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Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

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Archive for the 'Textiles' Category

Conserving the Collection

Friday, June 29th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

With over 1800 objects to prepare for installation in the Medieval and Renaissance Europe galleries in autumn 2009 it isn’t surprising that there is a enormous amount of activity taking place behind the scenes at the V&A. 

IMG_9458Each object destined for the new displays will have been the focus of many different meetings and discussions before it finally takes its place in the galleries. How should the object be mounted, at what height and in which position? Which objects should be displayed with it and of these which is the most important? Does the object need additional lighting, and if so which is the best strategy for this object?  How long can the object be displayed for? Which aspects of the object are the most important to engage the visitor with? Where should the labels go and what additional graphics may be required?

Every object will undergo a conservation assessment. Many objects have already been assessed and as a result some of the larger artefacts have been undergoing conservation work for well over a year. There are two particularly interesting objects in the Textiles Conservation Studio at the moment.  One is a large tapestry featuring a scene from the Trojan War – I’ll write about that later. The other textile is a remarkable survival, a tunic of red wool with appliqué tapestry decoration. This is shown in the photograph above laid out in the studio for assessment, inspection and study. The tunic has been opened out to show the inside of the garment. If you look closely you may notice areas of brown staining on the back of the garment. The tunic was used to a dress a corpse and as the body decayed the fluids seeped through the woven woollen threads of the textile.

The tunic was worn by a man who lived and died in Egypt at some point during the seventh or eighth century AD. The image to the left shows a detail of the tapestry decoration. The colours are remarkably vivid for a textile of this date. You can see in the other images here that the tunic has been patched and repaired in recent times. Some repairs may be ancient and careful study of the stitching has already yielded a great deal of information. For example, in antiquity the areas of tapestry decoration may well have been taken from an old tunic and reused on the front of this one. Click on the images for a closer view and additional information about what you can see.

Coptic Tunic Museum No. 291-1891Tunics were a long-standing fashion in Roman and Byzantine dress and one that was adopted in Egypt. Close inspection of the tapestry shoulder-bands on this example has revealed the name of Allah in Arabic script, perhaps indicating that the male owner was a Muslim. Arab armies conquered Egypt in AD641 but Roman and Byzantine fashions like this co-existed alongside those of the new rulers for a long period of time.

Conservators and curators have been making the most of the opportunity to study the tunic in detail, and the results of this close scrutiny will be fed into the new displays.  You can see textile conservator Elizabeth-Anne Haldane at work in the picture to the right and curator Helen Persson is also currently researching the object. My thanks to both of them for taking the time to talk to me about the tunic.

In 2009 the tunic will be a centrepiece of a new subject display, Adorning the Dead 300-900, which will provide a moving insight into life in early medieval Europe through the objects that people were buried with.  If you have any questions that you’d like to ask about the tunic post them below and I’ll do my best to obtain answers for you.

Weaving the Past and Present Together

Monday, June 18th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

The V&A’s magnificent fifteenth-century Devonshire Hunting tapestries were taken off display a little while ago. Their absence is only temporary. One of the tapestries, the one that features a boar and bear hunt, will take pride of place in the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries in 2009.Cropped Boar and Bear Hunt T.204-1957 Click on the picture to the below for a more detailed view of the tapestry in question and further information about it.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries tapestry was one of the most highly prized of the arts. We live in a society of mass production and rapid consumption. It is easy to forget how much skilled labour and time was involved in producing textiles in a pre-industrial society.  A square metre of tapestry, for example, could take one weaver up to a month to produce. The tapestry illustrated above is approximately 10m x 4m.

We’re hoping to make a short four minute film to show how the boar and bear hunt tapestry was made. I recently visited West Dean Tapestry Studio which is located in the countryside just outside Chichester, Sussex. Here a team of weavers are embarked on a remarkably ambitious project to create a series of replica tapestries based on the Metropolitan Museum’s Unicorn Tapestries. The project began in 2001 and will be completed in 2013. The new tapestries will be hung in the Royal Apartments at Stirling Castle. The skill involved in weaving these tapestries, and the time that is required to complete them, helps give some sense of why high quality tapestry was once so prized by Europe’s elite.

The V&A’s Devonshire Hunting tapestries illustrate the long tradition that hunting for sport has in Europe. The four tapestries show the nobles of a northern European court dressed in their finery and engaged in the pursuit of various animals, including otters, swans, deer, boars and bears.

