Cotehele's precious old boar

Detail of a boar's head tapestry at Cotehele, Cornwall

Tapestries at Cotehele date from the Middle Ages and are a major feature of the house’s decoration and a big part of the place’s story. They cover virtually every square inch of wall, so you really can't miss them.

Why are there so many tapestries at Cotehele?

The early Edgcumbes had their tapestries cut and stitched together the heavy weavings to fit around doorways and fireplaces and snugly insulate their home.

The Edgcumbes cut and pasted tapestries to suit their needs
Detail of a tapestry cut and paste job at Cotehele, Cornwall
The Edgcumbes cut and pasted tapestries to suit their needs

‘Tapestries were used to keep the house warm in the days before there was any heating here other than open fires,’ says National Trust conservator Liz Flintoff. ‘They would have been very expensive in their day.’

This meant the tapestries were also used to demonstrate the family’s wealth and status to visitors.

Which tapestries are the oldest?

One of the earliest tapestries at Cotehele is the medieval boar’s head, which Liz restored. This motif once formed part of the Edgcumbe family’s coat of arms, a symbol of their wealth and power.

Two other boar’s head motifs, fragments from the same early tapestry, have been reworked into a later tapestry in the dining room, in the best tradition of Cotehele make-do-and-mend.

‘The Boar’s Head is possibly the oldest of the tapestries in the house,’ says Liz. ‘We had the fibres and dyes analysed and discovered they date from c.1500. As they’re so old and so fragile, these tapestries are very precious and need to be looked after carefully.’

Low levels of light in Cotehele House have helped conserve its fantastic tapestries, although some damage is inevitable over time.

What causes them to deteriorate?

‘Sunlight is a big problem, so it is good that this house is so dark. It helps them last,’ says Liz. ‘All old tapestries have been repaired at some point. Any repairs that are not causing any damage, which are not distorting the weave and where the colour is still all right, we will leave well alone.’

How do you care for the tapestries?

Delicate tapestry cleaning at Cotehele
Conservator delicately vacuums a tapestry at Cotehele, Cornwall
Delicate tapestry cleaning at Cotehele

Our conservation team carry out basic care and cleaning in house to maintain them but when light and pest damage gets too much we have to send the tapestries away to specialist conservators. Three of the tapestries from the house which tell the story of Leander are having high-priority works now.

What do the conservators do?

Conserving the tapestries first involves ‘wet cleaning’ them gently by hand with special detergent and water. This, says Liz, is crucial, ‘because they are often quite stiff with accumulated dust and dirt that we couldn’t even put a needle through them’.

Then practical repair work is carried out to preserve the tapestries from further deterioration.

‘It is about restoring what is left,’ said Liz. ‘What we do is support the whole tapestry by backing it with linen. All our repair work is done onto the new piece of linen fabric; it’s like a second skin.’

'Leander swimming the Hellespont' tapestry in King Charles's Room at Cotehele
'Leander swimming the Hellespont' tapestry at Cotehele, Cornwall
'Leander swimming the Hellespont' tapestry in King Charles's Room at Cotehele

Gaps left after removing the glued patches from the 1960s have been removed are replaced with photographic patches, allowing the colours from another tapestry to be copied. You can see how this technique has been used in the Leander swimming… tapestry hanging in the King Charles Room, and also see an entire photographic replica of the same tapestry.

How can I help look after the tapestries?

We’re selling raffle tickets this year to raise further funds to pay for the tapestry conservation work. Every raffle ticket sold will conserve one square centimetre of precious tapestry. You can buy raffle tickets in the house when you visit and your support is vital to help us carry out this important conservation project.

Tapestry from the Bacchanals series at Cotehele
Tapestry from the Bacchanals series depicting slightly-clad children making wine
Tapestry from the Bacchanals series at Cotehele