Maria Jordan is Studio Manager of our Textile Conservation Studio at Blickling, Norfolk. It is our only specialist in-house textile conservation treatment facility and is tasked with caring for the over 150,000 individual items in our textile collection. One of Maria's first tasks when joining the studio was conserving some of the oldest and largest tapestries we care for – Hardwick Hall’s 'Story of Gideon'. While working on this set of 13, one in particular – 'Gideon choosing his army' – has become one of her favourite objects. Here she tells us about the conservation work and why the tapestry is particularly special to her.
Becoming a textile conservator
I remember, at the age of six, embroidering a linen dressing-table mat for my grandmother. I liked the rhythm of the work, the colours and the creative result. As a child of diplomats, I was forever being shipped from pillar to post, so objects which could travel with us, especially textiles, were important to me. They gave me comfort and stability. I also loved staying at my grandparents’ Surrey home, with its sumptuous 1930s Heal's interior full of velvets, silks and linens.
It was not until I was in my 30s that the idea of looking after historic textiles entered my life. I spent 16 fascinating years working at Historic Royal Palaces’ conservation studio before coming to Norfolk to head the National Trust’s Textile Conservation Studio team.
Restoring the Gideon tapestries
When I arrived at the studio for the first time in 2016, one of the National Trust’s oldest and largest tapestries was waiting for me. It was from the Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire and dates from 1578. Its size is an extraordinary 9m wide by 6m high. Imagine three full-sized snooker tables lined up side-by-side and you’re getting close.
" Its size is an extraordinary 9m wide by 6m high. Imagine three full-sized snooker tables lined up side-by-side and you’re getting close."
This immense tapestry was part of a set of 13 bought by Bess of Hardwick in a sale following the death of Sir Christopher Hatton in 1591. I am awed by the size of this tapestry. It would have probably taken four skilled weavers more than 5 years to produce. Ninety per cent of the tapestry is made of wool (with 10 per cent being silk) and about 60kg of wool (or 20 fleeces) would have been needed.
Originally made in Grammot, which was then in the Spanish Netherlands and is now in Belgium, it would have been woven in three pieces – the top and bottom borders and the main field. My team and I had to work in the same way and conserve the three pieces separately.
The sections were cleaned front and back at a specialist facility in Belgium. They were filthy from the years of dirt created by the open caste mining in the area. It was particularly tenacious dirt and it took over 10 hours to clean each section.
The pieces of the tapestry were then returned to the conservation studio and mounted on three looms where the stitched repairs are undertaken. These repairs were worked through a layer of linen using wool (dyed with synthetic dyes) and stranded cotton for the silk areas. After more than 400 years of hanging on these walls, the wool is weakening and so the linen offers them a ‘second skin’ for support.
Once the loom work was finished, the tapestry needed lining. The studio is in a large converted barn, but even here we couldn’t lie the whole tapestry out flat. In the end we stitched the top border and the main field together and lined these first. We then lined the lower border separately and re-stitched it to the rest of the tapestry on site, in the Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall, once the top border and main field had been hung.
What’s so special about the Gideon tapestries?
I was particularly thrilled to be able to work on this tapestry because it is part of a set that I know well. The set tells the biblical story of Gideon, who was sent by God to save Israel from the hands of the Midianites. The tapestries show the various tasks he had to fulfil.
This tapestry is called ‘Gideon choosing his army’. It shows Gideon in the centre, surrounded by men all wishing to join his army. But there too many, so Gideon asks God how he should decide who should fight with him. God commands that he should choose men who drink from cupped hands rather than those who drink like animals. There are men drinking both ways from the two rippled pools at the front of the scene, so it is clear who will be fighting with Gideon.
What I love about this piece is that each person seems real, in character and features. I would like to meet them and hear each of their stories about why they are following Gideon and fighting the Midianites.
Returning the restored tapestry
The day we returned the tapestry to Hardwick was special. Two colleagues and I worked with the property team. We hung the main part first, and then stitched on the lower border there in the Long Gallery. It took us just under 24 hours to do this work.
As I returned to the studio, I felt sad to say goodbye to such a beautiful, unique object. After all, we’d spent my first three years at the studio together. But to see the tapestry hanging back in its place was a wonderful moment – and we now have another of the series with us. It’s also 9m by 6m and is called ‘Gideon attacking the Midianites’ – having chosen his army!
By 2022, after 20 years, the conservaton work on the tapestry set will be completed – their intricate designs clearly visible once more and their stability ensured for the next 100 years. I hope the 16th-century weavers would be proud to know we are still enjoying their amazing work.
This blog is adapted from 'An object I love' by Maria Jordan which appeared in the autumn 2019 issue of the National Trust Magazine.