Chatsworth tapestries reveal their hidden secrets

Staff member Amy Secker re-installs one of the 16th century Mortlake Tapestries in the State Drawing Room at ChatsworthStaff member Amy Secker re-installs one of the 16th century Mortlake Tapestries in the State Drawing Room at Chatsworth
Staff member Amy Secker re-installs one of the 16th century Mortlake Tapestries in the State Drawing Room at Chatsworth
When a piece of art is almost 400 years old, you'd be forgiven for thinking it had given up all its secrets.

But conservators working on Mortlake tapestries dating back to the 1600s discovered hidden panels revealing there was even more to the treasures that meet the eye.

After two years of restoration, the panels were painstakingly put back into place at Chatsworth House yesterday, ahead of the house opening for the 2016 season next weekend.

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Textile technician at Chatsworth House, Amy Secker, said it was a “real surprise” to discover the hidden sections.

“We knew there was a missing section and we really hoped it was there but we were absolutely delighted when we found it,” she said. “They’ve been hidden since the sixth Duke of Devonshire hung them – we assume he’s the one who added the frame in the 1830s.”

The conversation work was a major undertaking for the textile team at Chatsworth - six years in the planning and then two years for the work to be completed by Shephard Travis conservation.

The extremely rare tapestries represent the birth of the English tapestry industry and are based on Renaissance painter Raphael’s cartoons of Acts of the Apostles. They are the only surviving examples outside of the Vatican to show the cartoons.

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It is believed that Chatsworth’s tapestries were acquired from the Mortlake workshops by the third Earl of Devonshire (1617-1684) and moved into the State Drawing Room by the fifth Duke (1748-1811). But finding the missing section has meant the team were able to date them more accurately, and earlier, than thought before. They are believed to date from the 1630s, and were in urgent need of restoration due to exposure to atmospheric pollution in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Ms Secker said: “Permission to have them woven would’ve come from the Crown – although this happened with most tapestries.

“Because we found the missing section of the cartoon, they ended up being a lot earlier than we thought. The later Mortlake tapestries haven’t got the missing part on them, this is how we managed to date them back to the 1630s.

“Tapestries get really dog-eared at the ends and tend to get chopped and chopped every time they’re used, so that’s how you can sometimes tell they’re woven later.”

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The two-year restoration process included washing to remove acidic pollutants, repairing the fabric, and adding a support cloth for extra strength.

Re-hanging the tapestries was another challenge, with Chatsworth’s experienced textile team spending hours on the delicate task. The two restored pieces were also reunited with a third piece, which has been in storage for a number of years after being conserved previously.

Susie Stoke, Head of textiles at Chatsworth, said: “It’s extremely exciting to be able to reunite these hugely important and beautiful tapestries and put them back on display. For the first time, visitors will have the opportunity to see the tapestries up closely to fully appreciate these beautiful works of art.”

Chatsworth House re-opens on Saturday March 19.

Insight into Duchess

Rarely-seen photographs of the late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire will go display as part of an exhibition running throughout the year.

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Opening on Saturday March 19, when Chatsworth House re-opens to the public, Never A Bore: Deborah Devonshire and Her Set features around 65 photographs by her friend, the well-known portrait photographer Cecil Beaton,

The exhibition takes its inspiration from one of Beaton’s most famous remarks: “Perhaps the world’s second-worst crime is boredom; the first is being a bore.”

Last week, an auction of the Duchesses personal items at Sotheby’s raised £1.8m.

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