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Rinaldo and Armida Tapestries

Bray Gallery

Starting the week of June 17 and continuing through July 12, the Rinaldo and Armida tapestries in the Viola Bray Renaissance Gallery will undergo a conservation treatment, parts of which will be visible to the public during open hours. This treatment was made possible by a generous grant from the Bray Charitable Trust, a foundation established by Viola Bray to provide funds for the care and maintenance of the collection, the acquisition of new works, and other cultural endeavors.

The large-scale Baroque era tapestries, depicting the love story of Rinaldo and Armida based on designs by Simon Vouet, painter to King Louis XIII of France, are the heart of the Bray Gallery. These are the only known set of this series comprising ten pieces—making them exceptionally significant. They are also unique in having remained together, borders and selvage edges intact, for their entire history, when they left Raphael de la Planche’s workshop looms in 1637.

In November 1961, these unique tapestries were debuted in the gallery designed for their continuous display. Since the 17th century, these tapestries were only ever seen in private residences, so their Flint unveiling marked the first time the general public saw them as a set. From 1984 to 1987, the tapestries underwent conservation treatment by experts at the now closed Merrimack Textile Museum in North Andover, Massachusetts. The tapestries were sent out a few at a time, so visitors would not encounter the gallery completely empty. During this three-year period, they were cleaned; slits sewn; areas of weft loss repaired; and, finally, they were re-hung with Velcro sewn into new cotton dust covers, attached to the back with a strapping system.

This system has kept the tapestries in good condition for the last 30 years. Signs of stress have begun to show, however, and as part of the FIA’s Strategic Plan, the tapestries were assessed in June 2018 to determine if any new conservation treatment was needed.

According to the assessment, the tapestries are in good condition, with the 1980s  work still sound and viable. The two main issues are the levels of surface particulate soiling, and the curling inwards of the vertical edges on most of the tapestries. The curling happens because the cotton dust covers have shrunk over time, causing the tapestries to contract. This is most noticeable towards the lower edge of each tapestry. It was recommended that the tapestries be de-installed to assess the condition of the strapping system and stitching more fully. The tapestries’ conservation will take approximately eight weeks and will be done in two stages: June through July and Fall 2019 (TBD).

This conservation project will be conducted and overseen by Howard Sutcliffe, the principal conservator and director of River Region Costume and Textile Conservation, a private practice with studios in Montgomery, Alabama and Blue Mountain Beach, Florida. River Region provides treatment services for individual and institutional clients, including the National Park Service (NISI, TUIN, WICR), Detroit Institute of Arts, Biltmore House and Gardens, Georgia Museum of Art, Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, Birmingham Museum of Art, Mobile Museum of Art, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Historic New Orleans Collection, Norton Museum of Art, Christ Church Cranbrook, and Tennessee State Museum. Sutcliffe has worked as the Head Textile Conservator at the Detroit Institute of Arts and in the textile conservation studios at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and American Textile History Museum in the United States and at The National Trust and National Museums Liverpool in his native United Kingdom.