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Conservation research

The questions and answers

The questions and answers


Our research question: How well preserved are our British tapestries?
We studied a set of tapestries woven at Mortlake to find out more about British tapestry craftsmanship. This work informs our guardianship of these important textiles, the first of their kind to be made in Great Britain. Hampton Court Palace is home to an important collection of tapestries, many of which are hundreds of years old, and have been on display to visitors for decades. We wanted to know how well have the tapestries survived and how their display has affected their condition and future preservation. We also wanted to know if the original manufacture techniques or materials influenced the current state of preservation. To answer these questions, we chose three Mortlake tapestries to study in detail, from which we took tiny fibre samples and analysed them using state-of-the-art techniques. Our external partners in this research are the Royal Collection; University of Manchester; National Museums of Scotland; KIK-IRPA, Belgium; and Birkbeck College, University of London. We used the conclusions of this study to help our conservators in planning future conservation treatment. We also publish our results so that others can benefit from our research.

Watch Re-Hanging the Mortlake 'February' Tapestry Film

Watch the film and see through the eyes of the textile conservators as they re-hang the 17th century Mortlake tapestry 'February'. The tapestry was washed in 2015 and after careful conservation work was returned to the palace.

The Haunted Gallery

Our research question: How much extra dust is being produced by new carpets in the Haunted Gallery at Hampton Court Palace? Will the new carpets be more effective in trapping the dust brought in by our visitors?

The Haunted Gallery.

Left to accumulate on objects, dust becomes unsightly. But it can also chemically react with an object’s surface causing damage. And even the most careful cleaning can cause very slight damage to objects. To measure the amount of dust in our state apartments, we left glass microscope slides out at various locations and at various heights. After two weeks, we collected them and measured the amount of dust which had fallen on them. This was done using a microscope, and computer software which identifies and counts dust particles. We repeated this monitoring process over a few months to build up a picture of where most dust collects and how this changes with the fitting of new carpets. Our method for monitoring dust was developed at Historic Royal Palaces and won a conservation award in 2004. We carry out routine dust monitoring in other parts of the palace too and use the results to tell us how well our protective measures (such as stanchions, mats, and barriers) are working to prevent dust falling on objects. We have been working with colleagues at the National Trust, English Heritage and the University of East Anglia to discover the effect of dust on historic surfaces, and how we can reduce dust falling in our Palaces. We are grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for funding this research.

Terracotta roundels

Our research question: Why are the terracotta roundels at Hampton Court Palace deteriorating? Can we prevent any more of the original terracotta from being lost?
To answer these questions, we carried out a programme of scientific analysis to discover how they were made, and what condition they are in after 500 years exposed to the elements. Hampton Court Palace is home to 11 terracotta roundels containing busts of the Roman Emperors. They were made by the Florentine sculptor Giovanni da Maiano in 1521, on a commission by Cardinal Wolsey and some of the roundels have been on the outside of the gatehouses at Hampton Court for nearly 500 years. We think that some of the parts are more modern additions and restorations, so we have carried out thermoluminescence dating (TL) to tell us the approximate year of firing of the terracotta. This tells us whether a component is original (16th Century) or a later addition (18th-19th Century). We can also work out the country of origin of the clay by analysing the trace elements in the terracotta. Sampling and analysis of remaining polychromy revealed evidence of gilding layers, and also of several later decorative schemes, including 20th century modern paints. We have a programme of 3D laser scanning to document in great detail every crack and loss on the roundels, which helps us to track changes in condition.

Conservator examining a terracotta roundel on the west front from a cherry picker.

Watch Terracotta roundels at Hampton Court Palace Film

Watch the film to see Treatment supervisor Zoe Roberts explain the challenges and the detail of the conservation project; from the use of archival photographs to modern, laser cleaning techniques.

Video transcript of terracotta roundels at Hampton Court Palace

Follow along with an interactive transcript of terracotta roundels at Hampton Court Palace on YouTube. A link to open the transcript can be found in the description.