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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Croome Court Tapestry Room, Worcestershire

Croome Court was built by George William (1721–1809), sixth earl of Coventry. He inherited the estate in 1751 and hired Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716–1783) to improve both the grounds and the damp old Jacobean house. Demolishing everything but the chimneys, Brown built a Palladian-style rectangular block of Bath stone with corner turrets and a large tetrastyle Ionic portico. In 1760, Coventry engaged the more fashionable architect Robert Adam (1728–1792) to design several of the principal rooms. Although Adam had only recently established his practice in London, his new Neoclassical style found a ready and eager audience with the nobility and gentry. At Croome, Adam and Coventry worked together, if not always harmoniously, to create three splendid rooms: the gallery, the library, and the tapestry room (58.75.1–22), which were widely admired by contemporaries and greatly preferred to the sober exterior.

There had been a long history in England of rooms hung with sets of tapestry, and Coventry would have known a recent example, emulating French Rococo style, at nearby Hagley Hall in Worcestershire. He may have thought he could improve on this by having his own tapestry room custom-made in France, and had an opportunity to do so when the Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years’ War in 1763. In August of that year, Coventry traveled to Paris to visit the Royal Gobelins Manufactory, where the popular artist François Boucher had recently been brought over from the competing manufactory at Beauvais to execute paintings to serve as tapestry cartoons. Architect Jacques Germain Soufflot (1713–1780) appears to have conceived of the new tapestry composition of medallions containing scenes by Boucher. This scheme was further elaborated by the decorative painter Maurice Jacques (1712–1784), who placed the medallions on a crimson and dark pink ground patterned with flowers and leaves simulating silk damask and suspended them from a frame-like border resembling carved and gilded wood. The new design could be adjusted to fit any size wall, allowed for endless variation of animals and flowers in the decorative surrounds, and could be complemented with matching furniture covers. Coventry was the first to see the new scheme and brought several sketches back to Croome to show Adam, who took the basic idea and provided his own drawings with Neoclassical, rather than Rococo, motifs. The earl ignored these, the tapestry set went into production at the Gobelins in 1764, and Coventry and Adam continued their somewhat bumpy working relationship.

The ceiling design used in this room was made by Adam in 1763 and intended for the adjoining library, but Coventry, as was his wont, changed his mind. The work was executed by Joseph Rose, one of the best plasterers of the time, but the result is not entirely successful. Stylistically incompatible with the tapestries and overscaled for the room, it seems symptomatic of the difficulties possibly inherent in this Anglo-French venture. In 1763 and the following year, Boucher painted the subjects for the medallions: allegories of the Elements (now Musée du Louvre, Paris, and Grand Trianon, Versailles). Air (Cephalus and Aurora) and Earth (Vertumnus and Pomona) appear on the chimney wall, while Fire (Venus Visiting Vulcan) and Water (Neptune Rescuing Amymone) are on the left and right walls, respectively. Maurice Jacques worked on the decorative surrounds, and from 1760 to 1767 produced floral cartoons for furniture covers with decorative artist Louis Tessier (1719/20–1781).

Early accounts of the Croome tapestry room credit the design of the seat furniture to Adam, but recent research suggests that it must have originated at the Gobelins, perhaps by Soufflot. The chairs (58.75.16) and settees (58.75.21), as well as a large pier mirror (58.75.131), were produced in 1769 by the leading London cabinetmakers John Mayhew and William Ince. The mirror frame may well have been designed by Adam, as the goat’s head at the base and mask at the top have close affinities with his style. Below it stood a pier table with a carved and gilt six-legged base (58.75.130a,b), possibly executed at the same time as the mirror frame, topped by a slab of inlaid marble that was produced some ten years earlier by John Wildsmith (active 1757–69). Mayhew and Ince replaced the original base with the present one in 1794. In addition to supplying the top for the pier table, Wildsmith executed in 1760 the chimneypiece with white-marble decorative elements on a ground of orange Veronese marble. The large tablet of lapis lazuli set in the center was provided by the sculptor Joseph Wilton, who specialized in richly ornamented chimneypieces and, in 1764, became Sculptor to His Majesty. One of the specimen squares in the tabletop is also of lapis, suggesting that Coventry was particularly fond of this rare dark blue mineral flecked with brilliant pyrites. By June 1771, all the pieces from the Gobelins had arrived, and Mayhew and Ince sent a crew to hang the tapestries and apply the seat covers, completing work in the room.

Nine sets of medallion tapestries, known at the Gobelins as the Tentures de Boucher, were woven before the Revolution, with variations in iconography, design, and ground color (58.75.3); five of them went to England. The practice there of covering large areas of wall with tapestry, in conjunction with the taste for things French during the second half of the eighteenth century, may explain why Gobelins tapestry rooms became fashionable. Less explainable is the fact that they did not become fashionable in France.

The Croome Court tapestries have survived in good condition because the room, when not in use, was protected from the light by “paper case hangings” and later by those of chamois. Through the visits of George III, Queen Victoria, and many others, it remained the favorite room at Croome until about 1902, when the tapestries and the seat furniture were sold by the ninth earl of Coventry to a dealer in Paris. The Samuel H. Kress Foundation acquired the ceiling, carved chair rails and door surrounds, mahogany doors, chimneypiece, and floors in 1949 and gave them to the Museum in 1958. Through the Kress Foundation, the following year the Museum acquired the chair and sofa frames, which have been re-covered with their original tapestry seats, backs, and armrests.