Quest to save the tapestry knights is launched

Four Victorian works of art were mutilated while in private hands, reports David Keys
Four previously lost Victorian tapestries - internationally important work based on cartoons by the Arts and Crafts painters and designers Sir Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris - are to go on public display for the first time in 70 years.

But a massive repair and conservation programme has had to be launched on the tapestries because they had been appallingly treated while in private hands over the past 40 years.

They form part of the world's most important group of 19th-century tapestries - the Quest of the Holy Grail, produced in the studios of William Morris in the 1890s. They are arguably among Britain's most significant Victorian works of art.

However, in the Fifties they were allowed to be exported and while in private ownership in Spain three of the masterpieces had sections cut out of them and the largest tapestry was sliced in four. One work had an entire figure chopped out of it.

Now experts at the Textile Conservation Centre at Hampton Court in south- west London are busy repairing some of the damage and conserving the tapestries as a whole. The works were so badly soiled that they had to be chemically treated at a special facility in Belgium.

The four were sold at Christie's last year for just over pounds 1m to the Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation, which is paying for their conservation and is lending them to several art galleries over the next year.

The tapestries will go on display at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, on 13 September, and in 1996 will be shown in Gateshead and South Shields, both in Tyne and Wear, and Bradford, West Yorkshire. The works were last exhibited in 1925 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, south-west London.

These particular works were woven in 1898, the year Burne-Jones died. He had valued the story of the grail as perhaps the greatest artistic subject in the world.

"Lord! How that San Graal [Holy Grail] story is ever in my mind and thoughts continually. Was ever anything in the world beautiful as that is beautiful? If I might clear away all the work that I have begun, if I might live and clear it all away and dedicate the last days to that tale - if only I might," he wrote.

The Lloyd Webber Art Foundation has set itself the task of acquiring a collection of top-grade masterpieces which it intends to lend out to art galleries around the country,

Collecting started in 1991 and so far the foundation has spent some pounds 44m on eight works of art, including the pounds 1m it spent on the tapestries in 1994. A Picasso was acquired for pounds 30m three months ago.

t Next year is the centenary of William Morris's death and the Victoria and Albert Museum is planning a major exhibition on his life and work.