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Archive for the 'Textiles' Category

What exactly do you do?

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

By Glyn Davies

The Courtauld Gothic Ivories project board meeting

If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked this, I’d be a wealthy man. The usual thing is that I meet someone at a social event, the talk turns to work and careers, and then comes the big moment when I reveal that I am a museum curator. This usually earns a lot of blank looks, and then some courageous soul pipes up with ‘what exactly does that involve?’. The sub-text here, of course, is that museums are assumed to be unchanging places, and the museum curator is an ivory tower academic who maybe sometimes dusts things.

Actually, curators do an incredibly busy and varied job, many of them putting in long hours for very little financial reward, largely for love of the wonderful objects that they work with and the pleasure of communicating about them with others. If you’re reading this blog, then the chances are that you already knew that, but I thought you might be interested to get a detailed sense of what this curator, at least, does on a daily basis. So, below, I’ve been through my diary over a recent two week period, and pulled out some of the more interesting things I found myself doing. Maybe now I’ll never have to answer that question at a party again!

March 10th-11th: to York, for a conference on medieval stained glass and its display in museums, organised by the History of Art department at York University. My paper looked at the challenges we’d faced, and the choices we’d made when developing our new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. The discussions were lively, because no way of handling the display of stained glass is entirely satisfactory, and there are strong opinions!

March 15th: A student group from University College London came to the Museum, and I ran a close-up session for them looking at five medieval ivory and bone carvings produced in the period 1300-1450. Talking to students is always fun, because their views are often fresh and unclouded by too many assumptions. Later that day, I had a meeting with a colleague to discuss an idea for a potential exhibition of medieval textiles.

March 16th: Locked in a basement in north London, recording audio tours and commentaries for an iPod app that we’ve developed to showcase the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. I was feeling pretty confident, until  I was told that they’d had Rupert Everett in the day before doing recordings for a similar audio tour of our Cult of Beauty exhibition…

March 22nd: I finally finish drafting a catalogue record for an interesting ivory depicting the murder of Saint Thomas Becket by four knights in Canterbury Cathedral. This is the ivory in question: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O106938/panel-martyrdom-of-st-thomas/. There are a few of these in existence - this example is quite late in date, but copies a design that was at least thirty or forty years old at the time this ivory was carved. The clue is in the figures’ armour - those square shapes on the shoulders are characteristic of armour fashion in the 1330s, but this ivory was carved no earlier than 1360.

March 23rd: a board meeting for the Courtauld Institute’s Gothic Ivories project. This, by the way, is what’s going on in the photo above. This ambitious project aims to put the vast majority of surviving gothic ivory carvings (about 4,000 in number) on a single, searchable website, complete with high quality images. It involves an enormous amount of collaboration between institutions, and in the photo above you can see curators from London, Paris and New York, together with well-known collectors and dealers in the field. If you want to learn more about the project - and to search the database - then take a look at their website: http://www.gothicivories.courtauld.ac.uk/

March 24th: in the morning, a lovely visit to the National Gallery’s current exhibition on Jan Gossaert. In the afternoon, a colleague from the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore visited, and together we looked at medieval objects in the collection that have been altered over time. At the end of the day, I find myself fielding an urgent phone call regarding a visit to the Museum the next day by a group of donors. Fortunately, in the event, I’m able to persuade a colleague to take this one on…

March 30th: I give a formal lecture to students on the study course The Medieval World at the V&A. It’s about medieval textiles, and is followed by a visit to the galleries to see and discuss the objects in detail. After two hours of solid talking on my part, my voice is in need of a rest!

And that’s it. Just two weeks of my life, but quite busy and varied. Working in the V&A is fun, exciting, and intellectually challenging. But how to sum that up when asked? I’m still not sure I have a good answer.

What Makes a Renaissance Ball Swing?

