2020 Roundup

My first Instagram post of the year, 2nd January 2020 showed a photo of a clean, tidy, empty studio and said, “Happy New Year and new decade to all our followers. It feels like the lull before the storm – we look forward to sharing some of it with you this year”. Of course at that stage we had no idea of just how tempestuous the stormy year of 2020 would be! Life was good, we had a fully booked work programme of interesting projects, a large, talented team and about 1500 followers of our work on Instagram. 

At the other end of 2020 we are proud to say that we have (so far) survived the effects of the pandemic. We are tired and a little battered but very determinedly still here! This has been made possible by taking advantage of the pandemic support packages offered as well as one particularly wonderful local client, Arundel Castle, who placed a tapestry commission with us at just the right moment – and – as ever the support of our amazing team. I will be forever grateful. 

This year we took on a fabulous new administrator Gerry Warner who valiantly started her new post while the rest of the team were still furloughed. She immediately set about helping to create our beautiful new branding and website so that when we reopened we had something to celebrate. The intricate design on the homepage took its inspiration from one of the fascinating embroidery illustrations in Diderot & d’Almbert’s 18th century ‘Encyclopedie ou Dictionnaire Raisonne des Sciences’, complete with instructional lettering – you’ll also spot one of the flowers in our logo.

Our new ZTC logo and branding were inspired by Diderot’s embroidery illustrations

We have also launched a small range of gorgeous products and managed to double our Instagram following! The encouragement of all our lovely followers has been one of the wonderful things that kept us going during lockdown. Throughout the year through our social media accounts we have continued to share the fascinating stories of our objects, showcase our inventive conservation processes and let everyone into the heart of our wonderful team. While we all struggle in the arts, museum and heritage sector with swingeing budget cuts and job losses, communicating conservation seems even more important than ever.

BC (before Covid) we had our usual busy spring with the main focus being the delivery of an amazing new costume display at Ellen Terry’s home Smallhythe for the National Trust. Conserving two Beatrice costumes worn by Ellen in productions of Much Ado About Nothing as well as one of the Benedick costume worn by her leading man, Henry Irving kept Jamie, Ania and Maria very busy. The conservation of each costume was complex and hugely rewarding as is the way with theatrical costume particularly when re-worn and altered as many times as these costumes have been.

We spent a wonderful day with Ellen Terry specialist curator Dr Veronica Isaac exchanging what we know about these costumes; over the years these discussions have been so fruitful. Our accumulation of intimate conservator’s knowledge about condition and construction absorbed whilst we work complements Veronica’s amazing grasp of her subject. Exchanging information like this helps to put the costumes properly into context, improving our collective knowledge of this extraordinary woman and her clothes. We illustrated this to good effect at the 2019 Costume Society Conference in Birmingham on Aesthetic Dress. It was an honour to be invited to talk about the conservation of the beetle wing dress and Ellen Terry’s other clothing alongside Veronica who illustrated persuasively that Ellen should forever be seen centre stage not just as an outstanding actor but as a muse and source of inspiration for the whole Aesthetic movement. We both got a bit teary during each other’s presentations, such is the emotional pull of Ellen Terry!

Mounting the three Much Ado costumes took much time and ingenuity particularly as the property had requested a seated Ellen figure for one of the Beatrice dress in order to link it to contemporary photographs of her wearing the dress. We worked with colleague Mike Penwolf of Panotechnia (another creative business in our building with whom we worked on the wonderful Stephen Jones hat exhibition for the Brighton Pavilion last year). Between us we created a cantilevered, seated mannequin so that the dress will not get squashed by the weight of the mount and underpinnings (read our conservation story about mounting for this project). In late February we returned everything to Smallhythe and spent two days installing the display – the first redisplay in the main costume room since the 2009 Dress in the Limelight project featuring the iconic beetle wing dress. The press launch garnering national press saw Smallhythe Patron, Joanne Lumley seated by our work just days before lockdown (see The Guardian review of the display). Disappointingly due to the pandemic, no visitors have yet been able to see the new display but it has been rescheduled for opening in Spring 2021.

