Shakespeare and his Friends at the Mermaid Tavern, 1850 by Faed, John

A bird’s-eye view of Shakespeare’s county

The Sheldon Tapestry Map of Warwickshire is the only complete survivor from a set of four tapestry maps commissioned in the 1590s by Ralph Sheldon for his new home of Weston House in South Warwickshire.

The Sheldon Tapestry, c.1590-1600 (tapestry) by English School, Social History Collection, Warwickshire Museum Service
The Sheldon Tapestry, c.1590-1600 (tapestry) by English School, Social History Collection, Warwickshire Museum Service

 

The tapestries depicted the counties of Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Oxfordshire and  Gloucestershire, and were made to hang together to present a dramatic and colourful panorama of the English Midlands stretching from London to the Bristol Channel. The Warwickshire tapestry, measuring 5.1m x 3.9m, and woven mainly in wool with silk used to highlight key areas, is a rare representation of Elizabethan Warwickshire.

Ralph Sheldon, 1590 (oil on canvas) by Hieronymus Custodis; Social History Collection, Warwickshire Museum Service
Ralph Sheldon, 1590 (oil on canvas) by Hieronymus Custodis; Social History Collection, Warwickshire Museum Service

Besides its significance as an English tapestry, it is of major importance in cartographic history, providing a view of the county when modern map-making was in its infancy. It’s not a conventional map, but a pictorial record of late Tudor Warwickshire  – a unique record of how the county looked 400 years ago, and how it has changed over time.

 

The Sheldon Tapestry Left: detail of Stratford upon Avon town and area Centre: detail of Coventry city and area Right: detail of Warwick Castle, town and area
The Sheldon Tapestry
Left: detail of Stratford upon Avon town and area
Centre: detail of Coventry city and area
Right: detail of Warwick Castle, town and area

 

It provides a bird’s-eye view of Shakespeare’s county, the countryside that inspired the language and landscape for many of his plays. In April 2011, the tapestry travelled to Belgium to be wet-cleaned at De Wit of Mechelen, before beginning a programme of extensive conservation at a studio in Bristol. From July to November 2012 it was displayed in the exhibition ‘Shakespeare : Staging the World’ at the  British Museum, before returning to the Warwickshire Museum Service in December 2012.

 

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