MIRROR IMAGING: THE ART OF TAPESTRY REVISITED

Abstract prior to a paper given by the conservators of Albion Conservation Consultancy at The American Institute of Conservation General Session, AGM, Dallas 2001

The Reversal of a Tapestry Fragment "Mother and Child with Two Supporting Figures". Workshop of Thomas Poynz, ca. 1675-80. England.

This fragment,which hangs in the Queen Mother's sitting room at Glamis Castle, Scotland, was subsequently found to have been cut from "Nebuchadnezzar and the Golden Idol", one of a set of tapestries hanging in the castle previously conserved by Albion Textile Conservation.

The tapestry fragment was conserved by Albion Textile Conservation in January, 2000. After undertaking tests of Synparonic A7 on wool compared with another detergent, the tapestry was washed using a weak solution of Synparonic A7 following the usual conservation procedures, and the tapestry was pinned to a board to avoid dimensional change. After much deliberation, the ATC conservators decided to reverse the fragment. The current report discusses the reasoning underlying this decision, the process of the deliberation, and the issues which it raises for our profession. The essential issue is one of ethics (the preservation of original material in the expectation of increased scientific capabilities of future generations) vs. aesthetics (the increase in availability of the essence of an artwork leading to greater understanding and appreciation of that artwork). In the current instance, the washed fragment displayed a continuing presence of a blue pigment soaked silk area, an improved but still visible water stain, and a complete absence of the shade and definition conveying the artist's original drawing of relationship and warmth between the subjects. By reversing the fragment and displaying it as a mirror image of its former self. A.T.C. has enabled the public to experience what only textile experts have been able to see in the past: the vibrancy of color and sympathetic warmth of the medium to portray figurative interaction bear direct witness to the cultural and religious validity of tapestry as a medium in centuries preceding our own.

Throughout the conservation process, A.T.C. was guided by the principles of minimal intervention and constant monitoring, and of a conscious weighing and balancing of factors. The report includes photographs of the tapestry before and after, of the line of tradition from the cartoons of Raphael and the tapestries woven from them, and of the slit stitches mapped onto the "before" photo. Finally, the report addresses the underlying issues raised by the decision to present the tapestry as a mirror image, all of which are major questions facing our profession. Who has the right to decide when a tapestry has reached the end of its visually useful lifetime? How do we evaluate the artist's original intention? How do we balance the need to preserve scientific evidence, recognizing that the expression of this evidence is still in its infancy, against the more subjective human concerns of creativity, artistic merit, cultural reference and religious concerns? Finally and ultimately, is it the business of the conservator to decide these issues?