Layers of history

The Queen’s Antechamber at Ham House. ©NTPL/John Hammond

After reading my earlier post about the textiles at Ham House, National Trust conservator Lynda Skipper alerted me to the fact that the wall hangings in the Queen’s Antechamber are currently receiving conservation treatment. I thought it would be interesting to show a few details of the work.

Image: National Trust

The silk had been visibly deteriorating, so in November 2008 the fabric on the west wall was taken down and sent to the studio of textile conservator May Berkouwer. In the original inventory, the centre panels were described as blue silk damask. Puzzlingly, the extant pinkish golden brown silk seemed to have no trace of blue in it. 

When the panels were taken apart fragments of the original blue damask were found underneath. Moreover, chemical analysis of the pinkish upper layer detected the presence of an early synthetic dye which was first used in the 1880s.

Image: National Trust

This dating linked it to the restoration work carried out at Ham by William Tollemache, the 9th Earl of Dysart, in the 1890s, using the firm Watts & Co to replace many of the faded and damaged fabrics in the house. He had the pattern of the original blue damask carefully copied, but for some reason the colour was changed to pink.

He did retain the original corner motifs, which were cut out of the blue damask and appliquéd onto the new pink silk.  However, because the synthetic dye was unstable the pink quickly faded to a golden brown, making the fabric look more ancient than it was. 

Image: National Trust

The 9th Earl clearly regarded Ham as a valuable survival from a previous age which was worth preserving. His interventions are also an example of the ‘palimpsest’ effect often seen in historic houses: how the activities of successive generations create a layered picture.

The hangings from the west wall have now been cleaned and strengthened and funds are being sought to treat the remaining hangings in the room.

In response to a question from Janet Blyberg I can report that a book on the house and its collections is to be published in 2011.

4 Responses to “Layers of history”

  1. littleaugury Says:

    fascinating, it is great to see what goes on-that fabric does look ancient-please revisit when the panels go back up. pgt

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I am glad you like the glimpse behind the scenes. This year is the four-hundredth anniversary of the building of Ham, so there are bound to be more events and developments, which I will report on.

  3. Janet Says:

    What an amazing conservation project. I love that rather than reweave the blue damask, the 9th Earl chose to incorporate the old fabric into something new. Lovely! And thank you for the answer to my question…I will look forward to seeing the publication.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes the pink and blue must have been quite striking. The attitudes to historical decoration were changing in the second half of the nineteenth century, with more and more emphasis on authenticity, but the 7th Earl obviously found a healthy balance between historical accuracy and personal taste.

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