Category Archives: Conservation

Painting Conservation

More on Cope’s ‘Martyrdom of Laurence Saunders at Coventry.’

Cleaning is progressing well on the picture.

There is a coating of dirt and a yellow/brown discoloured layer obscuring the colours in the painting. The sky has areas of blue and pink, white and grey. The layers are being removed with a suitable solution which leaves the paint surface intact.Test cleans on the Martyrdom of Laurence Saunders at Coventry

Pictured above is the sky with test cleans on the right hand side.

The discoloured layer has a flattening effect. Cleaning has revealed the pinkish-red roofs and spires of Coventry in the background. Details of the brushstrokes also begin to emerge. The distinctive spires above and below are those of St Michael’s, on the left- hand side; Greyfriars in the middle and Holy Trinity on the right of the picture.

Detail of cleaned areas on the Martyrdom of Laurence Saunders at Coventry

The artist, Charles West Cope (1811- 1890) is known as a Victorian painter and etcher of historical, literary and genre subjects. He also painted frescoes at the House of Lords after winning a competition to decorate the Houses of Parliament.  He exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time in 1833.  He was born in Leeds and apparently given the name ‘West’ after the American artist Benjamin West. He studied at the Royal Academy and later in Paris.

Cleaning has also begun on the subject of the triptych – Laurence Saunders, a Protestant minister. Saunders was brought to Coventry after his arrest for preaching ‘heresies’. Although Saunders’ church was All Hallows in Bread Street, London he was brought to Coventry and burned there – with others – on the 8th February 1555. His brother, Sir Edward Saunders, was Recorder of Coventry and had spoken out – unsuccessfully- on his behalf.

Jill Irving


Painting Conservation

More on Cope’s ‘Martyrdom of Laurence Saunders at Coventry.’

This is a resumption of my blog after an interval when I was busy with exhibition work.

A little bit of history relating to the picture: Painted in 1851, the picture was exhibited in the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1867. Another label on the reverse relates to an ‘Exhibition of Works of Art’ in Leeds the following year, 1868.

The triptych was previously displayed in the Council Chamber in Coventry Council House. It was taken down in January 2000 for the repainting of the Chamber and was placed in an anteroom. On closer examination it was decided that the condition of the picture was such that it would be advisable to remove it from display and it was subsequently moved to The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.

The picture had suffered much paint loss along the lower edges and other areas of paint were flaking and in danger of falling off. The reverse of the triptych had been damaged by the activities of a pigeon which according to reports had at one stage entered the Chamber and become trapped.

Emergency conservation carried out involved adhering a protective facing tissue onto the endangered areas of paint:

The damage to the reverse is shown here:

Label relating to Paris Exhibition on reverse of frame:

Jill Irving December 20th

Wiki, water & watercolours

More routine, more roof repairs, more photography – more of everything, really, but some new themes as well, just to liven things up. On 1st October, two of us had groups round the conservation studio as part of the Wikimedia Back Stage Pass event. We felt this was very successful both for The Herbert as a whole, and for ourselves with the level of interest for conservation (not that it’s a competition…..). It was an enjoyable day, with an added bonus of finding the hairdryer and anti-static brush we though lost, whilst tidying. There’s still more to be done on that score, but sadly I don’t see where the (still missing) beam balance could possibly be hiding – that one must really be on loan, not just pretending like the hair-drier… In case you’re wondering, the hairdryer is for hot air, and the brush is for stopping dust getting over-attracted to nice clean flat plastic surfaces you’re about to shut away. You never know what you may have to do down here!

Talking of lost items, I raided the long-lost-property bag for a couple of emergency response training sessions. Add random items from home, out of date marketing leaflets and some apparently potential hazards, place in a large trough with water, and watch your colleagues retrieve them. Very interesting personality test – including on myself; by the third session I’d accustomed myself to deliberately tipping water over most things, but didn’t progress as far as dunking the much washed cute, cuddly leopard cub that some poor parent is bearing the brunt of loosing. I’ve never had to retrieve objects for real or run a practical training session before so we were all learning together, and now I’ve a pile more stuff to do to improve our emergency preparedness, and a leopard that keeps mysteriously moving around the studio…

