Conservation work on the Whistler Room curtains at Mottisfont

Textile conservators unstich the lining from the velvet of the curtains from the Whistler Room in Mottisfont, Hampshire

On the face of it, curtains doesn’t sound like a very interesting subject. When I started at Mottisfont in May 2017 and was asked to plan the remedial conservation of five pairs of curtains in the house, I was interested but not excited. Fast-forward a year and I will enthusiastically explain to anyone why what we’re doing with the curtains is so important.

The curtains are part of the Whistler Room, which was painted in 1938-9 by the artist Rex Whistler. Mottisfont’s last owner Maud Russell commissioned him to create a trompe l'oeil masterpiece in her drawing room that recalls the medieval architecture of the priory.

The five pairs of curtains, each 4m tall by 2m wide, are an integral part of the decorative scheme, and Whistler even left an inscription stating he was painting the curtains when the Second World War began.

Due to handling, age and a carpet beetle infestation the curtains are in poor condition. In May they were taken down by textile conservators Zenzie Tinker and her team, who spent 10 days unstitching the linings and fronts. They were then wrapped on rollers (actually drainpipes cut to size) and sent to be frozen for three weeks to stop the carpet beetles.

The curtains were rolled carefully to make them easier to transport
Conservators roll curtain fabric carefully in the Whistler Room at Mottisfont
The curtains were rolled carefully to make them easier to transport

The curtains returned at the end of June, and have now had a thorough condition check by the conservators to see how they’re doing post-freezing and to ascertain exactly the amount of conservation work required on them. When viewed on the ground they looked dirty but otherwise intact – but it was quite a different story when they held them up to the light. This allowed them to see all the holes in the delicate fabric.

Holding the linings up to the light helped us to identify any holes
One of the conservation team at Mottisfont, Hampshire holds a curtain lining up to the light, checking for damage
Holding the linings up to the light helped us to identify any holes

During the conservation work we’ve made some interesting discoveries:

  • The backs of the mock ermine are much dirtier than the sides. It looks like ‘new’ mock ermine was added to the sides at a later date, presumably after the original material got so dirty. The newer material appears to have been designed by Whistler at the same time but probably saved for such an eventuality. This is really interesting as we had no idea such large-scale work had taken place on the curtains before – something to investigate further!
  • We’ve also learned that each curtain has been constructed individually so no two are alike – for example, one of them is 6cm longer on one side than the other.
  • We had to remove the delicate tassels from some of the pelmets while taking the curtains down. It was a great opportunity to look at them up close, as while they appear 3D they’re actually flat and painted to look real – we discovered that they’re literally just canvas that’s been painted.

We’re constantly learning things about the curtains and exactly what we need to do to conserve them – you can find out more about the project here:

Painted trompe l'oeil murals and decorative curtains in the Whistler Room at Mottisfont, Hampshire

Restoring the Whistler Room curtains at Mottisfont

The curtains in our celebrated Whistler Room are part of Maud Russell's original design scheme, created by Rex Whistler. But these original furnishings are deteriorating rapidly. They have been taken down for an intensive programme of repair and restoration, which will take up to five years to complete.