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

By Glyn Davies

Renaissance Ball at the V&A, Friday 29th January 2010. Photograph by Peter Kelleher.Although it’s now a while since the event happened, I couldn’t resist posting a blog entry on the Renaissance Ball that the V&A hosted in the new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries in late January. As you can see from the photos posted here, the guests’ amazing costumes contributed in no small measure to what was a hugely successful event - although their interpretation of Renaissance clothes was broad to say the least! Rather than give you my own opinions about the ball, I’ve asked my friend and colleague Melissa Hamnett, a curator in the Sculpture Department, who was one of the organisers, to tell you about it instead. So, over to you, Melissa!

‘On January 29, over 5,000 people flocked to the V&A’s Friday Late to strut their stuff at a special Renaissance masked ball to celebrate the opening of the new galleries. In collaboration with the Last Tuesday Society, the V&A put on a wide programme of workshops, performances and readings drawing on the masked tradition of the Commedia dell’Arte.

Elaborate attire was the order of the day as costume designers from Wimbledon College of Art donned contemporary clothes for their production of Monteverdi’s opera, L’Orfeo, while members of the public arrived in fantastical masks and period dress to revel in lute-playing and mask-making workshop amongst others.Renaissance Ball at the V&A, Friday 29th January 2010. Photograph by Peter Kelleher.The Monteverdi Choir and the Glydebourne Opera Company performed madrigals and arias by Tallis and Pucell from the balcony in the Renaissance City gallery, while story-telling, silhouette-making and shadow-puppetry took place elsewhere. During a tour of the medieval galleries, many heard the historian Dan Cruickshank embellish on objects such as chalices and chasubles, to sarcophagi and stemmata, while four graduates of the London Contemporary Dance School produced a specially commissioned piece in the Raphael Cartoon Courts. The evening’s events saw all ages delve into the fun in what proved to be one of the most successful Friday Lates to date.’

Of course, what Melissa hasn’t told you is the sheer amount of work involved in planning an event of this sort. She and other team members were working on it during the period in which the Galleries were being installed, and taking part in the installation at the same time. One of the interesting things that’s struck me having seen a number of parties and events happening within the new galleries is how much they lend themselves to this slightly more theatrical, and less didactic, way of experiencing them. This may have something to do with the largest space, ‘The Renaissance City 1350-1600′ in particular. This gallery was intended to provide a broader context for the monumental sculpture and architecture displayed within it by evoking the feel of renaissance interior and exterior spaces. It’s this broadly evocative approach, which means that parts of the gallery feel like a courtyard, or an Italian piazza space, that lends itself to these kinds of events. But speaking as a medievalist, it seems a shame for the renaissance to have all the fun. Maybe we should plan an event for the Feast of Fools?

New Year, New Author

Saturday, April 10th, 2010

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that Stuart Frost, its regular author since 2006, has not been adding many posts recently. This is because he is now working at the British Museum as Head of Interpretation. For a few months after the opening of the V&A’s new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries, Stuart has graciously kept up his work on this blog, but is now bowing out - leaving me with some pretty big shoes to fill.

My name is Glyn, and I’m a curator of medieval art here at the V&A. I was in charge of the area of the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries on the lower ground floor. In a shameless piece of self-promotion, I should also mention that I was the co-author of the book to accompany the galleries, Medieval and Renaissance Art: People and Possessions (for details, see http://www.vandashop.com/product.php?xProd=4356&xSec=30&navlock=1). Over the next few months, I’m hoping to post on aspects of medieval and renaissance art and history that are relevant to the V&A’s collections, that give you an insight into the work we do behind the scenes, or which I simply find interesting and think worth pointing out. It’s more fun when there’s a discussion, so I’d like to begin by asking for recommendations from you for things to do or upcoming events in London that reflect the medieval and renaissance periods. Please post any good ideas or suggestions in the comments area below.

