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Art that's worth keeping: Historic Royal Palaces celebrates 100 years of conservation with Grayson Perry
Grayson Perry shows his support for the ‘weirdly mystical science’ of conservation.

LONDON.- On Monday night, in the historic setting of Banqueting House Whitehall, contemporary artist Grayson Perry challenged an audience from across the world of cultural heritage to consider what makes a work of art important enough to preserve for future generations. Perry, who was invited by independent charity Historic Royal Palaces to mark their 100th anniversary of conservation, said that the future preservation of his work doesn’t concern him as an artist – but he admires the patience, skill and knowledge of conservators who maintain art for posterity.

This year marks 100 years since the establishment of the textile conservation studios at Hampton Court Palace, which was born out of a concern that Henry VIII’s tapestries were falling into a state of disrepair. Combining cutting edge science with unique technical skill, the conservation team, who today care for the palaces and its collections, work tirelessly behind the scenes – and consider a job well done if the public haven’t noticed their work. Throughout 2013, Historic Royal Palaces would like to tell their stories and will be placing the spotlight on the vital work they do to the buildings and their contents – be it a painting, tapestry or royal bed.

As a creator of tapestries himself, Perry’s appearance at the celebration was particularly fitting – and he drew comparisons between the contemporary art world and the craftsmen who created Henry VIII’s tapestries over 500 years ago. The skill – and finger-strength – to make such elaborate and complex tapestries has now sadly been lost, and Perry suggested that in today’s digital age, craftsmen work more on computers by ‘clicking and saving’. Furthermore, he explored how the tapestry has always resonated as a mark of high status and riches, and contemporary art does exactly the same job for the mega-wealthy tycoons of today as Henry VIII’s tapestries did in the sixteenth century.

On preserving art for future generations, Grayson Perry said: “When it comes to posterity – I don’t worry about it at all. If it all goes into a skip after I die, I won’t worry about it because I’ll be dead. If people want to conserve my work, it’s down to them.

However, the amazing care, knowledge and skill that goes into making objects “not change” is incredibly impressive. As someone who makes new things, I think it’s amazing the care conservators take, the patience they have, and the level of complexity they have to deal with to make their work unnoticeable.

It’s clear their work is necessary. The tapestries at Hampton Court Palace have come down to us through the centuries – they’ve been through the filter which says they are important and beautiful objects, so we know we need to preserve them for the future.’

Kate Frame, Head of Conservation and Collections Care at Historic Royal Palaces, said: ‘Conservators often find themselves mirroring the lives of past artists and craftspeople – wondering why they used a particular thread in a tapestry, or carved something at a particular angle. So it was a real thrill to welcome an artist like Grayson Perry to help us celebrate our work. I’m sure the Flemish weavers who created our tapestries would have been equally as reticent about the preservation of their own work for future generations.

We were delighted to hear him recognise the importance of conservation and the immense technical skills it requires. Although we work with historic objects, ours is a discipline which relies on scientific and technological advances to progress, and the digital age will present us with new challenges. Perhaps the conservators of the future will be specialists in the preservation of Grayson Perry’s own digital tapestries!’

Michael Day, Chief Executive at Historic Royal Palaces, said: ‘It was fascinating to hear the worlds of arts and conservation come together this evening to discuss why we conserve objects – and what makes art historically important.

At Historic Royal Palaces we tell the stories of how monarchs and people shaped society, in some of the greatest palaces ever built – and we simply could not do this without the survival of these rare objects and the vital work our conservation team do to preserve them for our visitors.

It is through their dedication and immensely skilled work that we continue to give the palaces a future as long as their past. We hope that by preserving this magnificent art, they will inspire many talented artists like Grayson Perry for generations to come.’

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