Chichester Cathedral’s Benker-Schirmer tapestries

It was a pleasure to return the beautiful Anglo-German tapestries designed by weaver Ursula Benker Schirmer to Chichester Cathedral this week after new linings and a thorough surface clean.

The tapestries have a vertical warp so after freezing for a slight moth infestation, a deep clean and new linings, we rolled them bottom to top ready to hang. Wood battens slide inside the top turn of the tapestries and eye hooks are wound in through eyelets as the hanging mechanism.

The three panels were woven in the early 1980s on a cotton warp and have a predominately wool weft together creating one enormous tapestry that is almost 8m wide. Benker Schirmer was inspired by rock crystal fragments in her stunning colourful design for the tapestry which represents some of the miracles performed by St Richard, Bishop of Chichester 1245-53. The tapestry is placed behind the Shrine of St Richard and relates to the beautiful Chagal stained glass window close by. The larger central panel was woven first at Benker Schirmer’s German studio whereas the outer two panels were woven at the West Dean tapestry studio; the Anglo German collaboration representing reconcilation between the British and German peoples after World War II.

The tapestry is marked at its top and bottom warp edges with the names of the studio, the date and all the weaver’s marks. We were fortunate to meet one of the original weavers, Ananda Armstrong King, who came into the studio especially to re-connect with her work. Ananda was one of the weavers working on the large central panel woven in Benker Schirmer’s German studio and then moved back to the UK to weave one of the side panels woven at West Dean. Ananda infectiously explained the whole weaving process in wonderful detail including some very funny insights and stories.

We also learnt about a catastrophe that occurred during the weaving process – we had noticed some slight tension issues with the two woven at West Dean and she explained that there had been a complete collapse of both looms mid weaving – a weaver’s nightmare! Somehow the technicians were able to save the day and cobble supports together so that they were able to carry on weaving eventually but much time was lost. Ananda said that the cotton warp used and supplied by Ursula Benker Schirmer was more highly twisted and the warps were set much tighter than usually used at West Dean. This meant that as the weaving progressed and was rolled/wound on, the warp got tighter and this contributed to too much tension building up in the looms – hence the collapse.

Ananda said it was wonderful to see the tapestries close up again as it brought back so many memories of her fellow weavers and being part of such a huge commission creating something so stunning.

The tapestries were rehung in May, back to back with the John Piper tapestries we cleaned last year. The maintenance team used pulley ropes over a bar at the top of the screen to haul the weight safely up, while we worked below gradually unrolling the tapestry. It was tricky to get each panel adjusted correctly so that the design matched up over the three panels – a problem the weavers apparently originally had too, Ananda told us, both when weaving and then hanging them for the first time 40 years ago.
We are planning to record and try and trace each weaver for the three panels so watch this space.