Doubting Thomas on the Syon Cope

The image attached to this entry is a detail of a large embroidered cope (a sort of ceremonial cloak), which features in the new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. This detail, depicting Doubting Thomas thrusting his hand into Christ’s side wound, because this is the only way in which he will believe that Christ has been resurrected from the dead, recently featured in the Easter editorial of one of the big national newspapers. The cope was made in London, probably not far from Saint Paul’s cathedral, in the early fourteenth century. It’s often surprising where images of V&A objects will show up. Usually, as in this case, it’s as a result of us re-presenting or publishing the object in some way. As well appearing prominently in the new galleries, the cope was also the subject of a talk I gave at a three day conference looking at Medieval and Renaissance Art that we held at the museum in February, so it’s certainly been receiving more attention. On the other hand, I’m sometimes surprised by the contexts in which I find our objects. One of my guilty pleasures is reading comic books. A couple of years ago, I bought an expensive hardback edition of one of Neil Gaiman’s series of Sandman comics (’The Wake’, for those who are interested). In it, the graphic artist Dave McKean had taken photos of a number of V&A objects, including a lamp by the Renaissance artist Riccio, and an ivory crucifix figure by the thirteenth-century sculptor Giovanni Pisano, and had manipulated the images to create the spooky atmosphere needed to set the scene for the comic’s stories. I’d be interested to hear about any surprising uses of V&A object images that you’ve come across…

A Labour of Love

Friday, December 18th, 2009

By Stuart Frost

There is an extensive and varied programme of events to support the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. Activities, talks, special projects and lectures will take place throughout 2010. A fascinating demonstration took place on Saturday 5th December, the first weekend the galleries were open to the public, and it focused on a unique object that I think will astound visitors who see it.Quilted bedcover, Italy, about 1355-1400. Museum no. 1391-1904.

The object in question is a large bed-cover that can be dated between 1360-1400, and perhaps even more precisely than that. The quilt is vast, 320cm high by 287cm wide. It is decorated with fourteen scenes from the story of Tristan. The photograph to the right shows a detail from one of the scenes, with the hero Tristan pointing to his sword.

Photographs of the original quilt really don’t do it justice. It looks far more spectacular in reality, partly because it is easier to appreciate its vast scale and to read the scenes. The image at the bottom of this page should give you a sense of how big the quilt is, although it doesn’t include all of the object.

Tristan is a chivalrous knight who performs great deeds but whose life is ultimately brought to a sad conclusion as the result of a tragic love affair with Isolde, the queen of his lord, King Mark of Cornwall. As in many great romance stories, love grows but doom follows.

The Tristan quilt belongs to the age of romance literature, a type of literature that was popular from the middle of the twelfth century until the sixteenth. These types of poems and stories were written in the local vernacular, rather than the Latin of the church. .Detail from a modern copy of the Tristan Quilt made by Francine Nicolle.

If you click on any of the pictures in this blog entry you will find more information about the quilt, and be able to access a larger group of images on Flickr. Some of those photographs relate to conservation work that was undertaken to prepare the quilt for display in the new galleries. Others, like the one to the left, relate to the recent demonstration of the technique that was used to create the copy.

The scenes on the quilt were created by stitching the outlines of the figures through two layers of linen, and then carefully stuffing the pockets between the layers with cotton. Then the loose stitches that form the outline were tightened. The figures are raised in relief, the background between them is flat. The technique is still practiced in France where it is known as boutis. Over a number of years a large number of French men and women brought together by the Musee de Boutis in Calvisson have been involved in making a modern copy of the Tristan quilt.

Francine Nicolle has been the driving force behind the project. I first met her several years ago when she brought examples of the work to the V&A. After six thousand hours of work her copy of the quilt was finally completed earlier this year. It really is a remarkable achievement and one which raises many interesting questions about how the original was made. Francine and her French colleagues arrived in London on Friday 4th December, and the following day they laid out the quilt in the Sackler Centre Art Studio so that the public could see it. Throughout the day a number of demonstrations took place, and the public were able to participate and try the technique for themselves.

Detail from a modern copy of the Tristan Quilt made by Francine Nicolle.The event was a great success thanks to the efforts of the delegation from Calvisson and colleagues in the Learning & Interpretation department who planned the event over a long period of time. French speakers from within the department were on hand to translate the talks given by Francine and her team. The provision of powerful lights helped to illuminate the quilt and show exactly how the figures on the quilt were raised. The attention to detail helped give visitors a clear sense of the technique. It really was a remarkable event and quite an emotional occassion.

I’ll post extra photographs of the event on Flickr in due course. I’d like to thank everyone involved in the project, but especially Francine Nicolle, Catherine Paoli, Christina Shannon and at the V&A Helen Didier and Maureen McKarkiel.

