Debate entitled: “What are the challenges of applying conservation ethics while balancing historical authenticity with aesthetic appearance?”
Chaired by: Professor Ann Sumner (Historic Collections Advisor at Harewood House)
- Caroline Carr-Whitworth (CC), (Collections Curator, Art for English Heritage)
- Dr Crosby Stevens (CS), (Textile Conservator)
- Dr Chrissie Freeth (CF), (Tapestry Weaver)
- Frances Hartog (FH), (Senior Textile Conservator at the V&A)
Panel asked by Ann Sumner (AS) for initial thoughts and comments regarding the debate question*:
*All following quotes are not verbatim but a summary of the most interesting and relevant points
Caroline Carr-Whitworth (CCW): (Talking about Brodsworth Hall’s conservation display) Current building works have allowed us to concentrate on conservation issues and particularly problems that have been caused by the works, as well as the building’s lack of maintenance over time that has led to water and light damage to the carpets etc.
- Brodsworth have implemented a whole series of interpretation throughout the House, making use of boards that are currently up to protect objects against the building work. Differences between the interpretations at Brodsworth to Harewood: they are showing a carpet fragment from the store which had a pier table stood over it for many years so that the bit of the carpet underneath has retained a lot of its earlier (not necessarily original) colour.
- Because Brodsworth has very faded 19th century interiors and it is perhaps difficult for people to understand the vibrancy of those interiors when first furnished, this fragment on display helps people to understand the colours as they would once have looked. The other picture shows another fragment of a carpet border that was trapped underneath a sculpture plinth which has also been put on display.
- All the carpets at Brodsworth have been frozen washed, they also have carpets that have been chopped up and have had sticky tape stuck to the back of them etc. and these fragments on display for the first time communicate to visitors the type of conservation issues Brodsworth are dealing with. A very close parallel can be drawn between this and Harewood, where the carpet has been turned upside down to admit to the problems it has. It is good to highlight issues and involve the public in them.
AS: And it is also about engagement with audiences and what brings them in to a relationship with the carpet. The panel talked earlier at lunch about how people will look much differently at a painting or a piece of furniture to a carpet and I think it really helps with engagement to be able to talk about some conservation issues, things that might not have occurred to the public.
Dr Crosby Stevens (CS):
- I went to the ICON conference recently and one thing that came up was the notion of encouraging visitors and going on a journey with them towards a greater historic literacy so that we can have more nuanced thinking about authenticity or originality. These discussions can then be opened up to the public and people will have more subtle views of what they are looking at and that can help us with decision making.
Frances Hartog (FH):
- My overwhelming thought is that it is fantastic to find carpets that were woven for the original design of the room and are still there. What is extraordinary about these carpets is that they have survived. But they are organic, so they will deteriorate and whatever you do, whether you decide to restore or conserve, that aging process and the deterioration process will carry on.
- You can slow it down by hopefully a couple of hundred years or so with good care but it just would seem an enormous shame to roll them up and put them into storage because to educate the public, they really enjoy seeing something that is original and these are real rarities. There are very few Axminsters still in existence in the original interiors they were woven for, so I feel that is their unique importance.
Dr Chrissie Freeth (CF):
- Initially I thought of course its repairs have to stay, they are its honourable scars and part of its story, but then the more I found out about the carpet and the damage those repairs are doing to it I realised that, as they are threatening its longevity, there is a really strong case for it to come out. I would come and visit these carpets as an artist and craftsperson, to come and see the handiwork of my craft ancestors, to see what they have done, as it is their way of communicating with us and what they have left behind for us, a dialogue. If you were to have a replica that is a very different conversation that one would be having with very different people and for me that would be of much less value.
- With regards to a project with the Stirling tapestries, whilst one tapestry was being woven behind the scenes in the studio another was being woven full-time in front of the public, full-time for people to watch and it had a huge public engagement impact and I think that is something that should be thought about here.
- We have talked about authenticity and the weavers of the Stirling tapestries would argue that the authenticity lay in the experience of the makers because they were basically using the same techniques that were used to make the original tapestries, but with these carpets that would be quite different because presumably their making has moved on quite considerably from hand-weaving to machinery. Whilst there may be an argument for spending resources on making reproductions , would this not also be a great opportunity to invite some artists to come and reinterpret the room and carpets and come up with some more contemporary designs to be made rather than reweaving what is already there.
AS: We are certainly thinking about and have planned some contemporary responses. We’ve mentioned a couple of times now the question of historic repairs, can I ask you Crosby to say a little about this whole question of whether we actually remove historic repairs to reduce further physical and structural damage to the carpet, and what your experience was of actually finding out more about these historical repairs as we moved the carpet. The carpet was moved for the first time in twenty years and it really was a major undertaking for all of us in the department. It did very much reveal some fascinating background information to the history of the carpet and the repairs in particular.
- The main thing to say about the repairs is that if you take time to look at the carpet in detail you begin to realise that there are an awful lot of them. Some blend in quite well and some stand out, particularly that bright yellow yarn which in patches is very obvious. The less obvious ones just cover a very large amount of the carpet and it isn’t clear without further analysis how many of them are covering over original knots and how many of them are covering over holes. Any conservation treatment has to be very sensitive to what it is you are conserving. Are the repairs important? There is also the question of stability and characterisation of the carpet, which is a multi-layered object.
