A few weeks ago I visited Auckland Castle, to offer my services as part of the Durham Conservation Training Network (a service we provide to offer help to museums in the Durham area). Preparations were well underway to install their latest exhibition, ‘Plots & Spangles’, a collection of embroidered vestments created by Helena Wintour (daughter and niece of Gunpowder Plot conspirators Robert and Thomas Wintour). I advised on the mounting of the various chasubles, dalmatics, and chalice veils.
Helena created the embroideries with silk threads, spangles, pearls and semi-precious stones. Her inspiration was drawn from texts distributed via underground Catholic networks, referencing miracles, full of metaphors, and using monograms to infer Joseph, Mary, and Ignatius Loyola (founder of the Jesuits).
My role was to help mount the White Cope, which belongs to Stonyhurst College. The embroideries date from 1656, and the cope was created c.1866 from several pieces, including an altar frontal. Crudely stitched flowers were added in the 1850s before the embroideries entered Stonyhurst College. The faces of the angels date to the early 19th century, and are painted in watercolours, presumably replacing an earlier embroidered version which was damaged.
The cope was going to be displayed in a window bay within the gallery, restricting the available space. A large padded board was made to size, and installed into the bay, with as much of a slope as possible given the footprint of the space. The board was made from zero-formaldehyde MDF, and covered with marvelseal, a protective barrier to any damaging offgassing of the wood. A thin layer of padding was stretched and stapled into place, covered with a fabric topcover. A length of Velcro was then stapled to the board along the top edge.
With the help of textile restorer Sue, we stitched a matching piece of Velcro to the reverse side of the cope, along the straight edge, using a colour-matched polyester thread,passing the needle through all of the layers (lining, interlining, metal braid) to ensure a firm hold.
With the Velcro attached, the cope was ready to be carefully turned, positioned on the board, then the board lifted into position and glazed.
Plots & Spangles: The Embroidered Vestments of Helena Wintour runs at Auckland Castle until 11th April 2016.
Katy Smith, Textile Conservator