A rare 15th-century tapestry – the oldest owned by the National Trust – is returning to display at Montacute House in southwestern England after spending four years away for conservation, but with it comes a mystery.
The tapestry depicts a knight in armour parading his elegantly decorated horse against a dark blue background covered with a highly detailed flower pattern, called millefleurs, or a thousand flowers. It has taken experts nearly 1,300 hours of cleaning and conservation to strengthen it and bring out its vivid colours.
The knight is shown with the arms of Jean de Daillon, a nobleman and friend of King Louis XI of France who trusted him with many important offices and enriched him with land and titles. Daillon commissioned the tapestry in 1477 from weaver Guillaume Desremaulx in the town of Tournai in what is now Belgium, but upon completion it was presented to him as a gift from the people of Tournai.
Although large at nearly 12 feet (3.57 m) by 9.5 feet (2.82 m), the tapestry is known to have been just one piece of a set, 20 times larger, at over 300 square metres. The edges of the tapestry have been rewoven with a border indicating that this piece was probably once even larger.
It is likely that Daillon commissioned the full set of tapestries but it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that a researcher identified the Coat of Arms on the tapestry as belonging to him – and was able to uncover the details of how the set was made.
Daillon did not have long to enjoy his gift – he died in 1481 and may not have seen the finished tapestries, The tapestry, and presumably the other pieces, was last recorded the following year when his widow Marie Laval delivered it to a well-known entrepreneur trading in wine and tapestries.
They then vanished from history for over four hundred years until 1910 when the Knight appeared in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1935 it was bought by Sir Malcolm Stewart who bequeathed his collection of tapestries to the National Trust to be displayed at Montacute House in 1951.
“This is a really special tapestry of a very fine quality made using wool and silk to a high standard,” said Sonja Rogers, the National Trust’s House and Collections Manager at Montacute House. “It was labour intensive to make and would have been a very expensive and valuable gift. However, over its lifetime it had become weak and damaged from exposure to smoke from domestic fires and from crude, later repairs.
“After cleaning and conservation, the colours are now so much brighter and fresher, and the whole tapestry appears full of life and energy.
“But there are mysteries which still remain – we don’t yet know where the tapestry was during almost all of its history or even if more of the original set survived. It is one of only a handful of pieces that can be linked to a specific commission and it is the only 15th-century tapestry that can definitely be attributed to the city of Tournai. We would love to think that more of it may have survived somewhere, although if they don’t contain clues such as the coat of arms, the link may have been lost to history.”
The tapestry was conserved at the National Trust’s Textile Conservation Studio in Norfolk where it underwent 1,276 hours of hand sewing and other treatments to repair damage and strengthen it. It was also sent to Belgium for specialist cleaning to remove decades of dirt.
The Textile Studio conservators worked through the whole tapestry on a frame, supporting it on a new linen backing to add strength. Areas of loss were filled in with appropriate conservation materials and stitching, all done by hand.
The Textile Studio Conservator Yoko Hanegreefs explained, “We found that many of the older repairs were still in good condition, but many of the later ones had been done more crudely and had discoloured or faded.
“The areas of weakened wool weft were mostly seen in the black, dark brown, dark blue and dark purple wool. When dyeing with natural dyes, mordants are used to fix the dye and, with dark colours, iron is often used as the mordant. The iron is known to accelerate the degradation of the wool.”
Sonja adds: “Now that the tapestry is clean we can clearly see the knight’s fine features and long flaxen hair showing below his helmet. The background is really special too – the colours are bright and you can see hosts of different flowers in the millefleurs pattern, including poppies, daffodils, wallflowers, thistles, honeysuckle and fritillaries.”
Hilary McGrady, the National Trust Director-General said it was important that the tapestry was back on display. “Montacute is a wonderful example of an Elizabethan house which would have featured many high-quality tapestries when it was first built,” she notes. “Investment in the conservation of our collections ensures they can be enjoyed by future generations, and it is thanks to the support of our members that we’re able to carry out this important work.”
The tapestry has now returned to Montacute House, an Elizabethan house built for lawyer and politician Edward Phelips in around 1598, where it will be displayed in the Dining Room throughout October and November.
Top Image: Conservators complete the rehang of the tapestry at Montacute House in Somerset. Photo by James Dobson / National Trust