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Pioneering cleaning method brings Flemish tapestry back into sharp focus

Long-time visitors to the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts are celebrating the return of an old favourite (a 511-year-old one, to be precise) with a fresh look and a new attribution after its two-year treatment at a leading textile restoration firm 5,600km away. As we went to press, a huge Flemish tapestry of the Last Judgment, made in Brussels in around 1505 as part of a ten-part Redemption of Mankind series, was due to go back on display in the museum for the first time since it was removed for conservation reasons in 1990. The piece is the focus of an exhibition (until 18 September) detailing its conservation and new research into the textile, which was bought in 1935 by the institution’s ambitious young director Francis Henry Taylor, who went on to lead the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The work was made during what is considered to be the pinnacle of technical and aesthetic achievement in tapestry production, says Rita Albertson, the museum’s chief conservator. It was a time when Northern Europe’s most famous artists became involved in textile design and sought to translate pictorial developments in painting, such as the suggestion of three-dimensionality, into tapestries. “These master weavers were being driven by famous artists,” Albertson says. They included Colyn De Coter, an artist who was active in Brussels and Antwerp and was recently identified by the Belgian scholar Catheline Périer-D’Ieteren as the artist responsible for the Last Judgment cartoon. The tapestry is believed to have been in the collection of King Manuel I of Portugal.

A combination of accumulated dirt, fading colours caused by the use of synthetic dyes in earlier repairs and general wear and tear from 55 years of continuous display had made the tapestry, which boasts more than 100 figures, hard to read. It had also lost its three-dimensionality. With funding from the Brussels-based King Baudouin Foundation’s René and Karin Jonckheere Fund, the piece was sent to the De Wit Royal Manufacturer of Tapestry in Mechelen, Belgium—a 127-year-old family firm that specialises in textile conservation and restoration.

The company pioneered an innovative aerosol suction method of cleaning tapestries that sucks out the dirt and impurities without having to submerge the textile in a water bath, thereby minimising the risk of shrinking, colour-bleeding and puckering. Instead, a mild cleaning solution is sprayed in an aerosol form into an enclosed room, in which the piece is laid out on a special suction table. The solution is sucked through the tapestry over the course of an hour.

De Wit also removed old repairs that had faded. Yvan Maes De Wit, the firm’s managing director, estimates that the repairs were made in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, at a time when new synthetic aniline dyes were introduced; these have since turned out to be unstable.

Albertson says that the biggest transformation can be seen in the faces in the composition. “They were grey and vacant. Now you can see wrinkles, strands of hair, eyebrows, eye colours. You can see a wide range of emotion that you couldn’t appreciate before: awe, wonder, reverence, fear and terror, depending whether you’re looking at those going to heaven or hell,” she says.