A major piece of conservation work has recently commenced on a tapestry that hangs in the Refectory Café of Chester Cathedral.

The Mortlake Tapestry – named after its place of manufacture in south London – is being cleaned and brought back to life by a team of conservators following generous support from both the The Leche Trust and The Drapers’ Charitable Fund.

Made in the seventeenth century (the exact date is unknown) the tapestry came to Chester Cathedral in the 1660s through the auspices of Bishop John Bridgeman and hung at the east end of the choir until 1843.  From there it was moved to the north transept and eventually to the Refectory, where it has remained ever since.

Its splendour has remained hidden for many years as the cathedral has not had the funds to enable its restoration.  Now, its glory has begun to be revealed.

The conservators, The Textile Restoration Studio of Bowden, have worked on many projects before and are excited at the prospect of completing this initial, but intensive, clean.  The aim is to complete a thorough surface clean using hand-held vacuums, examine the woven structure and method of hanging, and to carry out any necessary alterations to the securing of the tapestry to its battens.

The first days of work confirmed the conservators’ expectations of a substantial improvement in the appearance of the tapestry, revealing vivid colours of the dramatic scene depicted.  This is of St. Paul on his first missionary journey to Cyprus, striking Elymas the sorcerer temporarily blind for trying to prevent the conversion to Christianity of the Roman proconcul Sergius Paulus – one of the great scenes from the Acts of the Apostles.

The depiction of Elymas in the original cartoon by the Italian High Renaissance artist Raphael, on which the tapestry is based, has been described as “one of the noblest in the whole of western art”. It is hoped that this nobility will shine from the tapestry after the clean.

The cartoon was one of a series commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 for decoration of the Sistine Chapel.  Seven of the cartoons were purchased in 1623 by the then Prince Charles for £300.  They are now owned by the Royal Family and on display at the V&A.  The cartoons were copied under commission of King Charles I and produced by the Mortlake factory in woven silk, wool, gilt metal and silver-wrapped thread to convey a sense of ostentatious wealth.

Visitors can come to the Refectory Café while the cleaning work is on-going, and ask questions of the conservators who are happy to answer – time permitting!  It is estimated the work will take only a week by which time they will have a better idea of the work necessary to restore the tapestry to its former grandeur.