William Morris had always admired antique tapestries ever since he encountered them in the Queen Elizabeth Hunting Lodge in Epping Forest as a child. He later recalled: "How well I remember as a boy my first acquaintance with a room hung with faded greenery… and the impression of romance it made upon me". He first began learning tapestry weaving in 1879, setting up a loom in his bedroom at Kelmscott House so he could spend some time weaving each morning. He kept a diary of his progress showing that some days he spent up to nine or ten hours at the loom. After spending over five hundred hours working on his first tapestry, ‘Acanthus and Vine’, Morris stopped before he completed it, having felt he had acquired the basic technique required to move on to further projects.
By the mid-1880s tapestry designs at Morris & Co. were largely a collaborative effort with groups of artists working together on the design. However, this tapestry is unusual in that is was designed entirely by William Morris and woven at Merton Abbey under his strict supervision. The design is based on a classical legend from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’. The story is of King Picus of Latium who was skilled at augury, the Roman practise of interpreting the will of the gods by studying the flight patterns of birds. Picus was famous for using a woodpecker for his divination. In the legend the sorceress Circe attempts to seduce Picus whilst he was out hunting, he rejects her advances and she transforms him into a woodpecker for scorning her love. The text on this tapestry comes from Morris’s own poetry on the tale and reads: "I once a king and chief now am the tree bark’s thief ever twixt trunk and leaf chasing the prey".