Rinaldo and Armida Tapestries
In 2019 the Rinaldo and Armida tapestries in the Viola Bray Renaissance Gallery underwent conservation treatment, parts of which were 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.
The assessment revealed that the tapestries were in good condition, with the 1980s work still sound and viable. The two main issues were the level of surface particulate soiling and the curling inwards of the vertical edges on most of the tapestries. The curling occurred because the cotton dust covers shrunk over time, causing the tapestries to contract. This was most noticeable towards the lower edge of each tapestry. Upon recommendation, the tapestries were de-installed to assess the condition of the strapping system and stitching more fully.
Once de-installed the dust covers and hanging mechanisms were carefully removed from each tapestry. The tapestries were then surface cleaned front and back to reduce surface soiling, with some additional required cleaning. The structural condition of each tapestry was assessed during the cleaning process. Patches were applied to new areas of weakness and structural instability and stitching was applied in existing patches to reinforce older repairs. New dust covers and hanging mechanisms were then attached to the tapestries. The tapestries’ conservation took six weeks and was completed in two stages, summer and fall.
The conservation project was 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.