Although we have sadly now lost the funding for the third year of a three-year project working on the Ellen Terry Collection, we were able to document and photograph two more of her iconic costumes – Imogen from Cymbeline designed by Lawrence Tadema-Alma and the Lady Macbeth Banqueting scene dress, partner to the Beetle wing dress designed by Alice Comyns-Carr. With our now fairly extensive knowledge of working with the Smallhythe Collection we are able to observe and document things that others will be less likely to notice. For example, it is fascinating to see how very similar in construction the two Lady Macbeth dresses are and how the unaltered Banqueting dress compares with the Beetle wing dress which had been repaired numerous times and remade on at least three occasions. Likewise, despite the different designers involved there are many structural similarities linking the Imogen dress to these and others in the collection not least that they were all made by Ellen’s dressmaker Mrs Nettleship. It is not an exaggeration to say that we have learnt to not only recognise the imprint of Ellen’s body on her long-worn stage costumes but also the hand of her loyal dressmaker as well.

Other Spring projects included the conservation and mounting of an interesting group of Botswanan skin costumes and accessories from Brighton Museum, beautifully and ingeniously mounted by Jamie using magnets. She carefully created camouflaged magnets by painting them with acrylic on Japanese tissue to attach the skin costumes to their fabric covered boards. Templates and detailed instructions were supplied with the packed costumes so that the borrowing institution in Botswana could mount the items themselves without the need for a conservator to courier and install. Inevitably the loan was delayed by the pandemic, but we all hope that the costumes will make it back to Botswana soon – read our conservation story about the project.

When lockdown forced the closure of the studio, we like everyone else grappled with the enforced time at home and quickly realised that textile conservators really have to keep busy to keep sane! Our already established studio Craft Club evening quickly moved online and there followed an intense period of lockdown creativity. Keeping in touch via these weekly Zoom nights became incredibly important for team morale. So wonderful and varied were the results of our team’s making that we are currently featuring them on our new website as our Pandemic Gallery.

Many in the ZTC team also devoted a good deal of time making scrubs and bags for the NHS, sometimes meeting up in distanced pairs at the studio to use the facilities – particularly the overlocker. The team really pulled together long distance exchanging tips, sometimes dividing the assembly stages between them and managed to produce an amazing 120 +  pairs for the Dolly Scrub Hub in Lewes.

One conservation project benefitted from lockdown and the furlough system as one of the team who lives alone in a studio flat asked if she could go in and work unpaid on her intern project from some years before that needed finishing in order to return it to Worthing Museum.  We decided that this project would not contravene the furlough rules as no payment was being made and so the conservation of a beautiful and challenging waterproofed Sussex smock was completed at a leisurely pace. This meant far more hours could be spent than if it had been squeezed in around our normal work programme and enabled one member of the team to cope better with the challenges of a solo lockdown. It also gave us a fascinating project to share when nothing much else was going on.

As already touched on, in April we welcomed our new Administrator Gerry to the team. From our respective homes we began working together to create a new website and branding for the business to better place us for the challenges that lie ahead. We could see many of our projects being put on hold or cancelled altogether and we were also processing the news that our biggest client, the National Trust were unlikely to place any work with us in the foreseeable future due to a sudden change in conservation policy. The studio’s survival looked very bleak and we like many had to make difficult decisions about the size of the team. Very sadly we had to say goodbye to Maria Pardos over the summer and have not been able to use our usual freelance team since returning to regular work. Like many small businesses this year has been incredibly challenging but despite feeling badly wounded by all the adverse changes we are in fact excited for the future we are currently preparing for.

