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Conserving the Embroidered Cushion at Smallhythe Place

The embroidered cushion before conservation at Smallhythe Place
The embroidered cushion before conservation at Smallhythe Place | © Zenzie Tinker Conservation

Conservation often involves making lots of decisions around how to treat objects, and to what extent. A big consideration in making these decisions is an ethical one.

We ask ourselves what story is this object trying to tell? What is its role? This helps us to understand which phase of an object’s life we are trying to conserve.

The conservation of the unstable hand-embroidered cushion on display in Ellen Terry's bedroom at Smallhythe Place, is a perfect example of this.

In the Autumn of 2023, the cushion came to the Zenzie Tinker Conservation studio for assessment and treatment.

A Tale of Two Cushions

The cushion posed this conundrum as it had led two lives. First, sometime in the late nineteenth- or early-twentieth century, it was a round, green silk cushion with a top of applique flowers (see image 1 below). Later, an embroidered top was added to the cushion, dramatically altering its appearance.

The colourful embroidery is fascinating, it is worked in wool, cotton and silk creating circles of multiple different designs, and each time you look at it you spot a new pattern or colour (see image 2 below).

The original cushion top with appliqué flowers
The original cushion top with appliqué flowers | © Zenzie Tinker Conservation

Image 1

The original cushion top with appliqué flowers

1 of 2

It is thought to have potentially been designed, and maybe worked, by the fascinating Pamela Coleman Smith, artist, suffragette and incredibly interesting woman who was a close friend and colleague of Terry. Alternatively, it was Ellen herself who worked on the embroidery based on Coleman Smith's design.

After much discussion and deliberation, it was decided that it was this story of the cushion that should be focussed on, being the one which required most immediate attention within the time and budget currently available.

The treatment aim was therefore to allow the embroidered top to be displayed safely and prevent further loss, whilst also protecting the remaining elements by packing them for safe return to storage.

Degradation of the embroidered cushion's sides at Smallhythe Place
Degradation of the embroidered cushion's sides at Smallhythe Place | © Zenzie Tinker Conservation

The Condition Issues

The primary condition issue with the cushion was that the silk base (the original appliqué flower top) had become entirely detached and the sides had suffered extensive structural loss (see above image). This had been caused by the heavy embroidered linen top putting pressure on the silk, weakened from age and exposure to light.

The embroidered top was intact but deteriorating, with loose threads in many areas. There was also widespread surface dust and soiling causing dulling of the embroidery, as well as loss of colour of the embroidery threads, particularly the blue.

The Treatment

It was decided that a reproduction green silk cushion would be made, which closely followed the original dimensions of the cushion, with the embroidered top safely secured to it.

To do this, Tabby started by removing it from the original green silk, she then surface cleaned all elements and gently humidified the embroidery to reduced creases and a dart (which had been added to fit the top to the existing cushion). She then created the new cushion by dyeing silk to closely match the original cushion colour, and then followed the original cushion construction to create a replica pad and silk cover.

After the embroidery was secured on to this cushion, Tabby then added overlays of conservation net to protect some areas of embroidery which were loose and at risk of loss (see images below). The remainder of the green silk cushion, original pad, and the original top with appliqué flowers was packed up for storage, although these elements remain very fragile, they are now much safer than they previously were.

Slider with before and after images
Area of loose embroidery before the netting
Area of loose embroidery before the netting | © Zenzie Tinker Conservation
Area of loose embroidery after netting

The Result

We are delighted with the outcome of this treatment which will enable the embroidered top to be safely and beautifully displayed, and prevent further degradation, in the bedroom at Smallhythe Place for many years to come.