Close up of Queen Anne’s bed curtains. Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2015. Images Courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces.

Charlotte Gamper, who is a textile conservator at Historic Royal Palaces in the United Kingdom, gave a Brown Bag Lunch talk entitled “Textile Conservation at Historic Royal Palaces: A 100-Year History” on November 19, 2015. Gamper obtained her degree in textile conservation at the University of Glasgow and has worked at Historic Royal Palaces for over three years. Historic Royal Palaces manages six palaces in the UK that are open to the public for tours and events. These palaces are Hampton Court Palace, Tower of London, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace, Banqueting House, and Hillsborough Castle. Gamper began her talk by sharing the history of textile restoration and conservation at Historic Royal Palaces before describing recent conservation projects there.

Textile restoration at Hampton Court Palace began in 1912 when George VI opened a tapestry restoration studio and commissioned Morris & Co. to manage and oversee the restoration projects. The studio employed twelve needlewomen, who first set out to clean and restore the palace’s famous Abraham Tapestries, a series of ten monumental tapestries that were most likely commissioned by Henry VIII in the mid-16th century. Hampton Court Palace had been open to the public since 1838, and by the late 19th century, the public began to complain about the poor, degrading state of the tapestries. For decades, the studio worked on restoring the tapestries in addition to the palace’s collection of upholstered furnishings and costumes. In the 1980s, the textile restoration studio began to transition from restoration-focused practice to conservation-focused practice. Gamper explained the difference between restoration and conservation and how the Historic Royal Palace’s modern conservation treatments compare to past restoration efforts.

Restoration is a process of attempting to restore an object to its original state, which can entail major intervention and additive treatments. Conservation, on the other hand, does not seek to restore a piece to its original condition; instead, conservation practices seek to support and stabilize a piece using reversible, minimal treatments to keep the object intact and in a state that preserves its life history. In the past, the textile restoration studio replaced whole sections of tapestries at the Historic Royal Palaces and primarily sought to repair and restore all of the textiles in the collection. Today, the team of conservators at Historic Royal Palaces employ numerous scientific techniques to stabilize and preserve textiles in their collection, and they make detailed assessments and treatment plans to determine the best approach for the conservation and display of varied pieces, which can range from tapestries to bed hangings to dresses.

Their funding and extensive operation allows them to complete projects on a massive scale when necessary. For example, Gamper shared a fascinating video of the washing of the July and August tapestry, posted on the Historic Royal Palaces youtube channel, in their textile washing facility which allows Historic Royal Palaces to wash textiles up to 10 meters in length with deionized water and specially made detergent. Gamper emphasized the importance of this video in promoting Historic Royal Palaces’ conservation team’s work and skill as well as the amount of research that goes into historic textile conservation projects.

Waistcoat of King George III. © Historic Royal Palaces. Images Courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces.

Gamper presented examples of conservation projects undertaken at Historic Royal Palaces in recent years that emphasize the value of preserving evidence of the life history of an object, the importance of minimal intervention, the power of new technologies, and the importance of reversibility of treatment. She emphasized how one of the conservation team’s primary goals is to preserve signs and remnants of past use that reveal interesting and valuable stories. For example, one piece in Historic Royal Palace’s collection is King George III’s waistcoat. Gamper shared how the waistcoat contains important traces of his life and madness. It is constructed in such a manner as to make it easy for an attendant to assist the king into it and has stains down the front. The conservation team decided to leave the stains intact as they can be used as evidence of King George III’s madness and add to the interpretive power of the object. Gamper then described two other conservation projects which demonstrated the importance of technology as well as minimal, reversible treatment: the tapestry re-coloration project and the conservation of Queen Anne’s Bed.

Historic Royal Palaces conservators with the netting to stabilize the Queen Anne’s bed textiles. Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2015. Images Courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces.

For the tapestry re-coloration project at Historic Royal Palaces, the conservation department’s science team worked with a research student to give an impression of what the Abraham tapestry The Oath and Departure of Eliezar at Hampton Court Palace would have looked like in its original state with vibrant color. Using digital technologies, the team projected a light show onto the tapestry during certain times of day. The light show enabled the public to see how vivid the colors of the tapestry appeared centuries ago—before the effects of light and time faded the dyes. The project shows how technology can be used to achieve desired effects instead of applying extensive or permanent treatment. The conservation team has employed additional technology for re-creating the original color of other textiles in Historic Royal Palace’s collection. From 2005 to 2015, the conservators carried out a treatment plan to stabilize Queen Anne’s Bed and create techniques to reveal the original color of the bed’s velvet draperies. Earlier treatment utilized a nylon net to stabilize the velvet but gave the restored areas a milky appearance. The new treatment plan used digital technologies to create a facsimile of the textile pattern in the color it most likely would have been and then printed the digital re-creation onto net secured to the tapestry, blending in nearly invisibly. The conservation project stabilized the draperies and applied a reversible treatment that allowed visitors to see the fabric’s original design and color.

For more information about conservation efforts at Historic Royal Palaces, visit their webpage here.