by Lisa Little (pictured left), featuring contributions from Norfolk Museums Service Costume & Textile Department volunteers
Working on the ensign of Le Généreux – a vast flag dating back to the 1790s and one of the earliest and most complete tricolours in existence – was a project that the Costume and Textile department had considered over the past decade, and was certainly something that I never thought I would actually get to do. When asked if it was possible, Ruth Battersby Tooke (Senior Curator, Costume and Textiles) and myself looked at each other. We knew the work that would be involved. I knew that I could hand pick volunteers who could assist us with this once-in-a-lifetime project. There was only really one answer to the question: we said yes.
The ensign had been stored folded and rolled on a 6 metre length roller in our store, I had never seen it laid out, and only seen conservation assessment photographs of the different section colours and historic damage. The initial investigation was undertaken at St Andrews Hall in Norwich over 2 days, this was filmed by Louise Turner, our trainee at the time, on a time- lapse camera.
Here we assessed the damage to the sections. We carefully removed the degraded friable lining fabric which was no longer supportive and detrimental to the blue section. Then with help from our teaching museum trainees and conservation staff we museum vacuumed all the dust residue from where the lining was removed as well as the white and red sections. This we documented to inform a plan to calculate the further conservation of it. Only now was it apparent what I had agreed to, not only taking myself on this journey with Lindsay Blackmore and Anna Stone, our two contracted conservators, but also my volunteers too!
Gwyneth ‘Gwyn’ Fitzmaurice consulting with the detailed plan of the ensign which she created to help map out the more damaged parts of the flag
We are extremely lucky in our department, we have excellent volunteers who give not only a huge amount of time to us, but bring with them a wealth of expertise in a range of areas. This eases the daily commitments and pressures of a busy department, a few took the plunge and generously agreed to give their time to this new demand, albeit a very large involved project in the form of the ensign. This is the largest textile object that the department cares for, and it came with a host of obstacles, aside from its size, the fragility these included the logistics of working on it which had to be overcome ahead of the conservation stitching. This involved technical challenges from the outset. Where to work on it? How would it be supported so that it could be easily manoeuvred by a minimum of people, after all it couldn’t stay in St Andrew’s Hall. So an alternative venue was secured where it could be worked on width ways, it just fitted!
Using a combination of storage boxes that were previously designed to use with rolled textiles over at our large objects store at Gressenhall, some wheels, blocks, car jacks and a Heath Robinson approach to problem solving, we were underway. All this happened back in February, which now seems a distant memory. Our volunteers – Clare Currie, Gwyneth Fitzmaurice, Danusia Latonsinski and Ken Smith – joined us in March and they worked with us right up until installation in July.
Ken Smith fitting a cover to one of the 28 backing boards used to support the ensign in the exhibition
At the very beginning Lindsay had given everyone a stitching test, including myself, to do. We all had to pass to the highest standard and as Gwyn recalls, ‘I was intrigued by the detail of attention required to work on an object of this great size’, and at times she found the sewing ‘zen- like’.
We all initially started with enthusiasm, but as it transpired what worked best was a steady approach to the mammoth sized task we had ahead. We had to pace ourselves and ensure the stitching was as consistent and as near identical from the beginning to the end. Every hole had to be ‘read’ before you began sewing. Tiny holes, those under 1cm were darned, larger holes and tears were stitched using conservation couching. Before any of that happened the flag section needed to be tensioned by measuring across the entire width, weighted and in some cases, humidified and left for several days before that portion could be worked on. This all took time and required planning. On average a section 50cm deep across the 8.4m width could be completed every 7 days. Some sections were in better condition than others, some required a lot more work. The rope sleeve section took 2 weeks to net, and was extremely complicated. By the very end we were experts; methodical and accurate.
Prior to the ensign installation, all of the 28 covered backing boards were fitted to a specially constructed frame and thoroughly cleaned
There always was the aim to re-line the blue section, and conservation stitch to support each and every hole, tear and worn section and re- join the bunting fabric seams. And there was the aspiration that if time allowed – and we stuck to schedule – then the bunting seam splits and repairs in the white and red section could be completed. Our aim and priority, however, was to support the blue section to enable this vast textile to be displayed. Time did allow for this extra work to be undertaken, unbelievably we did it. Everything we aimed to complete and more was achieved on schedule, and as Clare said; ‘It was a surprise how much better it looks after conservation as its huge scale was quite a logistical challenge’.
Installation involved unrolling the flag gradually and pinning the top edge to the plinth in order to secure it
We worked on the ensign in 10 sections, and it was only when we had completed the final one and looked back over the entirety did we appreciate the improvement. It became more than the sum of its parts, as you can clearly see on the roof- like structure, which Katie Jeffs in the display team designed. Her vision for how the exhibition flows and the scale was visionary. Somehow the architectural model I had seen didn’t prepare me for installation of the ensign and being up some 3 metres high at the top of the slope. The ensign is impressive, even though it is not entirely unrolled, (some 2 metres are visible in the window at the end of the ‘plinth’) the scale stops you in your tracks.
With insufficient space to display the full height of the flag, around 2 metres of the material had to be rolled and then placed in a trench at the base of the plinth
The forensic display of wood splinters, dust, newspaper and threads I collected together tell the story of the conservation of the object. Everything we have done is reversible, documenting every stage using photography, graphing the entire ensign, cross referencing through to Gwyn’s mapped sectional drawing. All this work has been done with care and respect, allowing this impressive object to be displayed and appreciated by all, for today and in the future. As our volunteer Ken said, ‘I am now a tiny part of its history, it’s been a privilege to be part of this’.
I agree, it is a once in a lifetime chance to work on an object like this.
The Costume & Textile Association are running a JustGiving campaign to raise money for the design and construction of a storage box which will allow for easier display and storage of the ensign, and help preserve it for future generations. Click here to lend your support and find out more.
The dress rehearsal for refolding the flag once it comes off display, carried out at St Andrew’s Hall using a replica of the original ensign