It has been a very exciting (and busy!) couple of weeks at Hardwick as we have been getting ready to open a new exhibition highlighting our ‘Great Hanging’ embroideries. Many, many months ago (three years actually) the first of the Great Hangings went away to Blickling Conservation Studios for conservation work. This is the start of a long-term conservation project for Hardwick. The Blickling Textile Conservation Studio Blog has lots of interesting info and nice pics of the conservation work they did on Penelope.
Eventually all four beautiful works of this set will be displayed in the Hall in a new exhibition that is being created specifically for this project. They are going to be displayed in the Butler’s Pantry, that used to house an introductory exhibition about Hardwick Estate. The past couple of weeks we have been focusing in installing Penelope in this space and getting it ready to open to the public.
I was not working at Hardwick when Penelope went away for conservation, but remember seeing the hanging on display in their screens in the Entrance Hall. Duchess Evelyn placed the embroideries in these screens, where previously they had been displayed on giant A-Frames, and prior to that hung on walls. Now it has reached the point where these virtuous ladies really need some TLC.
Penelope returned to Hardwick at the beginning of the month, and we brought her into the newly refurbished Butler’s Pantry to await the arrival of her custom-made display case. The vision for the Butler’s Pantry has been to turn it into a really absorbing gallery space where your attention is focused solely in Penelope and eventually the rest of the Great Hangings.
The Great Hangings were created by Bess out of clerical vestments her husbands collected from their involvement in the dissolution of the monasteries. Originally there were five hangings, each featuring a strong woman from history or mythology that Bess admired. The five women originally featured in the five hangings were Penelope, Lucretia, Artemisia, Zenobia and Cleopatra. I love that Bess herself has now joined the ranks of these women, and is a role model to others as these five were to her!
Penelope was the wife of Odysseus (also knows as Ulysses). It took Odysseus 10 years to return from the Trojan War, all the while Penelope waited for his return, not knowing if he was alive or dead. During this time she was harangued by many suitors wanting her hand in marriage. She told the suitors that she would marry once she had finished weaving a shroud for her father-in-law. So every day Penelope sat at her loom and carried on her weaving, and every night when she was alone she un-wove the work she has just done so the task would never be completed. Eventually Odysseus did return and rid his home of the suitors that had been taking advantage of his lands and possessions for too long, and he and Penelope were joyfully reunited!
Penelope is depicted alongside Patients and Perseverance on our hanging, two virtues she definitely displayed and that Bess must have admired. The tapestries hanging in the High Great Chamber also depict Penelope as the follow the story of Odysseus (Ulysses) returning from Troy. I studied the Odyssey at A-Level and think it is a really interesting story full of myth and magic, fantastic creatures and plenty of danger! Worth a read if you enjoy mythology and adventure.
Her display case has been fitted with perspex panes as large as we could get them, so as to interfere with the piece as little as possible. It has also been chosen to reduce and reflections so visitors can see Penelope clearly. It works really well and you barely notice it is there, I just hope we don’t get sticky fingers touching it as removing fingerprints off our display cases seems to be an endless job already (I don’t know how people in museums cope!).
As well as her custom-made display case Penelope has had state of the are LED lighting fitted overhead, set specially to pick out the wonderful colour that still remains in the piece. Each embroidery is made a church vestments, this mean each piece of the image is made from the most fantastic fabrics, velvet and brocades covered in gold and silver threads and spangles! I have been doing a detailed condition check of the piece and keep getting distracted by the way the detail had been created, there is so much to see!
I am so pleased to have been involved with this project, in the small way I have been, and so proud of the team for creating a stunning exhibition fitting for such a work of art, and I am in no doubt that Penelope and Bess would have been very pleased with the result! The exhibition officially opened 18th June so if you can come and have a look for yourselves!
The next Great Hanging to head to Norfolk is Lucretia. Lucretia’s story does not have the happy ending Penelope’s does, but luckily the embroidery will have a happy ending and return to us as beautiful as the first now looks! Having seen Penelope’s transformation I cannot wait to see the four virtuous ladies on display, conserved and looking fab. However that is some way off yet so I will have to follow Penelope’s example and be patient.