Drying out after emergency response plan training

The next major project is to prepare for a large watercolour exhibition in Feb. This has rather crept up on me under cover from a number of unexpected happenings why have had to take priority, but really does have to be started – immediately after I’ve sent this. Work will involve cutting mounts, hinging watercolours, possibly dry cleaning and such like. My training is in archives conservation, so I’m not really used to playing about with pigments, but many of the techniques are similar, or require the same skills applied slightly differently. Even so, I was rather relieved that we managed to raise funds to have work on the William Brooke album done by a private Works on Paper conservator. 10 items were removed and cleaned by her, and I mounted a selection of these for an event a couple of weeks ago, re-acquainting myself with the mount cutter – I still need to learn its angle of minimum effort, but at least I know what I’m aiming at now! Many of the items are listed as only requiring a check over, but who knows what this will find – the first 2 taken at random have horridly acidic backboards which should really be removed, but I’d best see what the total of these is rather than diving in on those two and then finding there’s no time for ones which are discolouring the image. The idea is to use a poultice to hold moisture against the board, then strip it off in layers; usually the adhesives will be water softenable on older items. It’s a while since I’ve done anything of that nature, so I think a practice session is in order – there’s a nasty, mouldering apprentice indenture that’s been a skeleton in the drawer for years which should be just the job. Lovely!

Painting Conservation

After my last blog which featured Frederick Jackson’s ‘Boats on the Shore’ currently on display for the first time in our accessible store ‘What’s In Store’ I thought I would focus on two works currently undergoing conservation. The works are quite different in subject matter and in scale. This is a brief introduction to two very different pictures!

The first work is the right hand part of a triptych entitled ‘The Martyrdom of Laurence Saunders at Coventry’ by the artist Charles West Cope (1811 – 1890). The frame size is just over four feet in height by just under 10 feet in width (more accurately 124cms x 301cms).

The picture is dated to 1851 and the three pictures that make up the triptych (medium, oil on canvas) depict from left to right: (1) A woman and child at a prison gate; (2) Saunders in his prison cell taking leave of the child and (3) (the painting currently undergoing work) Saunders being led to execution in Coventry. This image can be viewed on the Public Catalogue Foundation’s website. More on the subject matter, this picture – and what happened to it in the next blog.

The picture placed face up on the conservation table. The tissue paper is ’emergency’ treatment to prevent further paint loss in fragile areas on the lower part.

The second much smaller picture ‘Henry V’ (see image below) – artist unknown –  is something of a curiosity as we do not have a great deal of information on it. According to our records it is presumed to be a ‘restorer’s’ early replacement of the original commissioned for 5d in 1474. Our picture has been dated c. 1850-1920. The medium is oil on wood panel. There are two test cleans visible left and right, carried out some time in the past. We know that the picture was transferred to The Herbert Art Gallery from St Mary’s Hall before 1974. The picture is being cleaned prior to loan back to St Mary’s Hall. It is approximately 36.5cms x 30cms unframed and the subject is portrayed in profile.

More next time on the removal of surface dirt and/or discoloured varnish and to see if any hidden details emerge.

An update from Jane

Life here has been pretty routine recently, catching up on environmental records and reports, only for the next bank holiday to get in the way again. Likewise with filling humidifiers – we put these in some areas as a back-up, for example in the Temporary Galleries when we have an exhibition with tight environmental specifications, such as Secret Egypt. If all goes to plan they shouldn’t be necessary, but in order for them to work as a back-up should there be an issue, they have to be set at a level where they work some of the time. Even more unfortunately, we have a very high silica level in the water around here which means if we want the wicks to be effective, water needs to be filtered; and we don’t use enough to justify a proper system. As a child I loved pouring water – it’s kind of losing its appeal…. (we do have filters added to the main Air Handling Unit feeds).

We’ve had a little more work on the roof, again in fine weather, so the three rolls of polythene we stocked up on in case we needed a belt and braces measure now has to be found a home. We get through a certain amount for wrapping works of art on he move, so it won’t go to waste. 

I’ve been costing up for a large (but only potential) order for photography. I’m not expert – I could be some kind of default get very good results using film and the more than basic set-up I had at the time, but this doesn’t seem to translate to digital. However, I only do the equivalent of photocopies for documents which won’t take that treatment, so they don’t need to be perfect. This order is all form one large collection, mostly from the letters. The range of condition is quite amazing – from practically pristine to so friable they have to be turned with carrier sheets. Someone earlier last century went through them, making folds with a précis on the front. One was evidently so vestigial the original was destroyed at that point. A number of years ago I started repacking the letters series with a volunteer. It’s interesting to come back to it as a user and assess how the strategy works in practice. The difficulty was that individual packing takes more space, and the boxing didn’t allow for this.

It sounds like the leaving do for several long-standing colleagues has begun in the room next door, so I’d better go and investigate the cakes….


Roof work and more

Weren’t we lucky with the weather – we’ve just had some work done on the exterior of the roof, which could only be done when dry. We can’t just close galleries wholesale, so I’d organised rotas to keep a check on the weather and what was under the area being worked on each day to assess what protection was required if any – and it coincided with the longest dry spell in a good while. Now I look a complete idiot for making a fuss! – and am left with three rolls of polythene. Better that way than the other – you can’t be sure even the forecast will stay the same let alone the weather.

