A wise woman once said that the best cure when suffering from significant deja vu upon returning to a city that you had a gnarly love/hate relationship with is as follows: to see first hand, in the Hampton Court Palace textile conservation studio, the recently discovered altar cloth that was adapted from Elizabeth I’s own dress.
We spent the day at Hampton Court on Tuesday as part of the Open Palace Programme and it was wonderful. I’ve been before and absolutely loved it, but the thrill I got when we walked up the stairs and into Henry VIII’s Great Hall was as if I was visiting for the first time all over again.
Three different women who work for Historic Royal Palaces in collections and conservation roles gave us presentations abour their work. Their insight was incredibly interesting. One of the things we talked about a lot was the issue of displaying objects in situ, but keeping these objects in the appropriate conditions. This is because the Historic Royal Palaces (which Hampton Court falls under) are not museums but living displays. They aim to show these buildings as the monarchs that lived in them would have seen them.
This means that the Abraham Tapestries that hang in the Great Hall have been on display almost consistently since Victorian times, even though they are the original tapestries that Henry VIII commissioned to celebrate the birth of his only legitimate son, Edward VI, in 1537.
Conservation wise, this is a total nightmare. Tudor tapestries in a room with natural light coming in (the windows are a feature in themselves: Victorian stained glass, and can’t be covered up), an antequated Victorian heating system, a constant stream of visitors (= dust) and a door to the outside. As a group we discussed different preventive conservation measures for this tricky situation. Some measures are already in place, such as a heavy curtain over the entrance to try and keep a constant temperature and relative humidity in the room.
After the lectures and discussion, we visited the textile conservation studio. A tapestry that belonged to Thomas Cromwell was rolled onto a huge set of metal rollers, meaning only one portion was exposed at a time to be worked on by conservators. Upstairs in another room we saw the garment that’s been referred to as the ‘Mona Lisa of fashion history’: the priceless and nearly lost piece of Elizabeth I’s dress fabric, spread out on a table under tissue paper. Some of the tissue was pulled back, but the fabric itself was upside down. However, an incredibly convincing reproduction piece was hanging in the room for us to examine up close. This replica had been made to show people like potential donors the piece in detail with no risk to the original.
A few of us talked among ourselves later about how the fabric had been discovered, from a tip-off or by chance? The following day our question was answered when we had a lecture from the chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, author and Tudor historian Tracy Borman. Tracy had gone to a church in Herefordshire to research Blanche Parry, one of Elizabeth’s favourite ladies, for her book ‘Elizabeth’s Women’. At the church, in a glass case, a piece of fabric caught her eye. It was labelled, ‘altar cloth, possibly Tudor’. It wasn’t until she returned more recently for research for another of her books that she took a dress historian with her, who took one look at the textile and announced, “that’s not an altar cloth, that’s the dress Queen Elizabeth is wearing in the Rainbow Portrait.”
It would make sense that the cloth had ended up where it did, as monarchs often gave away their clothing as gifts. The piece has since been studied meticulously by experts at Hampton Court, who have been able to confirm (from certain seams etc) that it has been adapted from a dress.
I remember reading online when the discovery was first announced; it’s so exciting because hardly any clothing from the Tudor period survives, not to mention anything that belonged to Elizabeth, and that can be recognised in a famous painting! I never imagined that I would be lucky enough to see this treasure close up.