Marianne North Gallery: Conserving the paintings
The Marianne North Gallery conservation project started in 2008 in the newly built Preservation studio in the Herbarium at Kew
Marianne North painting discovery
One of the projects most exciting discoveries was that the first painting one of the conservators worked on turned out to have another painting on the reverse which has been unseen for 120 years.
The painting was hidden under the backing board adhered by Marianne North while she was hanging the paintings. We have realised that Marianne North had created a very similar painting varying only in its composition. She chose to repaint it in portrait orientation rather than the original landscape she had painted on the back of painting 366.
This has leads us to suppose that she was not happy with the composition and decided to use the back of the painting to create a different landscape. She may have been running out of paper and made good use of it by creating a new painting which shows how Marianne adapted very quickly to any problems faced plus it was also a good way of recycling and economising.
The Marianne North Conservation Project began in 2008 in a newly built Preservation studio in the Herbarium at Kew. This project ran for two years to complete the 833 paintings and had a team of five conservators and one technician.
The conservation team focused on the paintings that require the least amount of treatment first therefore the majority of our time was spent using surgical scalpels to remove the backing boards from the backs of all 833 Marianne North paintings.
The conservation work could not be done, however, if there is potentially friable or flaking paint on the surface as the treatment required the paintings to be turned face down on the benches.
Therefore the media was first examined under the microscope and any cracked or flaking paint was secured in place.
The majority of the paintings in the Marianne North Gallery were in a reasonable condition considering their age but there were two main factors that were contributing to their deterioration.
The first was that on returning to England, Marianne North backed all of the paintings on to boards which have since deteriorated with age and were by now highly acidic.
This was a big problem given Marianne was using oil paints on to a paper that was also becoming acidic as a result of being fixed to these deteriorating boards. Acidity in paper is a problem as it weakens and discolours the paper as well as affecting the media on it. So the backing boards had to be removed.
All of the paintings were surface cleaned and re-backed onto new conservation grade boards, after all remnants of the adhesive had been removed from the backs of the paintings.
Where Marianne North had painted on more than one piece of paper, it was necessary to make sure that the separate pieces were not moved out of register. In order to accomplish this, Japanese paper was stuck to the front of the paintings while the boards from the back were removed.
Temperature and humidity
The second main problem that the paintings faced was that they have always been displayed in the Marianne North Gallery which has suffered over the years from fluctuating temperature and humidity levels.
Some of the paintings had been damaged through the paper becoming damp, which had caused the media to crack and in some cases fall off.
There were various other problems with the paintings, including that Marianne North often painted on more than one piece of paper which were then joined together and that the frames she chose did not provide a completely safe environment for the paintings. These were the two main issues dealt with in the conservation studio.
Expert conservators from the London based conservation and restoration company Plowden and Smith Ltd. have also completed works on other artworks from the Gallery. These include easel paintings, Marianne North’s bust and the stencilled cove.
During the project, various inscriptions by Marianne North have been discovered on the backs of paintings and the boards they were painted on.
Usually the inscriptions on the backs of paintings relate to the botanical names of the plants depicted on the front however the inscriptions on the boards are more descriptive. An example of this is on the back of painting no 823 'View of the Sugarloaf Mountain, from the Aqueduct Road, Rio Janeiro' where she describes the eating habits of a sloth (which is depicted, but very small, in the painting).
- Find out more about the conservation of the Marianne North paintings in the Kew Magazine article.
- Plan your visit to the Marianne North Gallery.
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