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The proposal to establish a tapestry works at Mortlake came from King James I in 1619. It was to be under the management of Sir Francis Crane who undertook the recruitment of weavers and to meet the cost of building and fitting up premises. In return he was to receive a fee, the exclusive right to weave tapestries of all sorts for 21 years and they were to be free of customs duties. Since there was no effective pool of labour in England Flemish workers were brought in great secrecy mainly from Brussels and the Low Countries (Belgium) where tapestry weaving was a major industry. It was agreed that some of the masters would be naturalized on the word of Sir Francis. The craft was to be taught to suitable boys in the orphanages of the City of London. The City agreed to pay their maintenance during the seven-year apprenticeship and Sir Francis would supply the looms and the materials.
The works were first established on John Dee's estate in Mortlake, later the site of the Queen's Head pub.
Knighted in 1617 Crane later became Secretary to Charles I when he was Prince of Wales. However, it was the arrival of an able designer, Francis Clein, German born and previously in the service of the king of Denmark, together with the patronage of Charles both when Prince of Wales and later as king which gave the works a good start. Although Crane became very wealthy when he died in 1637 his brother Captain Richard Crane found himself unable to pay the weavers and eventually sold the project to the Crown. It continued to function for the rest of the century though its fortunes fluctuated.
Accounts of the cost of materials, wages and details of the way in which the work was apportioned between named weavers survive for a few tapestries. The Mortlake weavers were highly skilled in depicting natural textures and effects such as flesh and water. Their products can be seen in many museums and English country houses.
Lord Leverhulme acquired the Mortlake tapestry series in 1918. It was sold from Stella Hall, near Newcastle, by the family of the industrialist Sir Joseph Cowen (1800–73). The set may have been woven for the hall which was demolished in 1955. In the 17th century it was the home of the Tempests, a wealthy Catholic courtier family, loyal throughout the reigns of the Stuart kings.
The gallery owns a complete set of six of one of the most popular tapestry series woven at the Mortlake works. It illustrates the ancient Greek story of the tragic love of the priestess Hero for Leander. Leander swam the dangerous currents of the Hellespont, the straits between Europe and Asia at the Bosphorus, in order to see his love, but was drowned one stormy night.
An example is: The Meeting of Hero and Leander at the Temple of Venus, Sestos, ca. 1660-70, Woven in wool and silk, 286 x 311 cm, accession number LL5464, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, Merseyside
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