Rare surviving tapestries return to The Vyne
Exquisite tapestries that were once cut up as part of a nineteenth century ‘extreme makeover’ have returned home to The Vyne in Hampshire, following conservation. Decorative and colourful, they are filled with exotic scenes and fantastical animals from an imagined ‘Far East’. The 300 year old tapestries are now back on show for the first time in eight years. Discover their story of survival and go behind the scenes with our video.
Fantastical scenes and creatures
Believed to have been commissioned for the house, the tapestries were created in the early 1700s in the London Soho workshop of John Vanderbank. The leading tapestry weaver of the period, Vanderbank was the first to introduce the style later known as ‘chinoiserie’ to tapestries.
Fascination with the East was widespread in the nineteenth century thanks to increased trade. Western craftsmen were keen to mimic the decoration of imported wares, and scenes from books of illustrated travel descriptions. The result was a hotch-potch of Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Turkish cultural influences, creating fictionalised designs later known as ‘chinoiserie’.
The tapestries reflect Vanderbank’s romanticised and exaggerated European view of Asian art and culture. Monkeys, wild cats, enormous insects and birds are scattered across the textiles. There are beautiful pagodas, groups of figures in flowing robes with musical instruments, and fantastical deities. Set on a rich brown background, the tapestries imitated the popular imported Japanese and Chinese screens whose vibrant designs were carved into black lacquer.
Tapestries get the chop
Senior collections and house officer Dominique Shembry: “We may think that recycling what you have for a new decorative scheme is a modern concept. However, in the nineteenth century, The Vyne’s financially squeezed owner Wiggett Chute cut up these sumptuous tapestries that were already 150 years old, to line the walls of his new billiard room.
" Wiggett wanted a cosy space to escape to, away from his eleven children. With the tapestries added, the billiard room became a much more inviting place to relax in. However, he mis-matched some sections to make them fit, so you’ll see half a bird for instance, and the end of a pagoda is missing."
Storms reveal the tapestries’ fragility
The tapestries were removed eight years ago for safekeeping when a succession of violent storms saw water coming through the roof and windows of this former Tudor ‘power house. When the tapestries were inspected, their fragile state was revealed - failing historic repairs, degrading silk and wool yarn, and warped backings that were putting a strain on the fabric.
Conservators prepared the textiles for ‘wet cleaning’ in Belgium, where a mist of water and mild detergent would be drawn through the historic fabric to remove any dirt. Before washing, old, stitched repairs that might shrink and put additional stress on the tapestries were removed. Weak and open slits were reinforced with temporary extra stitching and small samples of yarn tested for colour fastness. The linings and narrow woven borders, known as galloons, were also removed and the tapestries gently surface vacuumed to remove any loose soiling.
Once back in the UK, the tapestries were sent to three specialist conservation workshops, including the National Trust’s Textile Conservation Studio in Norfolk. The complex process to improve their appearance and strengthen them took three years.
Discovering parrots, leopards and other delights
Senior textile conservator Rachel Langley: “We mounted the tapestries onto frames so that we could stitch through them. The three we worked on took over 3,000 hours of conservation stitching, but they are so quirky and charming there was always something to enjoy. Some of the images I particularly loved working on were a little carriage being pulled by a leopard, and a magnificent parrot.”
The re-hanging process took a team of expert conservators several days, with help from museum-grade velcro®. Rachel Langley: “Historically, tapestries would have been hung on hooks, but in fact velcro® is a much better option because it evenly distributes the weight of each tapestry, and you can easily make adjustments once they’re up on the walls.”
Welcoming back the tapestries
The Vyne’s general manager Stuart Maughan: “It’s recorded that Wiggett’s sister Caroline, as a child, had been terrified of one of the characters in the tapestries when they had hung in her bedroom, and her nurse had to stay with her at night until she fell asleep. We’re delighted to have them back though, and we think our visitors will be too! The tapestries are such an amazing and beautiful mix of different cultures, and they mark a significant historic moment in the development of today’s globalised world. We hope many people come and enjoy them.”