I read in the paper this week that otters are making a come back in England. Boars too are running wild again in parts of the English countryside having escaped from farms in recent years. I saw a particularly and large and powerful boar recently at very close quarters, and not too far from Hyde Park. Tourists and residents needn’t worry for their safety though. He was stuffed and sitting safely inside a display case in the Natural History Museum.

Find out more about the Unicorn Tapestries Project at Stirling Castle

Find out more about the Unicorn Tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum.

Find out more about the West Dean Tapestry Studio

Love and Romance

Monday, February 12th, 2007

By Stuart Frost
February 12th, 2007


Valentine’s day falls on Wednesday 14th February this week so it was inevitable that it would provide the subject for this blog-entry. Whilst there are many statues or images of saints in the V&A alas, as far as I am aware, there is not one of St Valentine. A reference book informs me that St Valentine’s day probably commemorates two Valentine’s rather than one. One was a Roman priest martyred around 269AD, and the other a bishop of Terni who was taken to Rome and put to death there. Neither appears to have had a strong association with romantic love or courtship.

Salt cellar known as the Burghley Nef

Whilst there aren’t any images of St Valentine to illustrate this entry, there are many objects in the V&A’s collections that have a clear link with desire, love or marriage. Some of these have a strong connection with romance literature. Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet may feature the two most famous lovers of medieval and Renaissance literature, but before Romeo and Juliet (as the marketing for the recent Ridley Scott film went) there was Tristan and Isolde. The Ridley Scott film doesn’t follow the original romance particularly closely, but it is entertaining and is testament to the enduring appeal of the epic medieval masterpiece.

The Tristan Quilt - Detail

The story of the two lovers was one of the most popular romances of the Middle Ages and existed in many versions written by different authors. The earliest of the surviving versions were written around 1160. Scenes from the legend were depicted on a wide range of luxury objects including ivory caskets, textiles and tiles. I’ve included three examples here, a quilt, a hanging and a magnificent metalwork salt (or table decoration). Click on the photographs for more detailed views and further information. Even if you look carefully at the salt I’ll doubt you’ll be able to see the small figures of Tristan and Isolde playing chess underneath the main mast of the ship. It is easier to see the figures of the sailors manning the deck and climbing the rigging around Tristan and Isolde. It was on this voyage that the fate of the two lovers was sealed. Tristan had been instructed to bring Isolde from her native Ireland to Cornwall to marry his uncle, King Mark. On the ship the couple drank a magic love potion prepared by Isolde’s mother, intended for her daughter to share with King Mark. As a result Tristan and Isolde share an unbreakable and everlasting love, rather than Isolde and her husband King Mark. After many events and adventures their relationship, like that of Romeo and Juliet, ends tragically. 

With hindsight maybe I should have picked an object related to a story with a less depressing ending? Never mind. Happy Valentine’s Day! 

1066 and all that!

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

By Stuart Frost

The 14 October 1066 is arguably the most famous date in English history, even if most people remember the year rather than the day and month. The Battle of Hastings didn’t actually take place at Hastings. If you get off the train there looking for the site where Harold Godwinson died you’ll be disappointed. The nearest train station is at Battle. From there it is a few hundred meters to the ruins of Battle Abbey, founded by William the Conqueror on the site of his victory. Each year, on the weekend nearest to the actual date, the Battle of Hastings takes place at Battle all over again.


The Bayeux Tapestry, actually an embroidery, gives a very good impression of what the battle must have been like. Many of the scenes capture the violence and chaos of the fighting remarkably vividly. The original tapestry is in Bayeux, but Reading Museum is home to a life-size copy that was embroidered in the 19th century. Not all of the ladies who made this copy travelled to Bayeux to study the original. They used an actual-size hand-coloured photograph that was produced in the 1870s. The V&A holds this photographic copy in its collections. In fact the V&A has two photographic copies, both of which were originally on display at the Museum and which once merited their own guide book. Neither of these photographs is on public display at the moment, but we are hoping to include a section from one of them in a Discovery Area in the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries.


The Reading version of the tapestry isn’t an exact copy. For example, there is a naked male figure in the lower border of the original. One of those embroiderer’s working on Britain’s ‘very own copy’ decided to give this little chap a pair of shorts to cover his obvious exuberance. There are other examples of 19th century prudery in relation to medieval and Renaissance art. Fortunately the V&A’s plaster cast copy of Michelangelo’s David was provided with a fig-leaf rather than a pair of woollen shorts.

Find out more about the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries Project.

Explore Reading Museum’s tapestry online.