Our initial optimism in the summer was in no small part to a wonderful piece of news received from Arundel Castle whose two Nouvelles Indes tapestries we had sent to De Wit in Belgium for cleaning just before lockdown. They very kindly gave us the go ahead for the conservation of the first tapestry for completion by Easter 2021.  This and one ongoing tapestry project for the National Trust from The Vyne have provided a breathing space for the business over the second half of 2020 and on into 2021. Gradually other smaller projects have slotted in around these tapestries giving us a busy autumn and winter. However post Easter 2021 is still looking very quiet on the conservation front.  

Our plan when we took on the new larger studio space two years ago was to start running a series of workshops both in conservation and creative crafting – plans that social distancing and public confidence have made difficult to start this year. But we are hopeful with the good news of the vaccines that are coming – combined with the natural optimism of Spring – that we will soon be publishing our workshop programme to bring another dimension to our studio work. We like nothing better than sharing our enthusiasm and expertise with others and the beetle wing conservation workshop we held last summer proved that our studio is a lovely relaxed backdrop for learning, sharing, eating and chatting! We are very excited about launching this new side to the business – so please watch this space.

With this in mind we have been spending time documenting and developing our Study Collection as this will provide the core inspiration and objects for our various types of workshops. We plan flower conservation workshops based on our extensive vintage flower collection and patchwork making workshops based on the study of our many patchwork quilts. Client Mark Wallis of Past Pleasures kindly donated some ‘beyond-hopers’ from his men’s wear collection increasing our 18th C and 19th C men’s wear greatly and we also happily received a wonderful mixture of costume and textiles from Will Emmett of Emmett & White. Each object has the potential to form the basis of skills sharing, study and creative inspiration. Specialists in the field of costume and textile history will also join us to help present these objects in context – we can’t wait!

One project completed over the summer was the conservation of two tapestry panels for a friend and museum colleague’s newly refurbished home. There is something quite delightful about working on textiles destined for peoples’ homes as it is immediately more personal and meaningful. The family’s two early 18th C French “Seasons Series” tapestries are probably based on engravings by Nicolas Bonnart and feature a beautifully clothed woman in seasonal high fashion, set in a landscape on each. Both were much improved by unfolding their long hidden, undamaged borders as well as by the cleaning and patch repair worked by Mira. Rehanging them in October in the owner’s newly extended sitting room was a real delight.

Our tapestry heavy work programme has given the whole team the opportunity to hone and develop their skills very ably led by Hazel, our most experienced tapestry conservator. However, it has not all been tapestry – our work caring for the Legal Dress Collection at the Royal Courts of Justice has had to leap back into action as we discovered that the munching moth and woolly bear larvae have certainly not been resting during lockdown! Several of the displays have had to be stripped out and frozen and we have had a clean and rearrange of many of the other display cases working with Alison Hall, Mistress of the (working) Wardrobe who also helps manage the museum collection. We are working to bring more female representation into the displays particularly as 2019 saw the centenary of women working in law – an event marked by the RCJ with a Red Robes celebration and display in November 2019. We have also designed and made 30 new museum label stands and are currently rewriting and printing all the labels for the display cases. You can follow our progress via Instagram @legallydressed_rcj.

Quieter times in the offices of our corporate clients over 2020 has resulted in some additional bookings making it the ideal time to clean, condition check and repair some of the large textiles at Bloomberg London for example and book in further corporate client work next Spring.

Pae White’s textile installation at Bloomberg’s London HQ

As we hurtle towards the end of this very strange year, we like everyone hope 2021 will prove to be a better year for us all. The arts and heritage sectors comfort and feed our souls and in the words of John Holder and Samuel Jones in their book “It’s a Material World: Caring for the Public Realm” quoted on our new website, “What we conserve is a statement of what we respect, who we are and who we wish to be. Conservation not only sustains and refreshes the values of the past – giving us an understanding of where we have come from – but also reflects our values for the present and the future.”

Please help support us and other small conservation businesses in these difficult times or we will not be here when you need us next.

Wishing you all a quiet and peaceful festive season and all good things for 2021