Quilted bedcover, Italy, 1355-1400. Museum no. 1391-1904.Although the galleries themselves are now open this doesn’t mean that the work of the project team has finished. A large amount of content will be added to the V&A website over the coming months so if you check back at regular intervals you are likely to discover something new. The Tristan Quilt is one of the objects that will be the focus on an in-depth online only subject.

We also hope that a subject exploring the links between some of the key objects in the galleries and the literature of medieval and Renaissance Europe will be added in due course. The version of the Tristan story illustrated on the quilt is a 14th century Italian version that isn’t easy to find. The most accessible English translation is the Penguin Classic edition written by the German Gottfried von Strassburg. He who followed an earlier version written in French by Thomas around 1160. It is a wonderful story, and a very good read.

If you wish to come to the V&A to see the quilt you will find it in Room 9, The Rise of Gothic 1200-1350. It is part of a subject that looks at the subject of Knights and Heraldry. If you wanted an object that epitomised these themes I don’t think you could find a better one. The quilt depicts a magnificent castle, kings and queens, knights in armour, brave deeds and a duel to the death. You can find out more about the quilt and see images of all of its scenes online via Search the Collections.

If you have any questions or comments please do post them below and we’ll endeavour to answer them as soon as we can!

A Replica Tunic from Egypt: Part 4

Monday, August 24th, 2009

By Stuart Frost

When I last wrote about this Egyptian tunic in June of this year I promised readers that I’d provide an update. The conservation work on this rare survival is now complete and the garment is ready for installation into Gallery 8: Faiths and Empires 300-1250, one of ten Medieval & Renaissance Galleries at the V&A which will open later this year.

The replica of the Egyptian tunic alongside the original in Textiles Conservation.When installed in the display case the tunic will be supported on a specially constructed form or structure that will ensure the delicate object is displayed effectively and appropriately.  The Medieval & Renaissance Galleries will include over one thousand eight hundred objects, a vast number of objects of all shapes, materials and sizes. The logistics involved in installing such a large number of objects is mind-boggling. Object installation has had to be phased over a long period of time to enable staff at the Museum to cope with the demanding workload. The Egyptian tunic will be installed in its case during September, a few months before the public opening date. 

The tunic can’t be displayed as it would have been worn because this would create creases and folds that would expose the garment to unacceptable levels of stress.  However visitors will be able to try on a complete replica which will give an extremely accurate sense of what it was like to wear the tunic. When I wrote about this replica in June, work was still in progress but as you can see from the pictures that illustrate this entry the project is now complete. Keira Miller has made three tunics whilst working in the Textiles Conservation studio at the V&A. One of the tunics will be displayed in a Discovery Area in new galleries where visitors will be able to try it on. The other two tunics will be kept as spares and will be rotated when the Discovery Area garment needs to be sent for dry-cleaning.

My colleagues in the Photo Studio at the V&A, Peter Kelleher and Maike Zimmermann, were fascinated about the work that had been undertaken on the tunic and very kindly agreed to make a short film documenting the project. The film was shot in the Textiles Conservation Studio at the V&A and features Senior Textiles Conservator, Elizabeth-Anne Haldane talking about the project with the original tunic laid out on a table. If you’d like to see the film please click on the link provided below.

If you’d like to know more about the conservation work and the results of the research into the original tunic an article by Elizabeth-Anne was published in Issue 57 of the V&A’s Conservation Journal. A digital version of this edition will be added to the website shortly so I have provided the link below. Elizabeth-Anne is also writing an online subject about the tunic and this will be added to the website late in 2009. Watch this space for more details.

If you have any questions that you’d to ask, or comments that you’d like to make, please post them below.

Click here to see the film about the Egyptian tunic on Vimeo.

Click here to read the V&A’s Conservation Journal online.

Mounting and Fixing

Monday, July 13th, 2009

By Stuart Frost

Woman's girdle, about 1540-80, Italy or France, Museum no. T.370-1989.There will be approximately one thousand and eight hundred objects for visitors to enjoy in the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. Regular readers of this blog will know that object installation has been underway for sometime. As the opening of the galleries approaches rapidly, mounting and fixing has been coming ever closer to the fore. 

