Bringing a Grand 17th Century Tapestry Into the 21st Century

When Marshall Kath, a private collector in Dallas, took note of a 2009 Sotheby’s Fine European Furniture and Antiques auction in New York City, he was looking for a piece that would spark conversation. Mr. Kath eventually purchased an attention commanding, 10 ft by 9.5 ft historic 17th-century tapestry that does just that. Titled A Brussels Old Testament Tapestry Depicting the Joseph Interpreting the Pharaoh’s Dreams, From a Series of The Story of Joseph, the tapestry was commissioned by either a royal family as a way of depicting a peaceful, serene life, or a church as a visual representation of significant elements of a particular faith; in this case, Jewish or Christian.

Mr. Kath saw this tapestry as a piece of art for the ages, given its many fascinating aesthetic elements. It illustrates the well-known story of the biblical figures Joseph, Jacob, and the Pharaoh in which Joseph interprets an elusive, prophetic dream for the Pharaoh after his counselors were at a loss for answers. Elements that have proven fascinating to Kath lie in the body language and expressions of the characters. “Joseph’s confidence can be seen in his posture and in his face, while Pharaoh, ensconced in splendor, is left looking vexed by what has just transpired,” said Kath. “Jacob also stands in affirmation of his son; firmly gripping his staff, while one of Pharaoh’s counselors, not central to the story, looks off into the distance.”

Understandably, A Brussels Old Testament Tapestry arrived at The Conservation Center in very fragile, yet relatively good condition, considering it was produced in the 1600s. Age-related issues were present such as fading and earlier stabilization repairs. Reweaving was also evident, which resulted in two, six to eight-inch strips, running from top to bottom, which exhibited a different texture than the rest of the tapestry. Brass rings had been sewn at the top from which the piece hung, which put additional stress on very isolated areas that became more fragile over time in comparison to the rest of the tapestry. Fortunately, strips of linen were sewn every 8 to 12 inches into the warp (the threads that run vertically) and the weft (the threads woven horizontally into the warp) that, with a linen lining, provided the necessary support for the tapestry to hang vertically. The tacks holding this lining in place had become detached. Splits in the tapestry were scattered throughout, most prominently where the border meets the image, and fibers had become loose along the left edge. Given that the surface was coated with a light particulate film, the tapestry was also in need of a thorough cleaning.

Cleaning this tapestry proved to be very challenging due to its size and fragility. The Center’s textile conservator detailed the process: “Vacuuming the tapestry through a protective screen with a low-powered vacuum was necessary because of its condition. In some areas I used a dry sponge to lift particles in an isolated and very gentle manner so as not to pick up any silk fibers. When a tapestry is deteriorating, the front can appear solid and if touched too much, the front and back will fall away, resulting in a hole in the piece. I sponged only the areas that felt safe to do so. This particular tapestry was fabricated out of silk and “old wool”—which is very oily and easily picks up soil and dust. It was very time consuming to clean this piece due to its size.”

The next phase of conservation was to implement a new display mechanism for the piece. The goal was to reduce the stress placed on isolated areas of the tapestry while it is hung on the wall. The pre-existing brass rings were removed and replaced with a hook-and-loop system that would distribute the weight more evenly across the entire piece. The loop element consisted of two rows of canvas stitched to the back of the tapestry, one on top of the other, measuring about two inches wide. Our textile conservator used a particular stitching technique that would help evenly distribute the weight of the piece. The hooks were then fastened to a wooden baton and sealed to prevent the possibility of acid transfer, which could then be screwed into the wall for display, distributing the weight of the tapestry as needed. Before the tapestry was returned to Mr. Kath, we treated areas of loss throughout. Some areas of silk had become extremely delicate and close to developing holes. To prevent further deterioration, patches of fabric were sewn behind these areas into more stable areas of fabric.

A Brussels Old Testament Tapestry  as displayed in Mr. Kath's previous residence in Dallas, November 2013.

A Brussels Old Testament Tapestry as displayed in Mr. Kath's previous residence in Dallas, November 2013.

A healthy amount of research led Mr. Kath to our textile conservation services. “The Conservation Center had the most comprehensive approach to restoring the tapestry. I knew they would provide a customized treatment plan utilizing the least invasive, most reversible and archival materials currently available to the conservation community. I trust the experience and expertise of the staff and I felt confident the tapestry would get the greatest amount of care and consideration by utilizing the resources at The Conservation Center.”