Millefleurs of chivalry back on display

After four years of conservation and cleaning, including by specialists in Belgium, the earliest tapestry in the care of the National Trust has gone back on display at Montacute House in Somerset.

Knight with the Arms of Jean de Daillon depicts a knight in shining gold-trimmed armor on his prancing steed. He carries a standard with a red wolf or tiger on a red and white striped pole. The horse is draped with a red and gold brocade caparison. The dark blue background is covered with tiny flowers — poppies, daffodils, honeysuckle, thistles and many more — in the millefleurs style. In the upper left corner is the coat of arms of Jean de Daillon that is the source of the tapestry’s modern appellation.

Born into a family of petty nobility, Jean de Daillon was a childhood friend of the future King Louis XI of France, and while he temporarily turned against his old pal to get in the good graces of King Charles VII, they would eventually reconcile after Louis became king and Daillon rose enormously in rank, power and wealth. He was governor of multiple provinces and held important offices, the most pivotal of which was chamberlain to Louis XI.

His seat was the Château du Lude, a castle he acquired in 1457 and spent years renovating into an elegant palace worthy of entertaining royalty in comfort and style. Daillon commissioned a set of millefleurs tapestries from master weaver Guillaume Desremaulx of Tournai between 1477 and 1479 to adorn the walls of a room in the castle. The knight was the first of the series and the only one known to survive today. It was completed by 1480 when the town of Tournai paid for the tapestry as a gift to Daillon “in remuneration for numerous favours and friendly gestures that he has made to this city.”

The surviving records of the commission make the tapestry unique. It is the only 15th century tapestry that can be confirmed to have been made in Tournai, and one of only a few tapestries whose maker and commissioner can be definitively identified. It also the only surviving Netherlandish tapestry from the 15th century to feature a single knight on horseback. The rare documentation also illuminates how much was lost, because we know how much wall space the set was commissioned to cover and roughly how much the one surviving tapestry covers (it has been trimmed over the centuries, so its precise original measurements are unknown). The set was approximately 20 times as large as the Knight tapestry.

Jean de Daillon died in 1481. His widow contacted a dealer to sell the tapestries in 1482 and they were delivered to her brother to effectuate the sale in April 1483. That is the last time they appear on the historical record until it emerged in 1916 when it was loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by philanthropist and collector Sir Edward Speyer. In 1935, it was acquired by Sir Malcolm Stewart who bequeathed it to the National Trust along with five other tapestries for Montacute House. It wasn’t until the 1970s that researchers identified the coat of arms as Jean de Daillon’s.

The tapestry has been away from Montacute House for four years, travelling to Belgium for a specialist wet clean to remove centuries of dirt and it also spent a considerable amount of time at the National Trust’s Textile Conservation Studio in Norfolk. Skilled conservators hand sewed in individual repairs, replaced missing threads and strengthened damaged areas. It took nearly 1,300 hours of work to conserve.

The process has brought out previously hard to see details and the subject of the tapestry is much clearer than before.

“Now that the knight is clean we can clearly see his features, which are quite thin and fine, and he has long flaxen coloured hair showing below his helmet – something you couldn’t see very well before. We think the knight probably shows Jean de Daillon himself,” [says Sonja Rogers, National Trust house and collections manager for Montacute House.]