Henry VIII's Tapestries Revealed

by - Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Previously we posted some photos of tapestries from the Alcazar in Spain. We also quoted William Morris, who recommended (in 1889) that people look at the tapestries in Hampton court to see how natural dyes change (or persist) with time.

Professor Chris Carr, Dr. Huw Owens and Ruth Perkins from the University of Manchester were also interested to know how tapestries changed over time. And so, once again focusing on the works at Hampton Court they set out to model what the original of "The Oath and Departure of Eliezer" might have looked like. They dyed wools with natural dyes such as old fustic, woad and madder and then artificially aged the samples to generate a fade index. They then analyzed the fibers on the back of the hanging and compared them to the yarns on the front. With this data the group was able to interpret what five centuries of time had done. This is a substantial project that took years to complete and then there was the question of how to present the findings. They decided to project - onto the tapestry itself - an image of how it might have looked when it was first hung. As the University's press release stated:

In the final stage of the project lecturer Dr Huw Owens worked out how tiny specially calibrated beams of light could be used to shine on to two million separate sections of the tapestry to temporarily 'return' each of the yarns to their original colour.

The special installation "Henry VIII's Tapestries Revealed" ran until January 2010. Sadly we arrived in London in February 2010 so we didn't get a chance to see it. Luckily the happy event was documented and publicized by Historic Royal Palaces. Sadly the large picture published as part of the PDF looks hideous. We challenge anyone to say otherwise. What happened?

Light and Colour

Light is like water. It is always contaminated by impurities. As with water the impurities give it character. Most photographers know about the "golden hour" during dawn or dusk when the light from the sun in tainted by the atmosphere. In the previous post we mentioned about the difference in Colour temperature between sunlight and incandescent light. Photographers shooting in colour will have to colour correct, to compensate for the different colour temperatures of different light sources. Generally, daylight or flash = blue, incandescent = yellow and flourescent = green. These are the relative shifts when we try to make light act white. If you set your camera to interpret daylight as white and then photograph inside (illuminated with incandescent light) there will be a decidedly yellow-orange cast to your photo. There is a real problem if you have two light sources - as with the above photo - say incandescent and whatever is coming out of the projector. So the disturbing blue-green cast of the tapestry is an artifact of how it was photographed and is almost certainly not a "true" representation of the projection.

The projection itself may or may not be a "true" representation of the original tapestry. But we feel confident in saying that those working on the project didn't intend it to look as it does in the photo. Anyone with natural dye (or photographic) experience will look at the above photo with considerable alarm.

How can we check this? Find another photo.

The above photo was published in the Telegraph and shows a much more realistic tapestry. Compare the colours of the figures in front of the projection and you will notice a corresponding shift in the hue of the cloaks. And finally we put the two together just to emphasize the difference.

The very essence of "Henry VIII's Tapestries Revealed" is a remarkable study of the subtle nature of colour, dyes, textiles and time. So how could the official press release for a project that is all about colour be so ... um ... colourblind? We don't know. Colour has a large subjective element and notions of beauty or truth are also highly problematic. We invite your speculations in the comments section.

Here are some links to the project and press coverage:

Historic Royal Palaces Henry VIII's Tapestries Revealed

Tapestry longevity: Hampton Court's tapestries: how long will they survive?

Researcher restores King Henry VIII's 500 year-old tapestry

BBC Henry VIII's tapestries on show

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  1. Just wanted to say thank you for this interesting and perceptive article.


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