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6 Aug 2021

Stitching the past: the tale of the Falkland tapestries

Written by Antonia Laurence Allen, Regional Curator, and Marietta Crichton Stuart
Specialist textile conservator Sophie Younger pins netting to a tapestry in Falkland Palace, which is decorated with a forest scene.
Specialist textile conservator Sophie Younger, working on one of the six tapestries in the Long Gallery.
Hunters gallop through the fields. Rabbits scurry in the undergrowth. Wildcats seize a bird. Stags flinch watching for danger. And tropical birds soar across the sky.

This is a lengthy scene, one that rolls out like a film reel and captures the panorama of an imagined landscape. The animals are slightly quirky-looking, as though the illustrator has never seen a goat or set eyes on a parrot, and the turbaned hunters suggest the scene is supposed to conjure notions of ‘exotic’ far-flung lands.

A section of tapestry showing an archer amongst the woodland and wildlife
A section of tapestry showing an archer amongst the woodland and wildlife

This is a tapestry set that has been at Falkland Palace since 1906. Its hunting scenes cleverly reference the property’s history as a royal hunting lodge. It was made in Flanders (now part of modern-day Belgium) in the 17th century, and is a style known as verdure from the Latin virere which means ‘to be green’ and has given us words like verdant.

The story of how the tapestries have lived at Falkland recounts the decades of care at the palace, as well as the focus on improving the visitor experience.

Falkland Palace has long been open to the public, and since the 1890s paid staff have acted as Palace Guides. Their salary was £60 per year. Tours ran throughout World War I (entry was 6 pence), and have only been put on hold for World War II (from April 1941 until Spring 1946) and during our recent battle with Covid-19. Throughout, the Keepers of the Palace – the Crichton-Stuart family – have restored, conserved, and maintained the palace, the House of Falkland and all the estate grounds.

Lord Ninian Crichton-Stuart was killed in France in 1915 and left a six-month-old heir in his son, Michael. Initially the estate was managed by Trustees and a Factor (a person who takes charge of running an estate for its owner), until Michael came of age in 1936. During much of this time, the Estate Factor and his family lived in the Palace Gatehouse and on the ground floor of the palace. The Estate Office was based in the palace, and the House of Falkland was the family's residence.

Post-World War II, Michael and Barbara Crichton-Stuart decided to make the palace their home, and by 1951 were considering partnering with the Trust to hand over management of the visited side of the palace. From 1946 many repairs were initiated, including in the chapel, where this included: clearing; repairs and preservative treatment of the roof timbers, loft and ceiling beams; and restoration of all the painted woodwork and panelling. Plus, his father’s Flemish tapestries were cleaned and mended.

A detail of a large tapestry, showing a big tree at the centre. Various woodland creatures are depicted around it. The tapestry is stitched with mostly blue and green threads.
A section of tapestry showing the beautiful imagined landscape

The six tapestries were originally purchased to hang in the Chapel Royal, not the Long Gallery (where they can be seen today). In 1905 the Chapel Royal was being furnished to function as the local Catholic Church. Robert Weir Schultz, the Scottish Arts and Crafts architect who had worked for the Bute family for many years, was managing the work. A Falkland joiner, Robert Miller, was making the altar and the Dowager Lady Bute was managing and financing the project. The first mass was delivered on 28 May 1905, but it seems the chapel was not fully decorated by this point and a search was still on for tapestries to line the walls.

In 1906, Lord Ninian was in the army and based at Aldershot. In January he announced his engagement to Ismay Preston and, while in London, went to view some verdure tapestries Schultz had sourced (believed to have been in the collection at Ter Meer, a house in Maarssen, Utrecht, built in 1710 by Vincent Maximilian of Lockhorst and demolished in 1903).

Finding the tapestries suitable, Lord Ninian agreed to pay £1,532 18s for them (approximately £200,000 today). Schultz sent them for repairs and then to be packed, and shipped by train to Falkland. Here they were hung on the walls of the Chapel Royal, from a wooden runner installed just below the painted frieze.

