Rest and Restoration: Preserving a Rare, 16th-Century Tapestry

Tapestries are inherently fragile and susceptible to myriad forms of degradation over time, including staining, tearing, insect damage, breakage of fibers. Dyes fade from light exposure, dampness leads to oxidation of the metallic threads, and the tapestry’s enormous weight when hanging pulls on aging and brittle silk fibers—slowly, over time, the woven image diminishes.

Given its age, it’s astonishing how durable these five-hundred-year-old weavings have proven to be. Textile conservator Julia Dippold provided a detailed plan for repair and stabilization of the tapestry. Ms. Dippold has a nearly 40-year career specializing in textile conservation and has worked for major museums and collections internationally, including the Ringling Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art.

The first structural areas to degrade in most hanging tapestries, Rest on the Flight into Egypt included, are the slits created during the weaving process. In slit-tapestry technique, the weaver takes separate colored weft yarns and weaves them back and forth across warp yarns until they meet, but do not join, at various edges in the pattern Tiny slits appear in the tapestry at these junctions. This technique allows a weaver to work sections independently, incorporate different colors, or add depth and delineation to a figure; it also permits a group of weavers to work on the same tapestry simultaneously. Upon completing the tapestry, the weaver sews these slits shut to strengthen the tapestry and to avoid damage from snagging. Over time and with the increased tension from hanging, these threads often fracture, causing the slits to reopen and weaken the tapestry’s overall structure. Next, with the structure compromised, weft yarns (those integral to the image) degrade, then break or fall out.

The Treatment

Baltimore-based conservator Julia Dippold provided a detailed plan for repair and stabilization of the tapestry. Ms. Dippold has a nearly 40-year career specializing in textile conservation and has worked for major museums and collections internationally, including the Ringling Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art.

The project began with a gentle vacuuming and a careful wet cleaning. Old, unsightly repairs (perhaps as old as the 18th century) were removed, which helped to sharpen the image. Areas with broken or lost fibers were repaired and stabilized to prevent further loss of the composition. The tapestry’s structural integrity was also addressed: weaving slits (the edges between colors) were sewn shut; the original bands (the tapestry’s borders) were unfolded and repaired; the back was relined; an improved system of hanging tapes was attached; and finally, a support system of straps was incorporated so the tapestry will better bear its own considerable weight when hanging. Textile conservation of this magnitude is a time consuming process, and the tapestry required over a year of repairs.

NEA Grant

In order to fund the tapestry conservation project, the Frick Art & Historical Center was one of 817 nonprofit organizations nationwide to receive an NEA Art Works grant. The Frick was recommended for a$30,000 grant to support the conservation treatment of Rest on the Flight into Egypt, which was purchased in 1969 by museum founder Helen Clay Frick, daughter of industrialist and art patron Henry Clay Frick.

NEA Acting Chairman Joan Shigekawa said, "The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support these exciting and diverse arts projects that will take place throughout the United States. Whether it is through a focus on education, engagement, or innovation, these projects all contribute to vibrant communities and memorable opportunities for the public to engage with the arts."

"We're honored and delighted to receive this grant from the NEA for conservation of an exceptionally rare and precious work of art in our collection,” said Bill Bodine, Frick Director at the time of the award. "Rest on the Flight into Egypt is not only a beautiful work of art—it has a fascinating story and hasn't been altered in its 500-year history. Proper conservation of this object will ensure that visitors to the Frick will continue to have the opportunity to view and enjoy it for generations to come."

In August 2012, the NEA received 1,547 eligible applications for Art Works grants requesting more than $80 million in funding. Art Works grants support the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence, public engagement with diverse and excellent art, lifelong learning in the arts, and the strengthening of communities through the arts. The 817 recommended NEA grants total $26.3 million and span 13 artistic disciplines and fields. Applications were reviewed by panels of outside experts convened by NEA staff and each project was judged on its artistic excellence and artistic merit.

For a complete listing of projects recommended for Art Works grant support, please visit the NEA website at arts.gov.

Julia Dippold, Conservator
Biography

Textile conservator Julia Dippold has over thirty years of experience in the field and a prestigious roster of clients. After graduating from the Royal School of Needlework in London, Ms. Dippold first worked at the Textile Conservation Center in Surrey, England, from 1974-1976. She was employed at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. from 1977-1984 as an assistant to conservator Joseph Columbus, working on all aspects of conservation and maintenance of the textile collection. At the National Gallery, her responsibilities included analyzing dye fastness, fiber analysis, wet cleaning, dry cleaning, repairing and preparing objects for exhibition. While at the National Gallery, Dippold personally conserved three 16th-century Flemish tapestries, including custom dying the materials necessary for the conservation. Working in private practice since 1983, Ms. Dippold’s clients include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida. For the Metropolitan Museum of Art she micro-vacuumed, cleaned, couched exposed warps, made major slit repairs, and treated broken warps on eight pieces of 18th-century French tapestry. Her project at the Philadelphia Museum of Art involved major treatment of eight tapestries, four 15th- and 16th-century Flemish pieces and four 18th-century French, involving wet cleaning, repairing damaged slits, repairing weak and missing areas of weft, strapping, lining, and preparing for exhibition. Three 17th-century Flemish tapestries in the collection of the Ringling Museum required major treatment, including full support backings, slit repairs, couching broken warps and silk weft, and lining and preparing them for exhibition. Other clients include: Alfred I DuPont Institute Nemours Mansion and Gardens, Wilmington, Delaware; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Detroit Institute of Arts; Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.; the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.; the Peabody Institute, Baltimore, Maryland; and World Bank, Washington, D.C. Ms. Dippold has also been hired to oversee the preparation, transport, care, and installation of tapestries in temporary exhibitions by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland; and The Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, California. Since completing her training, Ms. Dippold has taken additional classes at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science; she has also completed the McCrone Microscopy Course on the use of microscopic analysis in conservation, and is a professional associate of the American Institute of Conservators.