National Trust recreates 17th-century ‘secret’ squirrel on rare Flemish tapestry

Press release
Detail of the lost red squirrel recreated in the border of the tapestry
Published : 29 Apr 2021

There’s a new addition to one of the National Trust’s rarest 17th-century tapestries, now back at Dyrham Park near Bath after specialist cleaning and repairs.

Described as being in ‘very poor and fragile condition’, two large Enghien (pron: On-gee-en) tapestries, belonging to the 17th-century house, were treated thanks to over £140,000 in legacies left to the conservation charity.

But as the repairs were being made to the Flemish tapestries, woven with wool and silk, the National Trust’s textile conservators in Norfolk realised something was missing. Along the border, with the loss of the wool weft which creates the design, a gap was found and research soon established that the missing element was a red squirrel.

In the conservation report, textile conservator Maria Pardos-Mansilla wrote: “During conservation stitching some questions arose about the interpretation of a particular large area of missing weft in the lower border. The appearance of this weak area and the shapes created by the missing weft were confusing. Parts could be roughly interpreted as random floral motifs, but overall the design was not comprehensive.

“Research comparing this area with other tapestry borders of the same set revealed that the missing area used to depict a red squirrel hiding within the foliage. Whilst there were small discrepancies in scale it became obvious this was the original design. Evidence of squirrels in three tapestries of the same set and several tracings of the shape and taken from the damaged area were used to aid interpretation and recreation of the missing design.”

The tapestries, complete with once-lost squirrel, are now back on the walls of the Tapestry Bedchamber ready for the reopening of the house in mid-May. They are one of only two sets of this type in existence in this country – with the collection at Dyrham being the more complete and well preserved. Tapestries were a status symbol of wealth as well as keeping rooms warm and being easy to transport.

Depicting the fountains and parterres of the famous gardens at Enghien near Brussels, they had suffered damage over the years – particularly before they came under the National Trust’s watchful eye when they were twice cut to fit the space and moved around the house.

Some £142,170 was set aside from legacies from supporters of the National Trust for the work which saw them go to the National Trust Textile Conservation Studio in Norfolk in 2018, then De Wit, Mechelen in Belgium for specialist wet cleaning.

On arrival in Norfolk they were said to be ‘soiled, heavily stained and light damaged’ with ‘large areas of loss’. Brittle adhesives were painstakingly removed using a process involving solvent application and a specialist vacuum suction.

At De Wit they used a water mist to clean the tapestries very delicately. The tapestries then went back to Norfolk for intense conservation stitching work and, while still fragile by nature, are now said to be returned to a ‘stable and stronger condition’.

There were some delays to the tapestries’ return date due to the coronavirus pandemic, but staff at Dyrham are now delighted to have them back and can’t wait to show them to the public again soon.

“It’s just brilliant to have these amazing tapestries back and looking fantastic. There had been some splitting and loss of detail due to the application of adhesives on old repairs and patches replacing parts so it’s wonderful to see them back to their former glory and with the added bonus of a new squirrel,” said Eilidh Auckland, Property Curator at Dyrham Park. “The tapestries appear more cohesive while also being protected for the future.”

Dyrham house, which was founded by William Blathwayt in the late 17th century, underwent a major conservation project in 2015/2016 to replace the leaking roof, helping to safeguard the collection. A project is now underway to re-present the house and create more meaningful experiences for visitors, engaging with them using exciting and turbulent stories of the late 17th century.

The Tapestry Bedchamber, furnished with a four poster bed, five tapestries and Dutch delftware, is on the first floor, with views of the beautiful formal gardens.  It was built as part of William Blathwayt’s private suite with an ante room, bedchamber and two richly decorated rooms beyond that were once filled with exotic silks, lacquered furniture and Dutch paintings.