The National Trust’s lengthiest and most extensive textile conservation project, involving the restoration of 13 giant 16th-century tapestries from Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, has reached its final phase.
The project began in 2001 and has now carefully restored 12 of the 13 tapestries, which have lined the walls of the Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall since 1562. Conservation work on the final tapestry is set to be completed in 2023.
The exquisite tapestries measure nearly 6m high and more than 70m in length, and depict scenes from the Old Testament story of Gideon, who led an army to rescue his people from the Midianites. They were originally crafted in the Flemish province of East Flanders for the Elizabethan politician and Lord Chancellor Sir Christopher Hatton, and were intended for display at his residence of Holdenby House in Northamptonshire.
After Hatton’s death in 1591, the contents of Holdenby House were sold to balance his debts. The tapestries were purchased by Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, who was known as Bess of Hardwick, for the grand sum of £326 15s 9d (the equivalent of £128,000 today).
The Countess had the tapestries altered to feature her own heraldry; for example, Hatton’s ‘golden hind’ emblem was converted into a Cavendish stag, as featured in her own coat of arms.
As part of the conservation work, each tapestry has been sent to specialists in Belgium to undergo a wet washing process which removes the dust accumulated over centuries. They have then been returned to the Textile Conservation Studio in Norfolk.
Elena Williams, Senior House and Collections officer at Hardwick Hall, explained the process: ‘The main part of our work involves stitching by hand, section by section. Weakened and broken threads are replaced, and the entire tapestry is sewn on to a linen scrim which provides support. The final stage is lining with cotton cambric and adding the [wall] fixing.’
The 12th tapestry will be displayed again in the Long Gallery in all its vibrant glory for two years, before the portraits which had been hung on top of it are reinstated.
Hardwick Hall, famously dubbed ‘more glass than wall’, was one of Bess of Hardwick’s many architectural triumphs, and is the only Elizabethan Long Gallery to retain its original artworks. She also built Chatsworth House as the home of her second husband, though she later lived there with her fourth.
Hardwick Hall and its park have now re-opened to the public. Entrance is by pre-booked ticket, in accordance with government guidelines.