Conservation project to protect unique 400-year old tapestries enters final stage

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Conservators sewing the border onto the tapestry showing ‘Gideon Attacking the Midianites’ at Hardwick Hall, which has returned from conservation treatment. Credit: National Trust

The National Trust’s longest running conservation project takes an important step forward with a carefully conserved tapestry from a 440-year-old set being brought back to Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.

It is the 12th tapestry of the set of 13 to be conserved and returned to Hardwick Hall, after several years in the care of specialist textile conservators.

The work on the tapestries is the Trust’s largest textile conservation project, having started in 2001, and will not be completed until 2023.

As the penultimate one returns to Hardwick from its conservation treatment, the final tapestry has begun its journey to the Trust’s specialist Textile Conservation Studio in Norfolk, for a process expected to take 24 months.

The tapestries tell the story of Gideon from the Old Testament Book of Judges, who leads an army to save his people from the Midianites.

They hang in the Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall – the masterpiece of sixteenth century architecture commissioned by its owner Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury – known as Bess of Hardwick. The Long Gallery is the largest surviving Elizabethan long gallery and the only one to retain its original tapestries and many of its original paintings. 

“Even though our houses were closed for almost five months this year, behind the scenes we have been very busy getting ready to welcome our visitors and this is a particularly special project for us,” said Denise Edwards, General Manager at Hardwick.

“This is an extremely important set of tapestries – the largest surviving set in the UK which has hung in the Long Gallery since the end of the sixteenth century. They are absolutely vast in scale – nearly 6 metres high and 70.6 metres in length (20 ft by 230 feet) making this one of the most ambitious tapestry sets of the period, rivalling other great works of the 1530s and 1540s. 

“It is remarkable that they have hung in the same place since they were bought by Bess of Hardwick, and we have looked forward to welcoming this tapestry back from its conservation.”

The tapestries were woven in the Flemish region of Oudenaarde for Sir Christopher Hatton, whose coat of arms and initials are woven into the borders. They were almost certainly intended for the Long Gallery at Holdenby Hall which was already under construction in 1578, the date woven into the tapestries. 

When Hatton died in 1591 his nephew, Sir William Newport, sold most of the contents of Holdenby to pay off his uncle’s debts, including the Gideon tapestries which were bought by Bess of Hardwick in London in 1592 for the huge sum of £326 15s 9d – the equivalent of £128,000 in today’s money.

Bess had patches with her own coat of arms stitched and painted over Hatton’s, and his crest of a golden hind was converted into a Cavendish stag from Bess’ coat of arms, by adding painted antlers. The tapestries have remained at Hardwick Hall ever since.

Conserving tapestries is a slow and careful process which can take up to three years. Each tapestry is taken to the National Trust’s Textile Conservation Studio in Norfolk for inspection and preparation for work. The borders, which were woven separately, are detached and the lining and any patches are carefully removed ready for cleaning. 

For cleaning, the tapestry is sent to specialists in Belgium for a wet washing process which removes the soot and dust of centuries, without risking any damage and allows details to be seen clearly once more. Each piece takes a whole day.

Once back at the Textile Conservation Studio, the team work out a plan for its conservation and how to tackle problems in the tapestry.

Elena Williams, Senior House and Collections officer at Hardwick Hall explained: “The main part of our work involves stitching by hand, section by section. Weakened and broken threads are replaced, and the entire tapestry is sewn onto a linen scrim which provides support. The final stage is lining with cotton cambric and adding the fixing which allow it to be hung once more.

“Each of the tapestries in this set has presented its own challenges. One challenge in this latest tapestry was the large number of patches, apparently cut from other tapestries, and used in historic repairs. Each patch was treated individually and in some cases they were kept where they fitted well, while others were recorded in detail and removed with the damage repaired with current conservation sewing methods.”

The conservation allowed for new research to be carried out at the same time. During the inspection, a patch with a weaver’s mark was discovered. The presence of different weavers’ marks indicates that the tapestries were not all woven in the same place, the work being subcontracted out to weavers in nearby towns. 

The conservation of the Gideon tapestries has been made possible in part with the generous support of donations and external funding. The final tapestry in the set will cost £287,169 with the money being given to the Trust by a private donor. 

Now the newly returned tapestry is back from conservation, it will be left for at least two years without portraits hung over it to allow it to be seen in all its glory, as originally intended.

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