Chance discoveries unlock the beauty of Royal silks

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Textile experts hanging siks in Saloon at Royal PavilionA series of chance discoveries helped historic textiles expert Annabel Westman uncover the original design for luxurious silks chosen by King George IV for his exotic dream palace.

A lost piece of fabric, a long-forgotten photo and a timely discovery in a book were vital clues to revealing the lavish pattern for the crimson silk panels.

The silks were a key feature of the 1823 decorative scheme used to show the great wealth and importance of the Prince Regent to his visitors from around the world.

Everything in the Royal Pavilion had been cleared out by Queen Victoria when she sold the building to the Town of Brighton in 1850. She sent most of the furniture, wallpaper, fittings and rolls of fabric to Buckingham Palace where much of it still remains.

At first, all Annabel Westman had to work with in 2012 were images from John Nash’s, ‘Views of the Royal Pavilion’, which included a watercolour of the saloon by A.C.Pugin, and a brief description in the Royal Pavilion inventory, of ‘His Majesty’s Geranium and Gold Colour’ silk.

She sent a rough sketch of the design taken from A.C.Pugin’s watercolour to silk weaver Richard Humphries, of Humphries Weaving in Suffolk which specialises in reproducing historic silks for clients such as Historic Royal Palaces, the Royal Collection Trust and the National Trust, starting an extraordinary series of events.

In addition to the design she was presenting, Annabel asked Richard if there was a Regency-style design ‘with bird motifs’ in the Humphries Weaving collection.

A photographic memory

This triggered a memory of a photograph he took with his 35mm camera as an apprentice at Warner & Sons Silk manufacturers in the mid-1960s, when recording and developing images of fabrics as part of his design training.

Richard had saved the negatives when the firm ceased manufacturing in 1971 but as the negatives were small the image he was thinking of was grainy and lacked crisp detail.

However it did show a bird motif, a medallion and rosettes, all hallmarks of the Royal design, which had been woven by Warners in the 1950s. Reference to the Pugin watercolour and the Royal Pavilion inventory revealed the design to resemble the Saloon’s 1823 silk.

Soon afterwards Jenny Newman of Humphries Weaving was browsing in the V&A shop when she spotted a colour photograph of the silk in a recently published book.

This revealed a small section of the full design, showing some of the medallion motif and rosettes but in a different layout to Richard’s negative and closer in pattern to the watercolour.

Annabel said; “The new book was a reprint of a Merchant’s Sample Book of 1764. Our design was from the 19th century so what was it doing in that book? The quite extraordinary coincidence was Warners had rebound the book and included two later patterns which shouldn’t even have been in there.”

Windsor Palace discovery reveals clue

In Sept 2014, the team visited the V&A to view the original sample book. Humphries Weaving took photographs and measurements of the section of design in the sample book to alter their drawing and placement of the design, and initial decisions on colour matching were made.

Annabel said; “We had discovered the original diagonal pattern and its asymmetrical layout but while the colours were crimson and yellow and we were happy with the crimson, the yellow was too acid and not the gold yellow as described in the inventory or in the surviving tassel from the room.  We weren’t sure about the colours and we wondered if we were being historically inaccurate.

“And at that time, we were in contact with the Royal Collection Trust about some chairs.  We sent the fabric design to the workshop and the upholsterer at Windsor Castle said ‘Oh, I recognise that fabric, it’s on our wall.’

“Remember the rolls of fabric sent to Kensington Palace by Queen Victoria? Was it the same fabric used to reupholster in 1912  a set of chairs later removed for the Queen’s Jubilee? A remnant was hanging framed on the upholsterer’s wall. The colours were crimson and a yellow gold which matched the description in the inventory and the surviving tassel.

“When the fabric was checked, it had the name of the French maker. Investigation in French fabric archives (Tassinari & Chatel) found the original design which had been first ordered in 1816 for the wife of the general who defeated Napoleon in Russia.”

In October 2015 the piece from the Royal Collection was taken to a further meeting at the V&A, to be compared directly with the piece in the sample book.  Close inspection shows it was probably woven in the same workshop as the example in the V&A sample book. Although degraded, this piece showed the bird motif clearly enough to refine Humphries Weaving’s design.

Perfect for a king

This collective evidence enabled 520 metres of the silk to be reproduced. The cloth took eighty hours to weave and used approximately 4000 miles of silk thread.

The silk has been hung in tricky curved panels by Ian Block of AT Cronin Workshop Ltd, who cut, made and lined the draperies, curtains and muslin curtains and hand-stitched on the specially-made braids and fringes.

The curtain trimmings – including gold coloured silk fringe interspersed with acorn shaped hangers, silk rope and tassels – were handmade by Brian Turner Trimmings, Heritage Trimmings and Context Weavers. These are purely decorative and their function is to add to the richness and splendour of the room.

“We had the evidence from the photo, the sample book, the upholsterer’s workshop in Windsor, the French archive, the original tassel and we feel as sure as we can be that the fabric we’ve reproduced is as close as modern production will allow to the original design.

“It’s a classical French design, complex and asymmetric. It is very sophisticated and creates a rich, rich room where everything works together and is perfect for a king.”

Interviews and articles

We can offer you a glimpse of the Saloon on September 6  before it is re-opened to the public on 8 September 2018. You may also wish to interview some of the team who have restored the room or focus on an individual element of the restoration process.

Please contact Caroline Sutton if you have ideas on how your publication would like to cover the Saloon.

We can provide a series of hi-res images to accompany your article.