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Textile conservation


William Morris Peacock and Dragon

William Morris designer Great Britain 1834-1896 Morris & Co. - manufacturer Great Britain, established 1875 Peacock and Dragon designed 1878 Jacquard-woven wool National Gallery of Australia

William Morris 'Peacock and Dragon' 1878, jacquard-woven wool, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
 click to enlarge

William Morris was born in England in 1834 and lived there until his death in 1896. A keen writer and reformer, he was motivated by the loss of artistry and craftsmanship inherent in the Industrial Revolution. His initial foray into the world of design was through architecture and this interest honed his sense of form and style. From 1861 Morris began producing a range of craft items and established William Morris and Company in 1875 which opperated for 65 years. A high aesthetic sense was always displayed in the extensive range of works manufactured by the company. These included furniture, ceramics, glass, and wallpaper, and printed and woven textiles. Morris’s name is synonymous with high quality English handcrafts. Today he is most remembered for his wallpaper designs.

In 2000 the Gallery acquired a large textile, Peacock and Dragon, designed by William Morris and woven in 1878. The purchase and proposed display of this significant work provided a rare opportunity for the textile conservation staff at the Gallery.

Morris employed natural dyes to provide a palette of eight colours in this large textile (2895 x 2505mm). Twisting, serpent-like dragons, arching peacocks, stylised flowers, and curved foliage intermingle in a striking and ordered design. A horizontal band depicting blue peacocks provides a point of focus that is subtly punctuated throughout the design by a greens, reds and fawn.

A row of hooks attached to the top of the textile and the fading of the colours down each side, which is consistent with prolonged exposure to sunlight, suggest that it had been used as either a curtain or a room divider. The original hooks gave limited support to the textile, causing it to slump and distort. Therefore the hooks were removed and replaced with a band of Velcro which provides secure and even support. The removal of the hooks also allows the textile to be rolled onto a large storage tube.

The top of the textile contained fine dust particles that were removed by vacuuming and flushing with a water based solution. The thickness of the textile meant this procedure was slow, however, the process assisted in rejuvenating the wool fibres.

The textile contained a number of holes ranging in size from 2mm to 60mm. The intricate nature of the design meant even small holes dramatically interrupted the overall appearance of the hanging and therefore conservation treatment was needed to maintain the work’s aesthetic appeal. The weight and thickness of the textile required well-supported patches to prevent further physical damage during display. The challenge was to devise strong, yet unobtrusive repair patches that would not detract from the artist’s original design. As with all conservation treatments, repairs must interfere with the textile as little as possible and be able to be removed or reversed in the future.

To repair one of the largest holes, the back of the damaged area was covered with a square of green fabric that provided stability and support to the hole. The woollen repair yarns, selected to blend with the colours in the design, were inserted and stitched into position. The different coloured woollen weft yarns were stitched across the hole, filling in the missing design. Diagonal rows of warp threads were stitched over the horizontal weft threads, securing them in position.

Peacock and Dragon took 420 hours to fully conserve and involved a number of conservators. The textile is part of the Gallery’s collection of the British Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century that is on display in the international art galleries during 2002.

click here to see Peacock and Dragon restoration shots

Charis Tyrrel

First published in artonview 30 winter 2002