Every object to be displayed in the new galleries has been the subject of discussion to establish how it can be displayed to best effect. There are numerous factors which need to considered and sometimes conflicting demands that need to be reconciled. For example, if an object is displayed too far back from the front of a case, or if the angle it is displayed at isn’t quite right, visitors will be unable to fully enjoy the object. Many exhibition cases bear the marks left by visitor’s noses or foreheads in their desperate attempts to get a good view of a beautiful object. However some objects are too fragile to be displayed at the ideal angle for a visitor so finding the ideal solution can be a challenge.

G. Preparing the Mount for a Woman's girdle, about 1540-80, Italy or France, Museum no. T.370-1989.  Photograph by Constanze Zimmer.The production of mounts for objects has now been taking place at the V&A for sometime. Some objects are comparatively straightforward and can sit, for example, on a shelf within a case without any external or internal support. Other objects pose significantly greater challenges testing the ingenuity and skills of those involved to the limit. The object illustrated here in the top right corner definitely falls into the latter category. 

The picture of the object laid flat isn’t very helpful in suggesting the original function of the object and demonstrates just how important way an object is displayed is. Despite the concertinaed appearance in the photograph the object is a 16th century girdle that would have been wrapped once around a woman’s waist and then tied in front. At 3.75m it is a remarkably long girdle which suggests that it might have been worn by a rather tall lady with a wider than average waist. The ends of the girdle are weighted with knots would have ensured that it hung loose at the hem of her gown. To find out a little more about the girdle, or to see a larger image, please click on the picture.

J. Making a mount for a girdle. Photograph by Constanze Zimmer.The girdle is made from silk and metal threads and despite its fragile and delicate appearance it is surprisingly heavy. It will be displayed in a subject display called What People Wore and Why. After considerable debate, discussion and experimentation it has been decided to suspend the girdle in the case with the ingenious use of a mount that will project from the back wall of the case. The overall aim is to produce a mount that fully supports the girdle whilst remaining as discreet as possible and giving the viewer a clear sense of how the object would have been worn. The object’s weight and its length made the mount-making process particularly challenging and demanded a creative solution.

The first stage of mount production involved shaping clear acrylic into a waist shaped support and then covering it with padding and textile. The image above and to the left shows the girdle pinned to this waist-shaped mount. The full length of girdle couldn’t be displayed in the case. There is an aperture in the back of the mount that allows some of the textile to sit inside and rest on the bottom plate. The acrylic plate, or lid, that you can see in the picture will be covered with a dark textile.

The picture above and to the right shows the girdle temporarily pinned to the almost finished mount in the Textiles Conservation Studio at the V&A. The trailing ends of the girdle rest on cut acrylic which can’t be seen in the photograph. The mount is now finished which means that the object can installed inside the relevant case in due course. If you’d like to see more pictures of the production of the mount for the girdle there are ten pictures posted on the V&A Medieval & Renaissance site on Flickr. You can reach the Flickr site by clicking on any of the photographs reproduced here.

I would like to thank Constanze Zimmer for providing the photographs to illustrate this blog entry and for additional information about the mount-making process. If you have any comments or questions please post them below. When the object is finally installed I’ll provide an update here.

A Tunic from Egypt: Part 3

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

By Stuart Frost

If you’ve been following this blog for a long period of time you’ll know that I’ve written about the tunic from Egypt before (Museum no. 291-1891).  In fact I first wrote about the work Elizabeth-Anne Haldane, Senior Textile Conservator, was doing on the tunic back in June 2007 and provided another update in November 2008. Those entries are archived if you haven’t read seen them before. The gap between those blog entries, and this one, give some sense of how long the process of preparing an object for display can be. The team involved, however, have been working on other projects and objects at the same time. The previous blog entries also highlight how much new information can be gained about an object through intensive interdisciplinary research.Work in a progress on a replica of a tunic. Photograph by Simon Carter.