A view looking down the central aisle in a chapel. Rows of chairs are neatly arranged instead of pews. Behind the altar hangs a large gold crucifix above a red and gold cloth.
The Chapel Royal at Falkland Palace

Many years later in 1947 Ninian’s son, Michael, and his wife Barbara were making the palace their home and, amongst a huge variety of tasks, they asked the Edinburgh upholsterers and furniture makers Whytock and Reid for advice on where to send the tapestries to be cleaned. Barbara wrote in her diary in 1947:

'October 27 Chapel tapestries taken down and sent to Edinburgh by van to be cleaned, chimneys swept'

The following year in 1948, Barbara triumphantly notes:

'Nov 18 tapestries arrive from being cleaned (14 months!). Miller, Finlay and Janis hang them in chapel corridor'

This relocation may be due to the fact that the walls and ceilings of the chapel still required attention. For example, the north wall was bare plaster at this time, and the altar unfurnished. From mid-1946, specialists from the Office of Works were employed by Michael Crichton-Stuart to restore the painted woodwork and panelling in the chapel. The refurbishments continued into 1952, when the Trust was appointed Deputy Keeper.

The Keeper and Deputy made immediate plans to revamp the visitor experience and add new rooms to the palace tour, including a ‘King’s Room’ to illustrate the domestic interior of a royal residency. This led to some discussion on wall coverings. In 1955, renovations were nearly complete and – in anticipation of a visit by the Queen Mother in September of that year – plans were made to accept the loan of tapestries from a private estate to hang in the newly renovated Chapel Royal. These were by Martin Reymbouts, a Brussels weaver operating in Antwerp from the 1570s, and two were placed in the chapel in anticipation for a royal visit.

A long oblong tapestry depicting the Bible story of Joseph in a red cape meeting three other important-looking men.
Joseph, in a red cloak, welcoming Benjamin to Egypt: One of four tapestries that now hang in the Chapel Royal at Falkland, by Martin Reymbouts c.1570s.

On 22 September 1955 Falkland Palace welcomed the Queen Mother, who had just celebrated her 55th birthday the previous month. She was invited to see the renovations, including the new King’s Room off the east range. As a precursor to the event, an article in the St Andrews Citizen stoked enthusiasm for what was happening at Falkland:

'The scheme of the room, where the death of James V, is believed to have occurred, was planned by the Trust some time ago, but work has actually been going on for about a fortnight. The artist David M'Lure, Edinburgh has designed a beautiful ceiling in keeping with the period, which features the initials I.R. (Jacobus Rex) and M.R. (Mary his Queen). When the Queen Mother visits this part of the Palace she will see the work actually in progress. Major Crichton-Stuart will also show Her Majesty the Chapel, where there will be four tapestries.'

Two days after her visit, the Queen Mother’s visit was recounted in The Fife Free Press & Kirkcaldy Guardian:

'Major Crichton-Stuart said that Her Majesty had been particularly interested in the re-painting of the King's Room and had spoken to Mr McClure [the artist] ... She also much admired the tapestries which have been temporarily put up in Chapel Royal…so now I think they will find a permanent place there.'

These new tapestries filled the gaps that had been left by Lord Ninian’s set of six, moved to the Long Gallery seven years earlier.

Today, conservation work on the tapestries is following up on a clean they were given in 2018. Sent to Belgium to undergo specialist treatment, areas have been weakened by the ‘washing’, which was necessary to bring the verdant colours on each tapestry panel back to life.

For the next few months, textile conservator Sophie Younger will be applying net patches to support sections of silk threads that have weakened. These are regions where the tapestry can no longer support itself. Sophie is pinning the net onto the tapestry then painstakingly stitching it in place using a curved needle. As Sophie reattaches tree branches to their tree trunks, wings to birds, and legs to horses and cows, her work will ensure the tapestries will be stable and can support their own weight.

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