Great horses: lost and found

You would think that it’s quite impossible to overlook tapestries that are several meters high and wide but it’s actually more usual than you’d think. In the 16th and 17th century tapestries were very popular and rich people paid a pretty penny to have them designed and produced just for them often in series of 4-10 tapestries but not all of them have survived the time, some series were divided for one reason or another and sometimes tapestries got stolen or misplaced. But because tapestries used to be copied and written about we still have a good idea what some of the lost tapestries should look like.

One series that was believed lost was a series called the Great Horses created by Francis Clein in the 17th century.

The first two in these series were made for Charles I before 1637. These tapestries were high-quality tapestries. Unfortunately only one of the pair survived and this one is in the Victoria and Albert museum in London.

This is what it looks like now:

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Perseus and Andromeda, The Horses, Woven tapestry in wool, silk and silver-gilt thread, created between 1635-1638 by Francis Cleyn in Mortlake, England.

Note that the above picture is the WHOLE image not a close-up. Someone removed the border of the tapestry at some point in history; the question is why? The most likely explanation for that is that someone didn’t want others to recognize the image on the carpet as a famous and expensive Mortlake tapestry. The border of the carpet is where the makers would put their marks to show where and by whom the carpet was made so it seems very suspicious that someone removed that particularly part of the carpet. It could either be either someone that stole the carpet or someone that wanted to protect the carpet because with the execution of its owner Charles I England had just become a republic and it’s future was insecure. Under such circumstances it wouldn’t be unthinkable that people would loot or destroy the art and valuables like tapestries from their former ruler.

The reason that we now believe that this is the right carpet despite the missing borders is that the image and time-period is right and because of the high quality of the tapestry and the materials used for it.

Here we see some close-ups of Perseus on the tapestry:

perseus 2perseus 3

We can see the facial expression on Perseus clearly and beautiful details on his helmet. This tapestries is nowadays in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Unfortunately the other Great Horses tapestries are lost, but we do have a good idea what they looked like because the weavers cleverly re-used the “cartoons” (the mall) that were made to make the first official tapestry and sold the copies to people that weren’t rich enough to have someone design a tapestries series for them, but rich enough to afford the copies of an existing series. Kinda in the way people nowadays buy gucci and louis vuitton knock-offs to appear richer than they are.

Here we have two of those copies for the other Great Horses – tapestry that Charles I owned:

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The Destruction of the Children of Niobe: From a set of The Horses tapestry in wool and silk, H. 152 x W 232 inches (386.1 x 589.3 cm), ca 1650-1670, Metropolitan Museum, New York.


This tapestry was made  sometime in the 1650s or 1660s for Henry Mordaunt, second earl of Peterborough, whose arms appear in the upper border, along with those of his wife, Penelope O’Brien.

This gives us also a good idea what the first tapestry would have looked like if the borders would not have been removed.

Note that this tapestry is made of wool and silk but not silver-gilt thread. If the carpet would have had silver-gilt thread in it would have costed 5 times (!) as much to buy than one with just wool and silk.

niobe 249

The Destruction of Niobe’s Children, A Lambeth Tapestry from the series The GReat Horses after designs by Francis Cleyn with the Arms of Edward Brabazon, Second Earl of Meath, England ca 1665, 5,31m w x 3.48m h.

niobe 257

The Seizure of Cassandra by Ajax from a set of The Horses, Wool and silk tapestry, ca 1650-1670, after Francis Cleyn, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

These three we know what they looked like. Then there are three other tapestries that are missing. They would also feature horses and would’ve been made in Mortlake or Lambeth. The Mortlake ones are the more expensive ones because that’s where they wove the original ones.

niobe 254niobe 253niobe 252niobe 260niobe 251

In 1927 the discovery of several tapestries that are most likely copies of the famous Mortlake Great Horses series was reported in the Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs.

It shows the 3 tapestries that I showed above plus 3 others that according to the magazine are copies of the lost Great Horses tapestries.

Nowadays we may frown upon artists that copy the work of others, but in many cases we should be very grateful that people did copy masterworks, because if an original art work gets lost copies may be the only way to get an idea what the original looked like.

Good night friends, Hilde


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