The Cathedral of St. John the Divine received a donation of twelve 17th Century Italian Barberini tapestries in 1891, a year before construction began on the Cathedral itself. In time, the acquisition of a collection of Raphael designed tapestries depicting scenes of the Acts of the Apostles drawn from the New Testament Book of Acts, and nine Mortlake tapestries were acquired. So it should not be surprising that, in 1981, a textile conservation lab was established, by the Cathedral, as a way to care and conserve the collection.
Now and then, the Cathedral gives tours of The Textile Conservation Lab, and they begin the tour with a brief history of how these treasures were acquired, starting with a congregant, Mrs. Elizabeth U. Coles, who purchased a dozen 17th century Italian Barberini tapestries and donated them to the Cathedral. Their origins were from Italian Princess Barberini in 1889.
In a handwritten note to the cathedral, dated May 20, 1890, Mrs. Cole wrote:
Dear Sir, Many many thanks for your very pleasant note respecting the Sacred Tapestries I have been able to procure for the adornment of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It gives me great pleasure that others share with me in the appreciation of the Tapestries.”
The estimated value of the Barberini tapestries in 1891 was $75,000 (Cathedral Archives). This set of Barberini tapestries were originally woven under the direction of the nephew of the Barberini Pope, Uban VII.
Tapestries were created to tell a story ~ often depicting scenes from the Bible and life as it was during that period of time. The tedious work could take up to a year to complete one single tapestry ~ completing about an inch of hand weaving each day. The House of Barberini was one of the best-known of the family weavers.
The collection of Raphael designed tapestries are woven by Flemish trained English loom operators, following ‘cartoons’ created by the artist, Raphael. They depict scenes of the Acts of the Apostles drawn from the New Testament Book of Acts. Nine Mortlake tapestries were donated to the Cathedral by another congregant, Mrs. Margaret Louise Brugiere, in honor of her late husband. She also donated an 18th century Flemish tapestry of unknown subject. They were gifted in 1954.
The Textile Conservation Laboratory is located in a Greek Revival building along the south side of the Cathedral. Inside is a large working space with huge working tables. Below, the Director of the Lab, Marlene Eidelheit, discussing photos of all the tapestries, and lifting the cheesecloth to give a view of a 20th century Swedish carpet. This is one of many projects going on at the same time.
The laborious process is best described by the Lab, “Every textile that comes to the Lab for treatment is carefully analyzed for its conservation needs. The goal of the Textile Conservation Lab is to preserve the integrity, provide stabilization and support, and minimize further deterioration of each object. Research is undertaken to understand context and ensure the accuracy of the conservation work. Conservators consider the fibers, structural stability and test a variety of cleaning options to gather information on the materials and permanence of dyes. Potential methods for removal of soiling and stains, and environmental issues are taken into consideration. Larger pieces may be surveyed on site and fragile collections viewed in situ to assess their condition.”
Continuing, “Following the American Institute of Conservation Code of Ethics, proposals are made based on best practices and the needs of the textile. Information gathered during examination determines the suggested course of action. This may include preventive recommendations, such as supportive storage or environmental guidelines, interventive conservation from surface to wet cleaning, stabilization through stitching or adhesive treatments, or hanging/mounting options. Discrete restoration may be considered where appropriate. Treatment options, time, and cost considerations are included in a written report for each client. All projects are completed with a commitment to quality and attention to detail that these beloved objects and textiles deserve.”
The Lab has an impressive list of clients that include Washington National Cathedral; The Harvard Club, NYC; The American Academy of Arts & Letters, NYC; Lichtenstein Foundation; Fashion Institute of Technology; Brooks Brothers; The New York Public Library; Marymont Mansion; and Brooklyn Museum, to name just a few.
When the Textile Conservation Laboratory opened, it began an apprentice program for people living in the neighborhood, teaching them not only the art of textile restoration, but also the art of stone work, to be used to restore the Cathedral.
In time, they became the ‘go to’ place for other museums who might need this specific service. The Lab has both professionally trained textile conservators and conservation students. And as it gained prominence in this field, the Lab started receiving projects from around the world in areas ranging from tapestries, needlepoint, upholstery and costumes.
There are many different kinds of tools and chemicals used in the cleaning and restoration process. Various spray-heads, an assortment of sponges for the washing process, and beakers of water are on view below, and every step is documented.
The Greek Revival building in which the Lab is housed, was originally known as Ithiel Town Building. Built in 1847, the building predates the Cathedral, and began life as the Leake & Watts Orphanage, when the area was largely agricultural. When the Cathedral purchased the land in 1887, the orphanage moved to Yonkers, where it is still located today.
The building also houses the Cathedral’s social services and neighborhood outreach program, Cathedral Community Cares (CCC). In addition, it contains choir rehearsal rooms, a sacristy and parking lot co-op that is the home to the much loved Cathedral’s three resident peacocks, Phil, Jim and Harry.
The Textile Conservation Laboratory is located on the ground of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, 1047 Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street.
Every now and then, the Cathedral offers a Tour of the Lab. Keep your eye on the Cathedral calendar.
The Lab was founded with start-up grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kress Foundation, the Getty Grant program, and the Municipal Council for the Arts. Today, grants fund continuing work on the Cathedral’s collections.
While you’re there, step into the garden next door. Sculpture above, The Peace Fountain is a 40-foot -high installation created by artist Greg Wyatt (sculpture-in-residence at the Cathedral) in 1985.