- It is not at all unusual when you begin to look at textiles that you end up having different textures and different yarns from different periods.
AS: Caroline do you have any further thoughts about repairs and how you have treated them in your experience?
- At Brodsworth we have tended to take a very gentle approach in order to keep the whole history of the object. Whilst there have been a couple of cases, particularly with wall silks, in which if the later repairs are causing damage we have removed them, generally we have taken the approach of saying we are conserving the whole history of the object and interiors.
- I wondered whether maybe the public can take a bit of inconsistencies, as long as the House is honest in explaining what it is they are looking at. It needs to be explained more, perhaps it is already by guides.
AS: We have introduced a carpet talk this year a few times a week with the hope that we particularly emphasise the context of these carpets. We have been really encouraged by the number of people taking the time to write comments in the visitor’s book and questionnaire. We are very pleased with the public engagement so far and feel we would like to emphasise the carpets a lot more. We also had an interesting day at Chatsworth learning about how they approach and interpret their carpets. It is early days but we are moving forward. Frances do you have any comments about this whole question of repairs and the different approaches in the museum setting to a country house?
- FH: It isn’t entirely different because there are still the physical aspects of the carpet you are conserving but also why you are conserving it, and presumably it is for its aesthetic value. But there has to be a balance. I have never worked on a carpet where there has been a strict rule regarding how the conservation will go, as you need a very thorough survey and to decide what is damaging and what isn’t and if it isn’t, why are you removing it, is it aesthetically unacceptable. You can’t make fast rules and say you are going to remove all the repairs if they don’t all need removing. You have to think twice about whether you are going to solubilise them or can you just do it mechanically.
- It is very difficult at the beginning of a project to stand back from the carpet and say exactly how you are going to treat it. The biggest problem with this particular carpet is its size, which makes it very logistically challenging. It is enormous and fragile.
- I have only done an overview and started to look at individual areas in order to look towards a conservation map, but it is a big step in the work and decision making. There are a limited number of options to what we can maybe do. The key to its conservation depends on use. Is it going to be walked on a little or a lot or not at all, because there will be future damages to take into account. There will also be huge budgeting and financial considerations.
AS: This is perhaps why replica carpets have been suggested, not in the YDR where we wouldn’t anticipate walking on the carpet but maybe in the Music Room. There are aesthetic reasons why a replica might sound an interesting idea and how one would produce it would also be interesting. Crosby would you like to say anything about how a replica could be used? There is the question of would you want to go so far as to roll a carpet regularly and have it in store.
- CS: The practicalities of rolling a very large delicate carpet are huge. You could conserve the carpet to whatever level and then roll and store it, or you could conserve it minimally, but either way it is very fragile and the process of actually rolling it is very tricky and difficult. It would need to be thought through very carefully how often you would intend to roll and unroll, where you would put it to be stored and the effects to the carpets. A good example is Axminster at Brodsworth which has a replica in the main entrance hall.
- But the original in store has so many holes in it and hasn’t been conserved because of its size. It has been rolled up for many years without being checked, which raises issues of why are we even keeping it in the store? But it is the original to the House.
- You almost reduce their meaning by taking them out of the room because they are part of that decoration.
AS: We don’t have the right storage facilities and are currently looking for an option in which the carpet would return to the room and we would roll it as informed. There has to be a balance. We didn’t move it for twenty years but then how can you find out about its condition and record it if it isn’t moved? For a long-term solution we are looking at wanting to maintain the originals in those rooms. What would you say about the mapping process? It’s incredibly important to record all aspects of conservation.
- You need to get to know the object extremely well and understand every part of it. Whether that is by drawing or computer programs etc.
AS: This is also fertile ground for contemporary practitioners to respond as part of that mapping process. Do you have any specific examples of works in which you have responded to in situ works and have engaged with visitors?
- At East Riddleston there was a tapestry loom at the end of the corridor to which the public were very welcome to come very close and engage with what was going on. The item that was woven and subsequently hung in the area where it was woven was very much a response to the property, the research and the history of the House and the people who lived there as well as the very large textile collection on display. Historic houses are such a rich vein for artists and craftspeople to draw from.
INTERACTION WITH THE PUBLIC
AS: I am now going to throw over to the public to ask any questions they might have as a result of what we have spoken about.
Public: Have you done any dye-analysis on the carpets?
AS: No but that is certainly an area we are going to look into feeding back from this debate. It is clearly an important part of our mapping to include some dye analysis because we want to give as much help to the workshops as we can, as there are only a limited number that can consider conserving a carpet this size.
FH: But the dye analysis will be a nightmare with the repair. It’s very interesting historically to know what dyes were used but are you going to clean the carpets and how? Do you need analysis to introduce a wet treatment or do you just need to test them to find out whether they’re fugitive? You would tend to use synthetic dyes with repairs because natural dyes tend to fade quite strongly at the beginning and then as they age the fading becomes slower, whereas modern synthetic dyes tend to fade more slowly across in a straighter line, so the idea is that if you match the colours with the synthetic dyes now the fading should be more consistent. And they are light stable and wet stable so don’t cause a reaction.