In developing the displays and the activities that go alongside them we’ve endeavoured to adhere to a number of key principles. One of those was that we wanted to offer visitors opportunities to actively engage with the displays and to experience some things directly for themselves. Whilst there will be plenty of materials for people to touch throughout the new galleries, we’ve worked hard to ensure that these activities are ‘minds on’ as well as ‘hands on’. The activities have to help enhance peoples’ understanding of the objects in a meaningful and enjoyable way.

We decided at an early stage that we’d like to include accurate replicas of clothing for visitors to try on in the Discovery Area spaces. The Egyptian tunic was an obvious candidate for various reasons, some of which were simply practical. For example the tunic is a garment that can easily be slipped over visitors’ existing clothing. The tunic was made between 642-800 and unlike later medieval clothing, often adorned with luxurious velvet and extravagant fur linings, the tunic was made from materials that we could replicate authentically without the cost soaring beyond the available budget.

After a number of meetings and discussions the project began to take shape.  As you can see from the pictures that illustrate this blog entry work on the facsimile tunic has made significant progress. Keira Miller has been working away in the Textiles Conservation studio at the V&A, making templates, cutting fabric and stitching the seams together. Click on the pictures more information about what is shown.  The production of the tunic, and a number of spares, is almost complete. It has been wonderful to see the results of Keira’s and Elizabeth-Anne’s work taking shape.A replica of a tunic from Egypt. Photograph by Keira Miller.

The replica of the Egyptian tunic adheres to another of the principles that underpins our approach to gallery based interpretation. It is informed by the results of new research stimulated by the redevelopment of the galleries. We wanted some of the interactives and activities in the gallery to reflect new research but to present in away that was meaningfully and engaging for visitors of all ages. I think the tunic will achieve this in a very effective way.  It is one thing to see a tunic hanging on a mount behind glass, quite another to pull it over one’s head and to experience moving around in a garment.  Experience from other projects at the V&A proves that adults enjoy trying on clothing as much as younger visitors. Whilst anyone will be able to try the tunic on, the replica will reflect the dimensions of the original and will look at its best on an adult.

We were keen that the replica should be as authentic as possible and the results of the research into the object have helped us achieve that objective. The cost of commissioning real tapestry decoration to be stitched to the tunic was beyond the available budget. However Elizabeth-Anne sourced a digitally printed alternative of high quality that was produced and supplied by Zardi and Zardi. You can see the printed fabric in both pictures.

When the replica tunic is finished I’ll post some more pictures here and hopefully a short film showing what the tunic looks like when it is worn. If you’d like to know more about the conservation work and the results of the research into the original tunic an article by Elizabeth-Anne will published in November 2009 in the V&A’s Conservation Journal. As ever if you have any questions or comments please post them below and I’d do my best to respond promptly and helpfully.

Boars, Bears and Boxing Day Hunts

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

By Stuart Frost

Detail from a Tapestry depicting scenes of a Boar and Bear Hunt, Museum no. T 204 1957.Hunting animals with dogs became a criminal offence in the United Kingdom in February 2005. A recent article in the Times highlighted that the ban remains extremely contentious. Boxing Day has long been a key date in the hunting calendar and apparently the numbers attending hunts on the 26th December has increased over the last few years. This has lead to increased pressure for the ban on hunting to be overturned.

Hunting with hounds does, of course, have a long history. Over the last few weeks I’ve been working with curatorial colleagues to develop content for a touch screen interactive related to a vast tapestry with scenes of a boar and bear hunt. I’ve illustrated this entry with a selection of images of this tapestry. Click on the image to find out more about what is shown. The tapestry was woven around 1425-1430 in the Southern Netherlands. By the end of the sixteenth century the tapestry was probably at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. The history of hunting with hounds stretches back much further than the early fifteenth century.

Detail from a Tapestry depicting scenes of a Boar and Bear Hunt, Museum no. T.204-1957. The splendour and magnificence of the fashionable clothing worn by the participants emphasises that hunting in medieval and Renaissance Europe was the preserve of royalty and nobility. Boars were hunted for both the sport and their meat. Bears were hunted purely for the challenge. They were a dangerous quarry and several nobles lost their lives in their pursuit of the thrill that hunting bears provided. By the time this tapestry was woven wild bears were extinct in the British Isles.

