Renaissance Tapestry Maps reunited after more than a century

21 June 2007

nick_tapestry-2The Bodleian Library has acquired at auction the missing part of a unique series of Tudor tapestry maps. Woven in wools and silks, the Sheldon Tapestry Map for Gloucestershire is a fine example of cartography and decorative art from the 16th century. Depicting parts of Wiltshire and Monmouthshire, the map is a part of the set of four famed ‘Tapestry Maps’ dating from the1590s. Commissioned by Ralph Sheldon for his home at Weston, Warwickshire, the series illustrates the midland counties of England: Worcestershire; Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Gloucestershire.


The acquisition was made possible through funds made available from the independent art charity The Art Fund which provided 47,375 out of the total cost of just over 100, 000 the John R. Murray Charitable Trust, the Library’s support group, the Friends of the Bodleian, and a number of private donors. The map enriches the Bodleian Library’s outstanding map collection and is an important addition to the Library’s existing holdings of Tudor cartography.


Two Elizabethan maps, Worcestershire and Oxfordshire, are owned by the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, which received them in 1809 as a gift from the antiquary Richard Gough. A third map, which illustrates Warwickshire, is currently part of the Warwickshire Museum’s collection. The acquisition of the Gloucestershire tapestry map makes it possible to reunite this substantial portion of the fourth map with two of the original set already owned by the Library.


The four maps are of major significance for cartographic history, forming a unique representation of the landscape of the midland counties of England at a period when modern cartography was still in its infancy. Technically, the tapestry maps are without parallel in the UK, with only two other continental equivalents, the so-called Armada tapestries woven for Lord Effingham in 1595, and a tapestry map of Leiden woven in Flanders around 1587.


Each tapestry map in the series has its titular county in the centre on a white background and named in red letters, the county border is shaded red and the surrounding counties are depicted in varying colours from yellow to shades of green. The maps still retain much of their original, vibrant colour, and demonstrate an interest in the depiction of landscape, rivers, and townscapes.


The Gloucestershire tapestry map was in the Sheldon family’s possession until 1781 when it was sold at a house sale. Later, it appeared in a curiosity shop in London where it stayed for a year between 1864 and 1865. It was then bought in 1875 by brothers Robert and Henry Birkbeck, Westacre, Swaffham, Norfolk, who sold it at Sotheby’s, London on 26 March 1920. Later owned by Philip Sassoon (1888-1939), Viscount Ednam (1894-1969), the map was at Vigo-Sternberg Galleries, 37 South Audley Street in 1971. One of last owners was Captain Edward Guinness CBE who died in 1983.


Nick Millea, Map Librarian, Bodleian Library, said: ‘The stunningly beautiful map depicts the late sixteenth-century Gloucestershire landscape with remarkable clarity and precision, and the prospect of displaying such a striking artefact at the Bodleian is tremendously exciting, especially as it will now be housed only 26 miles from where it was created.’

As part of the Bodleian Library, the Map Library is the UK’s second largest map library and one of the World’s ten largest map collections. It is also one of the most important centres of cartographic and topographic history in Britain. It is the most heavily used academic library in the UK by UK-based researchers, but it also welcomes scholars from all over the world as well as non-affiliated researchers from within the UK in great number. More details on the Bodleian map collection, can be found at

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