Burghley House | Conserving Burghley's Treasures
Fire tapestry conservation work
Burghley Treasures
10 Jul 2024

Conserving Burghley's Treasures

Vital conservation work of one of Burghley's finest tapestries

Woven by John Vanderbank’s studio, the leading tapestry weaver in England, Fire was purchased by the 5th Earl circa 1685 and is recorded in Burghley’s 1688 Inventory. However, it remained in storage until the George Rooms were completed by the 9th Earl in 1770. ​

Fire depicts Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and is one of three in a series known as The Elements. Air and Water also hang in the Second George Room of Burghley House.​

Inevitably, gradual decay of the natural fibres brings the need for care and attention. ​

Thanks to Gift Aid contributions made by visitors, we are able to carry out specialist work to conserve this magnificent tapestry.​

Here, expert textile conservators, The Landi Company, give us a fascinating insight into the conservation process now underway.

The conservation process

As with all tapestry conservation, the first step is to remove old fixings and linings along with old repairs that are weak or causing distortion. Fixings and linings will be recorded and samples kept for future reference.

Following dye tests, the tapestry will then be prepared for washing. It will be vacuumed front and reverse with a conservation grade vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter, to remove particulate matter from the fibres and prevent dirt from becoming cemented once wet. Any weak areas will be netted, and ‘aprons’ will be attached to either end of the tapestry so that Fire can be moved between rollers during the wash process.

The tapestry will be washed at The Landi Company studio, onsite at Burghley House, using a non-ionic detergent and deionised water. This can be seen in the images above.

As well as removing visible soiling, wet cleaning tapestries helps to remove some of the acidity caused by soot and surface soiling. The aim is to raise the pH of the tapestry as part of the wash process, adjusting the wash solution to make it more alkali as required.

The colours in Fire remain remarkably bright and the tapestry shows minimal signs of fading. However, there are visible signs of deterioration and weakening which have been identified as follows;

  • The tapestry has developed a ‘potbelly’, a bulge at the bottom of the tapestry caused by it hanging without a support within a fixed space.
  • Stitching has popped and slits are opening up creating areas of weakness which could lead to further damage.
  • The tapestry has weakened generally due to fluctuating environmental conditions over the centuries.
  • Areas of dark brown weft are deteriorating, due to the mordants used during the dye process.
  • Fire shows signs of damage, and the galloons have been heavily grazed by pests (moths and carpet beetles). A galloon is a narrow woven strip around the edges of the tapestry border, most commonly a solid blue colour.

Fire will be conserved using a polypropylene support fabric. This method is ideal for a less interventive conservation treatment.

The tapestry will be tensioned vertically between two rollers and the polypropylene support fabric will be attached to the reverse in rows of 20cm. Support stitching will then be applied across the tapestry, including the closing of non-designed splits and laid couching across areas of weakened weft.

Finally, the entire piece will be lined with downproof cotton and soft Velcro will be attached across the top, ensuring even tension when it is re-hung. Given the specific framed space it must fit into, Velcro will also be attached at intervals down both sides of the tapestry.

It's our intention that this conservation work will keep this wonderful and important tapestry in great condition for the future.

Fire will be returned to its home in the Second George in time for the House reopening in Spring 2025.

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‘Fire’ depicts Vulcan, the Roman god of fire

More about Burghley's 'Fire' tapestry

The Fire tapestry shows Vulcan at his anvil, working on an arrow and surrounded by various forged items. There is a second smith in the background with a third working at the forge.

In the clouds above Vulcan, are Venus and Jupiter accompanied by Cupid. Behind them Venus’ chariot is drawn by two doves. Jupiter is identified by the eagle which sits at his feet. He holds a shield depicting the monogram of the 5th Earl.

The borders show items made of metal and include armour and blacksmithing tools. The roundels in the corner depict a rocket, a censer, a tree which has been struck by lighting and a lighthouse. These are representative of four qualities; magnanimity (top left), piety (top right), goodness/ bounty (bottom right) and valour (bottom left).

The inscription in the centre of the bottom border is entitled Ignis and has four fire breathing creatures around the sides.

The side borders show views of Wothorpe House and Burghley and the crest of the 5th Earl (1648-1700) and his Countess can be seen in the top border.

The makers mark Jvdb can be seen in the tapestry’s bottom right corner, indicating it was woven in John Vanderbank’s studio.

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