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Cycles of Life: The Four Seasons Tapestries

Robin Hanson, Conservator of Textiles and Sarah Scaturro, Eric and Jane Nord Chief Conservator

Figure 1: Three of the four seasons tapestries on display in the Arlene M. and Arthur S. Holden Textile Gallery (gallery 234)

For the exhibition Cycles of Life: The Four Seasons Tapestries, the CMA’s Textile Conservator Robin Hanson and Chief Conservator Sarah Scaturro took on dual roles — that of exhibition curators as well as conservators. This set of four tapestries, woven in Paris in the mid-to late 1700s, is based on Flemish designs from 100 years earlier. Woven of silk, wool, and metal threads, the tapestries range in size from eight-and-a-half-feet square to eight by nearly thirteen feet.

This project began 15 years ago when Robin participated in a three-day survey of 36 tapestries in Cleveland’s collection along with Belgian tapestry expert Yvan Maes De Wit. The goal of this survey was to rank the tapestries in the collection by quality, and then to determine the amount of conservation treatment necessary to make them ready for exhibition. Based on that survey, the Four Seasons Tapestries were selected as the highest priority for treatment. Two Master of Art candidates in the joint CMA/CWRU Art History and Museum Studies undertook art historical research on the tapestries. Their research helped to further confirm this set’s importance and provide information that is now available to the public through our Collection Online platform.

Once funding was secured to treat them, these four tapestries, along with four others in the collection, were sent to Mechelen, Belgium, in May 2018 for treatment at Royal Manufacturers De Wit; all eight returned to Cleveland in September 2019 once treatment was complete. Although the CMA has a textile conservation lab on-site, treating tapestries requires a large space, specialized equipment, and a team of textile conservators trained in tapestry conservation to undertake the treatment. Treating the tapestries in Cleveland’s textile lab would not have been possible. Cleveland’s relationship with De Wit extends back to the late 1990s, when the set of eight Dido and Aeneas tapestries on display in the Armor Court (fig. 2) was sent to Mechelen for treatment. Since then, 20 tapestries in Cleveland’s collection have now been treated by De Wit.

Figure 2: Dido and Aeneas tapestries on display in the Armor Court

De Wit uses a two-step stitching process. First, weak areas are stabilized to reinforce the tapestry by placing patches of cotton or linen behind areas of loss. Exposed warps are stitched to the patch using a matching thread. Sometimes the patches are small, but occasionally they might cover large sections if an area is particularly damaged. Then comes restoration — which is the addition of new materials to visually complete an area. New thread is stitched on top of the patches to complete the picture. When viewed from afar, the repairs are harmonious and almost indiscernible, but if viewed up close, the new stitches are visually different, enabling viewers to differentiate original parts of the tapestry from restorations. You see here the process: on the left is the damaged area, in the middle the loss has been stabilized, and on the right you see the restored area (figs. 3a–c).

Figure 3a: Before treatment. Figure 3b: During treatment. Figure 3c: After treatment.

In addition to conservation treatment itself, conservators undertake written and photographic documentation of objects being treated, both before treatment begins, during treatment, and after treatment is complete. They also undertake technical analysis to better understand the objects they are treating. The wool and silk threads were identified using a polarized light microscope. Dye analysis was done in collaboration with the conservation scientists at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields. Scientists identified natural dyes sourced from both plants and insects that are indicative of materials in use during the time the tapestries were made. Similarly, the metal threads were analyzed at the Swagelok Center for Surface Analysis of Materials, located within the School of Engineering at Case Western Reserve University. Scanning Electron Microscopy with Energy Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy (SEM-EDS) detected a silver and gold alloy with trace amounts of copper in the metal strips wrapped around a silk core, which is a typical construction for metal threads in the 1700s (figs. 4b and 4c).These collaborations extend Cleveland’s capabilities in the realm of scientific analysis, and ultimately benefit all the institutions involved through the sharing of knowledge.

Figure 4a: Photomicrograph at 40x magnification showing the flat metal strip wound around a yellow silk core. Figure 4b: Backscatter Electron (BSE) detail at 1000x of the metal surface. Figure 4c: BSE image at 350x magnification from SEM-EDS.

Be sure to visit the Arlene M. and Arthur S. Holden Textile Gallery and check out the exhibition Cycles of Life: The Four Seasons Tapestries. The exhibit goes into detail about the conservation treatment and features a video of the process. It’s on view through February 19, 2023.

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