Curator's Choice: A hidden section of a 17th century tapestry cartoon found in a seam at Chatsworth House

By Ben Miller | 15 March 2016

Curator’s Choice: Hidden panels of the earliest examples of the English tapestry industry, based on Renaissance painter Raphael's cartoons of Acts of the Apostles, have been discovered in a seam at Derbyshire's Chatsworth House. Textile technician Amy Secker tells us more

A photo of the ancient Healing of the Lame Man tapestry at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire
The Sacrifice at Lystra was found behind the seam of the Healing of the Lame Man tapestry when the lining was removed by conservators at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire© Shephard Travis Conservation Studio
“We think the Mortlake Tapestries were acquired by the third Earl of Devonshire during the 1630s and put on the wall of the State Drawing Room by the sixth Duke of Devonshire, who encased them within wooden frames.

The second part, the Healing of the Lame Man, has always been in storage, but we always knew that there was a bit missing, because the full cartoon didn’t have that bit.

We did a lot of feeling around the wall but we just couldn’t tell if it was behind there. It was only when we actually took it off the wall and the conservators took the old lining off that we realised it really was.

That was absolutely amazing, we were delighted. It had been sown down. It had to be taken out very carefully, trying not to disturb any of the warps or silk. When we found out the missing piece was still attached and still had its borders it was great news, as far as we were concerned.

The hidden tapestry

It made the tapestry older than we suspected it was in the first place. It had been hidden for so long and was so flat behind it. One day we’d say ‘yeah, it must be there, it must be there, I can feel it’ and the next day we’d say ‘no, it’s just boards, that’s all we can feel.’

A photo of the ancient Healing of the Lame Man tapestry at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire
Christ's charge© Shephard Travis Conservation Studio
Without undoing any of the stitchwork while it was on the wall, which we really couldn’t do, we wouldn’t have known. It’s incredible because the colours are so vibrant and so different. It’s fascinating, almost as it would have been when it was first woven.

I’m sure it’s been out and subject to fading and stuff in the past. But in comparison to the rest of the tapestry it’s in incredible condition. It’s fabulous. It’s been protected from light damage and pollution, which is the thing which really gets to tapestries. It’s been saved from all that.

It’s fascinating to see the amount of detail in the piece that we haven’t seen. What the weavers do is incredible. They are very like cartoons in reverse, but what you miss in a tapestry is the very subtle colour changes, because with using just the yarns it’s difficult to get that graduation.

So much damage

They’re big tapestries and there was so much damage in them. The stitchwork is so intense in places. The light damage has done it. They were so dirty. A lot of collateral damage comes out in the washing process.

A lot of the colour has gone in some of them – there are kind of grey, browny patches. But there are enough of the strong colours to keep it interesting and worth a look.

It’s eventually going to go back into its frame. The plan as of now, although it could change, is to stitch it all back together again. We’ll get them back off the wall and they’ll be rejoined. It’ll go back to the conservator who did the clean and stitch and she’ll put it back together.

It’s only going to be out for this season – this is the only time to see it, so it’s quite a special time.”

A photo of the ancient Healing of the Lame Man tapestry at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire
Stitching work© Shephard Travis Conservation Studio
A photo of the ancient Healing of the Lame Man tapestry at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire
Before the wash© Shephard Travis Conservation Studio
A photo of the ancient Healing of the Lame Man tapestry at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire
After the wash© Shephard Travis Conservation Studio
A photo of the ancient Healing of the Lame Man tapestry at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire
Washing the 17th century English tapestry© Shephard Travis Conservation Studio
A photo of the ancient Healing of the Lame Man tapestry at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire
Rinsing the section© Shephard Travis Conservation Studio
A photo of the ancient Healing of the Lame Man tapestry at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire
© Shephard Travis Conservation Studio
A photo of the ancient Healing of the Lame Man tapestry at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire
Before and after© Shephard Travis Conservation Studio
A photo of the ancient Healing of the Lame Man tapestry at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire
© Shephard Travis Conservation Studio
A photo of the ancient Healing of the Lame Man tapestry at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire
© Shephard Travis Conservation Studio
  • Chatsworth House, Garden, and Farmyard opens for the new season on 19 March 2016. Visit chatsworth.org.
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