Chairs that eat themselves – texture, conservation and the senses


This is the seat of a chair that the Geffrye Museum of the Home is currently working on. Turkeywork was incredibly popular in early modern England, for chairs and for carpets in particular, but what we see now has lost a great deal of its visual impact. The black dye in the ground of the design ‘eats itself’, as Eleanor Johns of the Geffrye put it, and in doing so the appealing contrast of bright colours against a black background is lost.

We looked at this and other chairs in the middle of the final conference of the AHRC network on ‘Ways of seeing the English domestic interior’, and the question of the degradations textiles suffer over time and what we might be able to do about them was an important focus of the day, as it has been for the network as a whole. Kate Frame from Historic Royal Palaces opened the day by pointing out that textiles were once dominant in interiors, but have gradually slipped down the list of things we notice in historic properties because they are no longer so eye-catching. Mary Brooks referred to our comfortable response to what we often see as ‘authentic’ early modern colours as an ‘acceptance of the muted’, or an ‘aesthetic of fading’. When HRP recoloured some of the huge tapestries at Hampton Court the result was staggering, but also perhaps faintly disquieting.

Johns at GeffryeThe one thing they had difficulties with in this tapestry project was reviving the tarnished silver-gilt in the scenes from the story of Abraham. The bold use of the reflective properties of precious metals was a huge part of elite fabrics’ appeal, designed to catch the light and therefore the eye. And light was another important issue for this conference. How light works in a room across the hours from dawn to dusk affects the way textiles are perceived and understood, Mary Brooks pointed out, raising for me the possibility that there might be a particular ‘moment’ for a tapestry or a piece of embroidery, a time of day when it comes into its own. Dinah Eastop from The National Archives talked about the potential of Polynomial Texture Mapping, with its ability to reveal subtle surface details. This technique employs overhead and raking lighting to reveal surface texture and gilding effect, allowing the viewer to watch the light play over the surface of an object virtually.

The National Archives began this work because people wanted to be able to touch their holdings. Mary Brooks suggested that weakened artefacts invite the public to touch in order to interrogate and engage, putting their fingers in holes as an important part of learning about textiles. And she pointed out the sensory range of the early modern interior, from soft to hard – the dynamic between the two, in furniture such as the padded seats of the Turkeywork chair, it seems to me, was at the heart of early modern conceptions of elevated status. Maria Heywood outlined early modern England’s explicit discussion of engagement of the senses in decorative schemes that explored their meanings. Between these papers a very strong impression of the significance of sensory engagement, both then and now, emerged.

So what affects how we look at the early modern domestic interior now? The condition of the objects with which it is filled, and the information we are given about it in advance, were the most prominent issues to come out of the data we explored at the conference. What conditioned early modern viewing? For a start, the material on which designs were expressed; the way light played across shining surfaces; ideas about sight and appreciation; education. And then, how to bridge the two modes of viewing – how should we intervene in peoples’ experience given the fading glories of these textiles? To what extent should we be prepared to provide a substitute experience, either materially or digitally? What do you think about this new fringe made to replace the one lost by the chair that ate itself….?


More information about the full range of papers and issues from this conference will shortly be available on the project website.


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