The Sheldon Tapestry Maps conservation project

Project dates

2012 – 2015

Project summary

To conserve and carry out scientific and historic study of the three Bodleian Libraries' Sheldon Tapestry Maps: Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, and Worcestershire.

About the Sheldon Tapestry Maps

The Sheldon Tapestry Maps for Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire are woven in wool and silk, and are fine examples of cartography and decorative art dating from the 1590s. Commissioned by Ralph Sheldon for his home at Weston House, Warwickshire, the series illustrates these four midland counties of England, covering the country from the Bristol Channel to London. The tapestries are of major significance for cartographic history, forming a unique representation of the landscape, at a period when modern cartography was still in its infancy. Their content was largely derived from the county maps of Christopher Saxton which were surveyed and published in the 1570s, but this set of four have no forebears in English mapmaking tradition. They were ground-breaking developments at the time of their creation.

Two of the original set, Oxfordshire and Worcestershire, are owned by the Bodleian, which received them in 1809 as a gift from Richard Gough. Furthermore, a sizeable proportion of the Gloucestershire tapestry map was purchased by the Library at auction in 2007, complementing two smaller sections already held in the collection. More of the Gloucestershire map is held in private hands. The final tapestry in the set illustrates Warwickshire, and is held by Warwickshire Museum. The Warwickshire map is the only one of the four which survives completely intact. The remainder are only partially complete, with Oxfordshire and Worcestershire having lost significant portions of their content to moths, whilst Gloucestershire has been broken up into many parts, not all of which have survived. All four tapestry maps were in the Sheldon family’s possession until 1781 when they were sold along with the remainder of the contents of Weston House.

Conservation treatment

A team of conservators from the National Trust’s tapestry studio at Blickling Hall, Norfolk, was appointed to undertake work on all three of the Bodleian’s tapestry maps, plus on a small set of accompanying fragments. The tapestries were cleaned at De Witt in Mechelen (Belgium), before returning to Norfolk for further conservation treatment, which included:

  • Incorporating green fabric as both an infill and a lining, and eventually as full support for the tapestries.
  • A stitched support for the tapestries. The fragments were positioned and tacked onto the mounting fabric, rolled and put on the frame.
  • Putting in the grid support stitches, then overstitch long or breaking slits using a cotton- covered polyester thread. The combination of these stitches will give a good overall support to the tapestry.
  • Stitching was carried out to secure the holed and damaged edges of the tapestry fragments using either long or short stitch or laid and couched threads. It was colour matched to tone in with the damaged area and provided localised support.
  • Work was carried out to areas of text. The lettering was originally woven in a dark brown wool weft thread which was commonly dyed with an iron mordant. National Trust dyed a range of dark brown wool threads using stable chemical dyes to embroider damaged lettering in order to obtain a clear reading. Turnback of the edges.

Analysis of dyes and mordants

In order to identify the dyes used in these tapestries, the Conservation & Collection Care Department collaborated with The National Museums of Scotland, the University of Edinburgh, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The designer of the tapestries and the names of the weavers are unknown. Ralph Sheldon’s father had allowed a Flemish weaver, Richard Hyckes, the use of the family manor house at Barcheston, Warwickshire, in the hope Hyckes could train young men in a skill not previously practised in England – Hyckes’ name is woven into the Worcestershire tapestry, indicating his involvement as a master weaver. Experts in the analysis of dyes and mordants from our partner institutions will be aiming to answer technical questions that could bring us closer to understanding the provenance of the tapestries. We will also use the data obtained to inform the preservation plan for the Bodleian's tapestries, one of which (Oxfordshire) is currently on display at the Weston Library in Oxford.

The investigation into the dyes used to produce these magnificent tapestries was also the subject of a PhD, conducted by Lore Troalen.


This conservation treatment of the Worcestershire fragment was made possible thanks to generous donations from The JP Getty Jnr Charitable Trust, Clothworkers Company, and a number of private donors.

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