Hunting provided nobles with an opportunity to escape from the rigours of political life. They could practice skills that were applicable to tournaments and the battle field. The social aspects of hunting allowed them to mix with and impress their peers. The scenes on the tapestry reflect the pursuit of men by women, and women by men. A tapestry like this one was probably hung from floor to ceiling inside a impressive residence. No doubt the scenes reminded the owner of pleasurable pursuits when engaged in more mundane affairs.

The scenes of a boar and bear reflect a closeness to nature that few of us share today. How many of us have seen the animals we eat being killed? The bear in the centre of tapestry has the tip of a broken spear in its chest, its jaws are clamped around the neck of a mastiff in a desperate struggle that it is about to loose. King Henry VIII owned over 200 hundred hunting tapestries but who would choose to decorate their homes with scenes like this now? 

A fifteenth-century noble would have been able to identify the different furs that are used to line the clothing of the participants: miniver, ermine and lynx. Like hunting today, the role of fur in fashion is frequently contested in our media.The lady in the red gown below reveals an ermine lining to her gown. Each of the black spots represents a tail. A similar display today would risk provoking a hostile response.

Detail from a Tapestry decpicting scenes of a Boar and Bear Hunt, Museum no. T.204-1957.Exercising packs of hounds and using them to follow a scent trail to flush out foxes to be shot remains legal. Apparently over 6,000 people attended a single Boxing Day hunt this year in Chipping Norton, near Oxford. Whilst the majority of the UK’s urban population may be in favour of the current ban, it is clear that hunting remains a popular pursuit in the countryside.

Although the scenes on the Boar and Bear Hunt Tapestry, and the other three Devonshire Hunting Tapestries in Room 94 at the V&A, represent ideal hunts from a noble’s point of view the reality was more complex. Throughout the medieval period nobles and royalty vigorously maintained exclusive hunting rights on their vast estates. It is unlikely that the poorer people in society viewed these hunts with the same degree of enthusiasm as the aristocracy. However protesting wasn’t really a viable option for any fifteenth century peasant who valued their well-being!

Scientific Analysis of a Tunic from Egypt

Monday, November 10th, 2008

By Stuart Frost and Elin Simonsson

Detail of Coptic Tunic, Museum No. 291-1891I posted a blog entry about a conservation work on an eighth century tunic in the V&A’s collections in June 2007. A great deal of work has taken place since then. The red wool tunic, with appliqué tapestry decoration, is a rare survival. It was excavated from a burial ground in Egypt in the late nineteenth century and has been in the V&A collections since 1891 after it was purchased from a dealer. Click on the detail to the right for more information about the object.

From around the third century AD onwards, as Egypt became a Christian society, burial practices changed. Bodies were no longer mummified but were laid to rest dressed in clothes. Many of these textiles were preserved in the dry burial conditions and tunics such as this one were found when the burial grounds were excavated. Although the V&A tunic is in better condition than many of the other textiles excavated at the time, there are many gaps in what we know about this garment. The archaeological techniques used in the nineteenth century were not as thorough as they are today. Excavations were often rushed and minimal information was recorded.

X-raying the tunic. From left: Elizabeth-Anne Haldane, Paul Robins (V&A), Dr. Sonia O'Conner (Bradford University) and Sara Gillies.To bridge some of these gaps a scientific analysis of the tunic was carried out earlier this year.  The recent analysis explored the pattern of staining and aimed to provide more specific information relating to the tunic’s age and provenance. The analysis involved a range of different cutting-edge methods, including X-radiography, ultraviolet and infrared photography, scanning electron microscopy, and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. The research has arisen through a collaboration between the V&A and Archaeological Sciences, Bradford University. Elizabeth-Anne Haldane, Senior Textile Conservator at the V&A, and Sara Gillies, MSc student at Bradford University have been working together. Although the results are still being analysed there are already some interesting findings from the work.

The use of a range of scientific techniques worked very well. The results have complemented each other and have helped build up a more complete picture of the tunic’s life-story.

