Samuel's Reproach to Saul

Francis Cleync.1630-5

Tate Britain

Tate Britain
London, United Kingdom

Born in Rostock, in the duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin on the Baltic coast, Francis Cleyn (or Clein) pursued an international career. Probably trained in the Netherlands, he lived for a while in Venice but from 1617 is recorded working for the Danish court. At the request of James I, however, Cleyn was released from the service of Christian IV and from 1625 is recorded in England, where he was employed principally as chief designer at the Mortlake tapestry works. An expensive commodity, tapestry was an essential component of European court splendour and the Mortlake factory was sponsored by the crown. In May 1625 Cleyn was denizened, along with Philipe de Maecht, director of the weavers at Mortlake, and in 1638, after Charles I had acquired the workshops, he was confirmed as ‘designer of all patternes used in the said worke’, at a salary of £250 per annum for himself and an assistant.

Cleyn was one of the most important artists to work in England in the first half of the seventeenth century. As well as tapestry designs he produced ceiling and frieze decoration at Somerset House, where he worked for seven months, with two assistants; he designed the Great Seal and the privy purse; he worked at the Tower of London; and he also produced schemes for the interiors and exteriors of buildings for private clients. He also worked for print publishers. In 1632 he provided illustrations for George Sandys’s publication of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and in the 1640s and 1650s, when crown subsidy of Mortlake ceased, he produced sets of his own decorative and ornamental designs and also illustrations for John Ogilby’s lavish publications of Aesop and Virgil.

It is not known whether this design is for a tapestry or for a book illustration, although its wide horizontal format would seem to suggest the former. Drawn freely in grisaille, in pencil, pen and ink and a brown-grey wash on grey-blue paper, it is an initial design for a Biblical scene, illustrating Samuel, chapter 1, verse 15, lines 1–35. In his battle against the Amalekites, Samuel had instructed Saul to utterly destroy all before him. But instead of doing so, Saul had spared King Agag as well as ‘the best of the sheep, and of the oxon, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good’. For his sin of disobedience, and rejection of the word of the Lord, Samuel told Saul that God had rejected him as King of Israel. As Samuel turned to go, Saul ‘laid hold upon the skirt of his mantle, and it rent. And Samuel said unto him, The Lord hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbour of thine, that is better than thou’. It is this moment in particular that Cleyn depicts. In the foreground Saul grabs hold of Samuel’s cloak, while in the background King Agag can be seen flanked by two soldiers. At the rear of the procession the spared sheep can be seen, while the smoke of a sacked city rises in the distance.

Although possibly an example of what Sir William Sanderson called Cleyn’s ‘excellent designes for those rare Tapestry work, wrought at Moretlake, which will eternize his aged body’, it is not a design for one of Cleyn’s known tapestry series, the most famous of which were The Horses and Hero and Leander. At his death, as well as working on illustrations for Ogilby’s Iliad, he was also supervising new designs for Mortlake, and throughout his life Cleyn must have produced designs that were never woven. Thirteen designs, apparently for tapestry and including Biblical scenes, are in the collection of the University of Southampton, some of which are signed ‘F.Clein f’, as is this sketch.

Tabitha Barber


  • Title: Samuel's Reproach to Saul
  • Creator: Francis Cleyn
  • Date: c.1630-5
  • Provenance: Purchased 1990
  • Physical Dimensions: 245 x 396 mm
  • Original Title: Samuel's Reproach to Saul
  • Rights: Tate
  • Medium: Graphite, ink and watercolour on paper

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