Kim Tourret: A tapestry conservator in the making
Fresh from graduating in 2018 from the Centre for Textile Conservation at the University of Glasgow, I was lucky enough to be awarded the last of three one-year tapestry conservation internships at Historic Royal Palaces (HRP). These are funded jointly by HRP and the Clothworkers’ Foundation, and based at Hampton Court Palace.
I had little practical experience of tapestry conservation prior to the internship, but I was fascinated by their structure and weaving and wanted experience working on large objects and dealing with the challenges of historic sites.
In trying to summarise and reflect on my experience over the last 12 months, I realised that my time with tapestries has been surprisingly varied, an unexpected world of extremes. So, with that in mind, I have decided to frame this article in terms of extremes, or ‘micro-to-macro’ if you will.
De-installing a tapestry with the tapestry and preventive conservation teams. Copyright Historic Royal Palaces, 2019
Training for tapestry
As all new staff members to the conservation studio as well as existing textile conservators who wish to refresh their skills do when beginning a conservation project with a tapestry at HRP, I started my training with a small sampler completed on a piece of replica fabric, no larger than a square metre. You create the damage yourself, making areas of complete loss and fraying away wefts to leave bare warps, and then try to replicate the appropriate stitching techniques used in tapestry conservation to support and strengthen the weak areas.
Once my sampler was approved by my supervisor, I was allowed to work on my first real historic tapestry. Going from practicing on a small piece of replica fabric to conserving an approximately 4m x 3.5m 17th century Mortlake tapestry (‘Fireships at Dawn’ from The Battle of Solebay series) seems like quite a jump, but it provided me with a valuable opportunity to sit side by side with my conservator colleagues and compare and learn from their work. Unsurprisingly, I was not put to work on the inner field where the majority of the silk wefts had been lost, requiring intensive conservation stitching, but started helping out on the borders where the loss was less severe and I could apply and practice my techniques I learned in smaller areas.
Whilst intimidating, this training on an actual historic tapestry prepared me well for the loom work of my individual internship project - a 17th century Flemish tapestry, ‘Marcus Aurelius Reproving his Wife’, kindly lent by the Buccleuch Living Heritage Trust from Boughton House. I was able to consider all of the techniques I had been taught to develop a detailed methodology and confidently execute the stitching treatment I planned for the areas of loss and weakness.
Micrography images taken before (left) and after (right) wet cleaning. Copyright Historic Royal Palaces, 2019
Lessons in stitching
One aspect of the stitching treatment that can only be appreciated on the actual object is the way support needs to be balanced with aesthetics. HRP adopts methods that aim to fully support the tapestry for the purposes of long-term stability on open display, so conservation stitching can be very extensive taking into consideration how heavy the tapestries are and the stress they are under. Areas that have been totally re-warped (where new warps are inserted to create structure where the original warps have been lost) and secured with close brick couching can have an astonishing number of stitches - on the 17th century tapestry I am currently conserving, it requires up to 17 stitches per cm2.
In contrast to the large quantity of stitching required to strengthen the tapestry, the visual impact on the areas treated is comparatively minimal in most cases. As well as carefully colour matching stitching threads using any remaining wefts or other visual references available, the stitching is carefully balanced to only enhance the image and not restore it.
Image: Wet cleaning with the tapestry conservation team. Copyright Historic Royal Palaces, 2019
Project planning scaled up
I found that planning the treatment of tapestries is a balance of considering the (literally) big picture and also tiny details. In working on my individual project, I needed to prioritise the key conservation issues and accept that, due to its size, examining and documenting a tapestry in the same way as a smaller object is just not possible. While I learnt that, at approximately 3.7m x 3m, ‘Marcus Aurelius’ is a relatively small tapestry, it is by far the largest object that I have conserved, and it was a real challenge for me.
Completing an object examination and providing a report for a private client meant that I needed a way to express a large amount of information in a simple fashion, so diagrams were key, especially when trying to document over 170 repair patches found when the lining was removed.
There is also the not-so-small matter of providing a treatment estimate. One has to bear in mind that standard treatment procedures can require significant time and resources once scaled up. For example, having to scour and block out enough linen scrim to provide the backing for a tapestry will take two people several days.
One of the unique opportunities at HRP is the ability to wet clean tapestries in the custom wash bath (the largest in the UK) in house. Preparation focuses on small test areas, where pH levels, colour measurements and micrography are used to quantify the results of the wet cleaning. I undertook all the preparations myself. However, wet-cleaning is a big operation in terms of staff resources, needing a team of around six conservators, as well as the conservation science team who monitor the pH and soling and detergency residue levels.
Day to day
The most obvious examples of extremes in tapestry conservation are in the day-to-day activities. For the most part, when carrying out stitching treatment at the loom the average day is pretty sedentary – although you have to make sure that your posture is good and remember to swap hands occasionally. However, as I found out quite soon after the beginning of my internship, any work outside of the studio is at the other end of the scale physically, and usually involves scaffolding and knee pads.
Work outside the studio includes the annual audits or condition surveys, and installing and deinstalling tapestries as necessary for display rotation or treatment purposes. To minimise the impact on the viewing public, the team usually tries to complete these operations outside open hours and within good time. For example, a team of six tapestry conservators, including myself, together with help from several preventive conservators, deinstalled eight tapestries and four armorials (smaller tapestries usually positioned over doorways) from the Great Watching Chamber at Hampton Court Palace in only 20 hours over four days. Bearing in mind the weight of the tapestries (the heaviest in the Great Watching Chamber is 78kg including its roller), installing and deinstalling large tapestries is particularly strenuous. This along with clambering up scaffolding and crawling around on the floor rolling and unrolling objects guarantees a good night’s sleep!
Tapestry after stitching treatment (front). Copyright Historic Royal Palaces, 2019
This internship has given me experiences that are unique to tapestry conservation but also unique to HRP. The opportunities to plan and carry out the conservation treatment of such a large and intricate object are rare, and while a year is not enough to make me a tapestry expert, it has certainly given me a wonderful insight into working with them. I have found that beyond the expected long hours of intensive stitching, tapestry conservation is so much broader, complicated and challenging, especially in historic settings and with such unique and precious objects. Outside my time in the studio, I have also been fortunate enough to visit Boughton House to view their amazing collection, to visit the National Trust Textile Conservation Studios to talk about the tapestries being conserved there, as well as attend ICON workshops on tapestry weaving and costume mounting. These experiences have all added to my professional knowledge and enabled me to further reflect on the work I do at HRP.
I owe a special thank you to the CCC-CM-IM team at HRP who have made my time there a complete joy, especially my supervisors, Emma Henni and Mika Takami who have been wonderfully supportive. I would also like to thank the Clothworkers’ Foundation who so generously help to fund my internship. Finally, I need to thank Duke of Buccleuch & Queensberry and the Trustees of the Buccleuch Living Heritage Trust who have trusted me to look after their beautiful tapestry.