The tunic is covered in a variety of different stains. A dark brown-green stain, with a red-orange centre, was identified on the inside back of the tunic. Analysis of a sample of these dark deposits revealed degraded cholesterol and fatty acids.These stains were probably created when the body decomposed.  As the body inside the garment rotted fluids seeped through the tunic leaving areas of staining.

The V&A garment has some unusual horizontal striped stains not found on comparable textiles. Scientific analysis showed that these are similar to other stains on the tunic in terms of chemical composition. The pattern of staining was probably determined by how the body and the garment were laid out in the grave. As the body decomposed it is likely that the fluids gathered in pools and were compressed within the textile by the weight of the body.

Mapping the location of the stains has helped to determine the orginal appearance of the tunic. It has become obvious that the tunic was altered after excavation to improve its appearance, probably by the dealer from who the tunic was acquired. The tunic was let down at the waist and some of the appliqué decoration has been moved.

Scanning electron microscope image of several stained wool fibres showing encrustations of organic matter.Isotopic analysis will be carried out later to determine more precisely where the yarns or threads for both the tunic and the tapestry decoration were made. This is a fairly new method for determining the origin of a garment and is based on the idea that the ratios of light isotopes (carbon, nitrogen and oxygen) in wool fibres vary between locations. Wool fibres from different areas will have a unique combination of light isotopes. Samples from the main woven textile body of the tunic will be compared with the applied tapestry decorations as this may indicate whether or not the two parts come from the same location. They will also be compared with modern and archaeological samples of known provenance.

If you would like to find out more about the scientific analysis of the tunic, further information will be published in Spring 2009 in Issue 57 of the V&A Conservation Journal. If you have any questions or queries please post them below and I’ll do my best to obtain the answers.

Many thanks to Sara Gillies and Elizabeth-Anne Haldane for providing a summary of their work the scientific analysis of the Coptic tunic, and to Elin Simonsson for collating information for this blog-entry.

Click here to read the V&A’s Conservation Journal online.

Labour of Love: The Trojan War

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

Conservation work on a magnificent tapestry continues in the Textile Conservation Studio. The tapestry is approximately 4.20 metres high, just over 7 metres long and depicts a scene from the Trojan War. The tapestry is part of one of the most important sets still surviving from the latter part of the fifteenth century.

War of Troy Tapestry, 1475-1490, Museum no. 6-1887The Trojan War tapestries were made in Tournai (now in Belgium) between 1460 and 1490. Several sets were woven for some of the most powerful and wealthiest men in Europe including King Charles VIII of France, Charles the Bold of Burgundy and King Henry VII of England. The complete set consisted of eleven hangings. The tapestry in the Conservation Studio is the ninth in the series and is thought to have come from the first set. Click on on the images for a better view of the scenes depicted on it and the conservation work.

At some point in its history the V&A’s tapestry was cut into five separate parts. Not surprisingly for a textile that is over five hundred years old it has required conservation work from time to time.  The tapestry is currently undergoing a programme of treatment so that it will look at its best when it goes on display to the public in November 2009.Troy Tapestry

The tapestry has already been wet cleaned in Belgium using a special installation that uses water vapour and suction to ensure that the textile fibres are supported at all times and are not wet for too long. You’ll find more information about this stage of the work on the Conservation Department’s web-pages - follow the link below.

It is has been estimated that in total the work on the tapestry will take up to 3,500 hours. Expressed in different terms that’s one conservator working on the tapestry for two years!  At the moment the conservator in question is Albertina. She very kindly provided me with an update on progress. As you can see from the picture I’ve included here the cleaned tapestry is now being conserved on a frame in the Textile Conservation Studio. It is in the process of been given a complete support of fine linen scrim. Larger areas where loss is more pronounced are being supported with heavier linen.Troy Tapestry

I’ll add further updates about progress on work on this tapestry, and on other objects, in due course.  If you have any questions please feel free to post them below and I’ll do my best to answer them for you.  If I don’t know the answer myself, I’m sure that one of my colleagues will.

Click on the link that follows to view a short-film about conservation work on the War of Troy Tapestry