Jump to navigation

V&A logo

V&A blogs

Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

RSS web feed image

Archive for June, 2007

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

Romantic Ruins

Monday, June 4th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

The surviving architecture of medieval Britain perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the age.  The ruins of castles and abbeys have provided inspiration for many generations of painters, poets and photographers. The photograph of Raglan castle reproduced below has been chosen for inclusion in a display I’m pulling together that will be installed late in 2009. We’ve recently confirmed a selection of twenty-five prints from the V&A’s vast collection of photographs, all of which feature nineteenth century views of medieval and Renaissance buildings. Click on the image of Raglan for a more detailed view.

Raglan Castle from Across the Moat

Raglan Castle is located in south-east Wales, not far from the town of Monmouth. I’ve been researching the background to the castle so that I can write an object label for it and a longer database entry. I last visited Raglan on 6 September 1992. The reason I can be so precise is because the admission ticket dropped out of my old copy of the castle guidebook when I opened it. Like many people who work in museums I’m not very good at throwing things away!

Raglan was once an extremely impressive residence and fortress. Enough of the castle survives to give a vivid impression of the scale of the building and the comfortable accommodation it provided. Its architecture and furnishings reflected the wealth and status of its owners who included the Earls of Pembroke, the Earl of Huntingdon and the Earls of Worcester.  Most of the surviving structure dates from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. How did such a magnificent and costly castle become reduced to the impressive and romantic ruin that we can see in this photograph? 

The castle was held by Royalist forces during the English Civil War and was surrendered to Parliamentarians on 19th August 1646 after a siege which involved the use of mortars and cannon.  Shortly afterwards the castle was deliberately slighted to ensure that it couldn’t be used easily as a fortress again.  Further depredation occurred throughout the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the castle buildings were plundered for building materials. This is story that rings true for many castles in England and Wales. It was only in 1938 that the castle was placed under the protection of the Commissioners of His Majesties Works and a programme of conservation was carried out.

Today many of us enjoy visiting castles like Raglan but this sort of leisure pursuit isn’t as recent as you might think.  A guide to Raglan was published in 1792 and was in its eleventh edition by 1829. Visiting castles is one of my greatest pleasure but I’d love to have been able to explore castle ruins as there were before they were tidied up in the twentieth century. The vegetation that you can see in this image taken in 1860 portrays Raglan as a romantic ruin, a victim of the relentless progress of time. Photographs like this became popular in the decades following the invention of photography and two other prints of Raglan by the same photographer were published in 1862 in a volume, Ruined Abbeys and Castles of Great Britain, that catered for this demand.

Early architectural photographs are a valuable record of the appearance of many great medieval buildings before the impact of organisations like English Heritage, CADW and the National Trust in preserving and interpreting them. These organisations, and others like them across Europe, play a vital and role in preserving the architectural heritage of medieval and Renaissance Europe. However part of the appeal of nineteenth century photographs like this one is that they evoke a sense of romance, discovery and mystery that I think is difficult to recapture when visiting a castle today. Personally I find that the more heavily interpreted a site is, and the more carefully manicured the surroundings, the less space there is for my imagination to wander.

For more information about Raglan Castle visit the CADW (Welsh Historic Monuments) website.

Anyone who has a passion for castles will find the Castle Studies Group website of interest.