AS: We’ve talked a lot about authenticity as well and what that really means. I do think we need to have a dialogue with the public to really engage them so that they understand what the principles are you’re actually using to ‘restore’ a room in a country house because there are many different criteria’s. To maintain those criteria’s along the whole of the house can be very difficult.
CCW: That’s exactly the question. If you think the public want to see how it was originally you have to remove that aged carpet and do what you think is a replica. At Brodsworth we have wondered whether we can digitally work out what the colours would have been but even that is incredibly difficult to do. You could maybe value and display your faded original with an interpretation through clever computer design or eyemats over the top etc. other ways of doing it other than replica.
CCW: I have to say that with our Study Day and this debate the main aim is to raise the profile of carpets and get visitors to appreciate them in their room setting, so that people aren’t surprised that they are rolled back and there is a barrier across because they understand that you are going to destroy them by walking on them.
CF: I think the general public understand even with their own carpets that they are precious and are easily damaged and need proper care whatever their age
AS: The hope is that with museum care and our conservation strategy here we wouldn’t want to walk on the carpets but external cases such as filming might happen, and these need to be looked at in your plan for the future.
CS: House-keeping staff may need to get over the carpets to other objects, or there might be functions in the room too.
AS: There are so many different levels but we want to have a management plan for the future that understands these as being major works of art in their own right. Our attitude has been to not touch them because we were told twenty years ago they were incredibly vulnerable and not to do anything with them, but that’s not actually a solution to the issue. You have to address the issue.
Public: Is cost a factor in this and how does the production of a replica compare to the cost of conservation work?
AS: Costs are absolutely key; we are an educational trust with museum accreditation and designated collections. We are very much looking to have a conservation project and when the replica was included in part of an original discussion about the carpets it was really a very expensive option, not a cheap option, assuming it would be woven to relatively authentic standards. If you are going to get a replica one issue is that you have to think carefully about the original authentic object and where that is going to be stored, because once it is rolled it is probably going to be there for a very long time. Possibly having a replica is not really a financial decision but trying to understand what the right thing to do is as part of a consultation process. Asking peers within the profession is very important for us as well.
AS: Could I now have some concluding thoughts from the panel?
FH: My concluding thought was if you did roll them up and put them into storage, in reality would they ever be seen again and I think the horrible truth is probably not and then you think well, why have we got them?
CF: It’s a really good opportunity for some really exciting things and I do have to say I feel that what you’ve done as far as putting today together and also the questionnaire has been a really exemplary approach to tackling this question.
CS: For me I just want to say how much I have enjoyed looking at little areas of the carpet in detail and I think that is something you could light people up with: the detail, the precision of how they are made, exactly how the individual motifs are shaped, getting them to look closely at the carpet.
CCW: I think carpets are absolutely fascinating and not just the 18th century ones. I would want to hope you are looking at the carpets throughout Harewood including the 19th century ones and what evidence there might be in inventories etc. for bedrooms and servants quarters and whether through that you get a better picture of what was going on through the whole house and what you are doing in those rooms. I wonder whether the question of these two carpets needs to be put in that wider context of both the research of the whole house but also the conservation management and the presentation of it. To me you are zoning in on one thing when there are overarching questions.
AS: That is an interesting concluding moment, that what we hope to be doing going forward is a more holistic approach to our curation within the house, particularly around the carpets. It is undoubtedly true that we have been excited by the developments in Axminster and by the Yorkshire Year of the Textile and this has driven us forward to look at these two carpets particularly because we knew they were in need of attention but we have been looking at them in isolation.
Going forward we hope to produce a small booklet which will help our visitors look at other carpets in the house as well. How we engage our visitors by looking at the wording of our questions in the questionnaire, how to help people fully understand the conservation process and how we are going to be looking at workshops in the future and other engagement areas is really important.
Having a dialogue with craftspeople today and understanding just how inspiring our carpets can be is also so important. We have found just how fascinated the public are by the whole repair process. There is a huge amount of research for us to do going forward and we would really like to thank you all very much for attending and taking part in this debate.
Harewood conducted a survey about the way forward for the Yellow Drawing Room carpet. Results showed that 53% felt conversation was the best route to take, 20% replica, 13% restore, 14% leave as it is. In total of 1577 responded between April to end of October 2016.
At the beginning of September we invited the artist Sue Lawty to lead on a family friendly workshop in response to the multi-coloured patterns of the original carpets as part of the Yorkshire Year of the Textile programme.
Our gardening team went foraging for leaves and flowers which had been separated by type and colour into different bags showing an extraordinary variety of colours. All through the day families with young children and adults came and worked with Sue on the boards that had been put outside the Visitor Information centre. We had photographs of the carpets pinned up which provided inspiration and a starting point for everyone. There were no instructions that it had to be done this way as Sue encouraged everyone to make their own response be working on one little bit, and together, over the day, we made a beautiful carpet of flowers and leaves to create “Nature’s Carpet”.