We hosted a meeting of archives/paper conservators within the region on 22nd March. Heard some interesting talks from other disciplines too:  my colleague Martin talked about his work cleaning some top items from the Staffordshire Hoard (no, we didn’t get to see any in the flesh, but some very pretty piccies); conservation of globes; and a talk on aircraft conservation from the RAF Museum Cosford in Shropshire.

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Visitor-Fluff index, Bean-bags and Improvisation

So much for thinking things would calm down once Secret Egypt was launched…. The place is heaving, which is great, but the resultant fluff-balls are trying very hard to get the better of us – and it’s not as if there’s hundreds of woolly coats and scarves around to shed in this weather. I’ve noticed for a while that the Eliot piano in the old foyer needs dusting daily when we have families queuing nearby to get into make & take sessions, but its plinth has never needed the same treatment before. And as for Secret Egypt itself, you’re talking pan-fulls of the stuff! Quite apart from other factors, with all the organic materials on display in there we don’t want to encourage insect pests – which love to eat fluff, hence my ‘interest’. I’ve not gone quite as far as trying to work out how many grammes per 100 visitors, but I could certainly make a stab at a back-up visitor count if the automatic system went down!

My role in Secret Egypt turned out to be rather different from planned, but was mostly enjoyable and, um, stimulating – to find ways of supporting previously unseen objects, which could be produced more or less on the spot from materials to hand, as many of the items could only be handled while a courier from the lending institution was present. My colleague was full-time on perspex mounts, so I got to play with plastazote foam, polystyrene beads and even cardboard tubes when some of the pots which were expected to stand firm on their own turned out not to. Conservators’ squirreling instincts came to the rescue several times over, I’ve renewed my acquaintance with the sewing machine and progressed to funny shaped bean-bags; 3D ones would have been better still in places, but there wasn’t time to ‘play’, and converting between 2D & 3D fries my brain! I just hope I’ve managed to keep the poly beads under control: one of my early projects at the archives (20 years ago) was increasing their stock of book cushions. As a result, I was looking forward to freedom from haunting by small, round, white, floaty things. I’m not just making this up – after 10 years or so of finding them every time I went behind or under, I thought I’d exorcised the last of them; but when we dismantled the benches there they still were, along with loads of fluff. Oh dear……

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Painting Conservation, Part 8

At the end of last year I filled the areas of loss in the tears on Jackson’s ‘Boats on the Shore’ with a proprietary filler which is easily reversible. (The tears were above the rock on the right.) 


I then retouched the areas of filling using dry pigments in a medium. See below: 

This work was completed in December 2010.

The frame is in very poor condition and I’ll be working on that in 2011 and re-uniting it with the picture.


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Great apes, graffiti and grovelling

Oh dear, looks like it’s been a while since I did this last…. life has been a little hectic.

Condition reporting of loan exhibitions has formed a larger part of my work recently. Face to Face was an installation of huge images of rescued apes whose life story is written on their faces perhaps even more clearly than on humans. Again, they drew me to look at them as images; quite a feat when you’re looking from a few inches at a face which is higher than you!

Ditto the V&A Street Art images: I didn’t expect to like these, but found them lively and engaging – although their make-up meant that a number had problems to be noted – mostly involving cockling (waviness across the sheet). We had to overcome issues with static electricity to clean a perspex case and install a couple of pieces of book art without additional fluff – we couldn’t find an anti-static brush and it had to be done while the V&A couriers were on site (that’s the problem with part-time colleagues – not there to ask where things are….). Anyway, my retired electrical design engineer father (aka the Herbert Technical Advice telephone help desk – he’s the sort who can think around most types of problem) suggested handling with slightly damp cloths – which worked much better than we expected. So now it’s just a case of routine inspecting to make sure cockling doesn’t get worse, and keeping the usual eye on environmental conditions.

I’d completed most of a packaging job for some artwork from a previous exhibition being sent back to India, when I received a frantic call mid-afternoon from the colleague I was doing it for to say the courier suddenly wanted pick it up in the morning! We both dropped everything and a surprisingly short time later the lot was bomb-proof and ready with no corners cut. Fortunately, not many folks made it through to look through the conservation room doors to be treated to the sight of us on the floor with large bits of packing material, parcel tape etc. It doesn’t do to have too much dignity in this job – but maybe a line should be drawn at photographs of me cutting card on the only large flat surface available at short notice… Read the rest of this entry

Painting Conservation, Part 7

After a short break I have continued cleaning ‘Boats on the Shore’ over the past two weeks. The first image shows the picture almost half cleaned and the second shows the two remaining areas to be cleaned.  



The picture below shows the cleaning completed. Next week I will begin work on filling the paint losses in the area of the consolidated tears.


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