This year Leeds Museums and Galleries and the University of Leeds worked together to examine the needlework upholstery of the Picture Gallery suite at Temple Newsam using microscopic technology. This blog follows on from part one, which gives background information on the Picture Gallery and the furniture in it.
The upholstery for the seating furniture was made using a technique called petit point needlework, consisting of countless thousands of small woollen stiches in a variety of colours in a canvas ground. This project has used a portable Jiusion Digital Microscope – commonly used to aid soldering in electronics factories – to magnify the needlework up to 1000 times, revealing the detail of this incredible work down to thread level.
The images below were taken by Dr Ruth Hughes, a Bioimaging Support Scientist at the Bioimaging and Flow Cytometry Facility of the University. They reveal this enchanting suite of furniture as never seen before.
As well as being beautiful in their own right, these fascinating images really show the incredible amount of skill and labour required to produce such work on this scale: each stitch was completed by hand, and every colour – and shade of that colour – chosen with a bigger picture in mind. The images reveal the mastery of techniques and materials used, with changes in stitch direction used to create subtle boundaries on petals, for example. Elsewhere, on the daybed, French knots are used to depict sunflower seeds.
The level of detail and sheer volume of needlework highlights the immense wealth of the Ingram family. Even at a point in time where their finances were relatively low, they were able to afford an extraordinary level of luxury which would have been far cry from most peoples’ experience. The cost of James Pascall’s work making the Gallery furniture, excluding the needlework upholstery, was £376.17.00. In 2017 money that equates to roughly £44,000. This is a lot of money now, but in in 1750, this could purchase 55 horses or 3768 days of skilled labour.
Despite the overall excellent condition of the suite, which suggests very little use, Ruth’s investigations suggest the furniture has been used functionally to some degree, with degradation of fibres more apparent on the centres of seats and backs, which would have come into more contact with the person seated.
Perhaps more revealing are the changes to the colours of the suite that this project has highlighted. Unlike other materials used to decorate and furnish the Picture Gallery, such as gilding on the wooden elements of the furniture and the oil paint in the pictures, dyed wool is very sensitive to light. Even small amounts of light degrades woollen fibres, causing structural damage along with chemical changes in the dyes used to colour the wool. This is particularly true of the dyestuffs used here, which would have all been derived from natural sources, unlike many modern synthetic dyes which are more resilient. This has resulted in fading.
This fragility is the reason that for the vast majority of time we have to cover the textiles with loose covers, with only a single example visible at any one time. This is something the Ingram family also did; the 1808 inventory of Temple Newsam records that the suite was protected by ‘green check case covers’, which are replicated today. These loose-fitting dust covers would only have been removed for the most important visitors to the house.
But despite their excellent condition and the obvious care taken to preserve them, the textiles have faded considerably over the years. How do we know this though? It’s most starkly demonstrated on the daybed. Beneath the two cushions that sit in each corner are areas of needlework that have significantly more saturated and vivid colours than other areas. Clearly the cushions have prevented light reaching the areas beneath, preserving what we assume are colours close to how they would have appeared in the 1740s.
Due to the capabilities of the microscope Ruth used, we were able to examine the difference between individual colours, faded and un-faded, to a degree not easily achieved otherwise. Magnified images capturing one single colour of thread were created in numerous locations, focussing on one colour at a time, both faded and un-faded. Ruth then used software to produce an ‘average’ colour for each faded and un-faded type of thread. Doing this in multiple locations helped to ensure a more rounded representation of the overall effect, reducing the impact of any anomalous samples. The ‘average’ colours are shown below.
What is obvious is that some colours are a great deal lighter than others, so the fading is far from uniform. It is also clear that for some colours, the changes to the dyes result in more than just a loss of intensity. This is most apparent in some areas of pink, which has turned into a sort of olive green.
All this research – and the un-faded parts of the daybed – make apparent that the suite would have been far more vivid in the 1740s, with colours popping out very much like a glorious summer border of flowers. To help us better understand what this looked like, we worked with photo editor Oliver Bowett, who used Ruth’s data to digitally recolour a chair from the suite.
Whilst it would be a simple task using modern photo editing software to increase the saturation and/or brightness of all the colours, processing each separate colour to correspond to the average colours Ruth has calculated is a far more onerous task. This requires each colour to be isolated and processed individually. However, by doing exactly this, Oliver has created a far more authentic vision of the colours that would have greeted Henry and Anne Ingram. If the Picture Gallery stops you in your tracks now, just imagine it then!
This project is a result of the Cultural Institute of the University and Leeds and Leeds Museum and Galleries Cross-Disciplinary Innovation Fund. Enormous thanks to Dr Ruth Hughes for all her time, skill and expertise expended on this project.
By Adam Toole, Curator of Decorative Art