16 October 2017
Hand in Hand: Conservation and Photography of the Burrell Collection Tapestries
Working on the first full catalogue of Sir William Burrell’s tapestries was an amazing opportunity for Glasgow Museums’ textile conservators to closely examine all the tapestries in the Burrell Collection using different photography techniques. At their simplest, woven tapestries have plain undyed (mainly) horizontal warps and coloured vertical wefts that are woven into the wonderful images of the tapestries. For the Conservation team, the challenge was to understand the tapestries’ current nature, their construction and how they have changed over the centuries. Examination began with handling the tapestries, literally getting a feel for their strengths and weaknesses and how they now hung. For each tapestry, our in-house photographers took a suite of photographs; the front and back in normal light and in ultraviolet (UV) light; the front in raking light, lit only from one side; and selected details. When we examined a tapestry, we had A3 prints of photographs of it so that we could make direct comparisons of the colours on the front and back, note any colour changes, and see from the UV images where there were newer areas or changes in type of fibre, such as between wool and silk.
Raking shots showed the role texture and weaving technique played in the creation of the images in a tapestry. For example, Triumph of the Virgin (46.117) was in several pieces when it came into Sir William’s collection, but was restored and rewoven in the 1930s by the Cambridge Weaving Company. We are fortunate to have records and photographs of this treatment, and the new UV images confirmed which were the newer rewoven sections. The raking shots showed that the tapestries are not flat, and that weaving techniques, such as short slits or wrapping, as well as colour, are important in the depiction of the tapestries’ subjects. Curved and angled lines of a single weft wrapped around successive warps, or a series of short slits or holes, can show details such as the lines in a face without the need for any change of coloured weft. Where colours change, different lengths and widths of hatching affect both the shading and the strength of the tapestry.
In the current exhibition of some of the Burrell tapestries at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, you can almost feel the rough texture of the rush matting, the luxuriousness of the bed cover and the stiffness of the linen in Beatrix Soekins in Bed (46.126), due to the way it was woven. The photography part of the catalogue project took 18 months to complete, and the examination an additional 18 months. Most of this work was carried out in public in the Burrell’s temporary exhibition gallery, giving our visitors a chance to see what was being done, and giving us the opportunity to talk with the public over a long period of time. Their questions in turn helped shape the conservation input to the catalogue. For me, one of the most important results of our examination of the tapestries has been a greater appreciation of the incredible skill of the original weavers and the subsequent generations who have cared for them.
Glasgow Museums: Tapestries from the Burrell Collection by Elizabeth Cleland and Lorraine Karafel is published by Glasgow Museums in association with Philip Wilson Publishers; ISBN 978 1 78130 050 3; £125; 736pp
Helen M. Hughes, Textile Conservator