of the 'Swan and Otter Hunt' depicts a bear hunt in which some of the characters are dressed as Saracens, lending a touch to the courtly pastime.
Hunting and hawking
Hunting in the Middle Ages was more, however, than mere pastime. The elaborate rituals of the hunt were an integral part of court etiquette, and skill in hunting was regarded as the peacetime equivalent of prowess in chivalric wars. Many treatises were written by men of rank – a count, a duke, an emperor – on the arts of hunting and hawking.
On a more mundane level, the supply of game was essential to ensure the variety of dishes necessary for the tables of the nobility. Their passionate love of hunting was reflected in the tapestries which hung in their halls. Henry VIII owned over 200 tapestries with hawking and hunting scenes.
Costume and dating
The fashionable costume of the courtiers in the tapestries is shown in minute detail, down to the headdress skewered with long pins worn by the central lady in the 'Boar and Bear Hunt' and the laces on the hose of the boy in the 'Swan and Otter Hunt'. The furred robes and jewelled collars, the sleeves hung with dangling leaves of silver or embroidered with a motto, can be paralleled in the contemporary accounts of the Dukes of Burgundy and Orleans.
'Monte le desire' ('Desire grows') woven in reverse on the sleeve of a lady in the 'Boar and Bear Hunt' may be words taken from a popular song: sleeves were embroidered for Charles Duc d'Orleans in 1414 with words and music, the notes being formed by 568 pearls.
It is the costume which helps to date the designs of the tapestries. 'Boar and Bear Hunt' shows the fashions of the early 1430s: the women in high-waisted gowns with collars wider than their shoulders and wearing heart-shaped headdresses; the men in bulky garments with large drooping sleeves and low-slung belts. 'Falconry' and 'Swan and Otter Hunt' show slightly later developments; while 'Deer Hunt' displays fashion which emerged in the 1440s: a higher curved headdress for two of the women, the men having square shoulders, higher waistlines and more pointed shoes.
The date of the costume in the earlier tapestries proves that they cannot originally have been designed for the marriage in 1444–5 of Margaret of Anjou and Henry VI of England, as was suggested by W.G. Thomson. The letter 'M' on the trappings of the two horses in Falconry need not be the initial of the owner of the tapestries: the letter was sometimes woven into silks in allusion to the Virgin Mary.
The difference of a decade or so in the dating of the costume is reflected by changes of style in the tapestries. The figures in 'Boar and Bear Hunt' are the smallest in proportion to their setting and the most decoratively posed: 'Falconry' and 'Swan and Otter Hunt' have figures on a larger scale, presented more naturalistically. Patterns on silks and velvets develop from small, spaced motifs in the 'Boar and Bear Hunt' into bold, flowing designs on the other tapestries.
In 'Deer Hunt' the trim flowers of the earlier tapestries are intermingled with more elaborately decorative plant forms often found in tapestries dating from the middle of the century; the figures have coarsened, and the costume, though up-dated in style, is plainer and the few silk patterns are confused. 'Deer Hunt' has undergone more drastic repair than the other tapestries, but it is clearly of less fine quality. This may have been due to later weaving, using a cartoon (drawn design) which had lost some of its detail with wear.
When tapestries were commissioned, the patron had the opportunity to buy the cartoons, the designs used by the weavers, to keep his set of tapestries exclusive. If he did not, the tapestry workshop kept the cartoons for making as many sets of the same design as they could sell, sometimes with minor alterations in detail to bring them up to date.
With such popular subjects as these hunts, the original cartoons were probably used many times and new cartoons drawn in the same manner. That this was so with our Hunting Tapestries is proved by the survival of related pieces. A 'Falconry' tapestry, a companion piece to the Devonshire 'Swan and Otter Hunt', is in the United States at Minneapolis, and a fragment with some of the figures found in the Devonshire 'Boar and Bear Hunt', but in later costume, is in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow.
The importance of the tapestries
The importance of the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries does not lie in the name of the original owner, nor in the identity of designer or workshop, all of which are unknown. The very survival of tapestries of this scale and quality of design is rare enough from this period to ensure their fame. They were made at a time when Arras was still supplying the courts of France and Burgundy with the magnificent hangings known to us now only from records in accounts and inventories.
In the same period Tournai must have been building the reputation which led to the many orders given to their merchants by these same royal houses in the latter part of the century. The superbly accomplished Hunting Tapestries could have come from either centre. A museum monograph by Mr. G.F. Wingfield Digby gives a wider discussion of the origin of these tapestries and their place in the context of their times.
Wingfield Digby, George, assisted by Wendy Hefford. The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries . HMSO, 1971. ISBN 11 290037 2. 139 pp plus 4 fold-out plates. An old-fashioned discussion of the history of the tapestries (including their restoration) and of other hunting tapestries. Includes a description of hunting. Large number of b&w plates, some rather blurry.
Woolley, Linda. Medieval Life and Leisure in the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries. V&A Publications, 2003.Hardback 128pp + 4x8pp gatefolds. Format 300 x 250mm. Images 80 col. ISBN 1 85177 374 6. With fold-out plates showing the Devonshire Hunting Tapestriesin all their glory, this book is a celebration of these unique works of textile art. They are shown here in fascinating detail, offering rare insight into early fashions and textile patterns and a detailed and fascinating look at Medieval life and customs.