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Highlights from the Marianne North Gallery Conservation Project

Eleanor Hasler
17 January 2011
As the Marianne North Gallery Conservation Project draws to a close, Eleanor Hasler looks back at the highlights of over two years working in the Marianne North Conservation Studio.

The beautifully restored Marianne North Gallery re-opened last month with the original artworks back on the walls. Here in the conservation studio we are so excited to see the paintings back in the gallery knowing that their condition has been improved and that they will continue to be enjoyed by visitors for many years to come. It is, though, with a touch of sadness that we lay down our tools as we have all become rather attached to the paintings. Here are some of the highlights of the project which have made the time working in the studio so enjoyable.

Hidden treasures

Through the examination and treatment of the paintings we have been able to discover more about Marianne North’s painting techniques as well as uncover additional images. Rachael Smith, one of the conservators working on the project, has now totally uncovered the completed painting she discovered on the back of A Cycad in Fruit in Mr Hill’s Garden, Verulam, Natal.

Partially revealed painting on the back of painting no. 366 (Image: RBG Kew)


Fully uncovered painting on the back of painting no. 366 (Image: RBG Kew)

The new image is a landscape and is similar to another painting in the gallery Male Pawpaw with Flowers and Imperfect Fruit. As a board had been stuck directly onto the oil paint, Rachel had to spend a lot of time devising ways of removing the board remnants without removing the paint. An image of the uncovered painting will also be viewable on the new touchscreens in the gallery.

New materials

Our time working on so many paintings by one artist has also enabled us to carry out some research into the different materials Marianne North used. I have been looking at the ground or ‘primer’ under the paint layer, while other members of the studio have been examining the pigments, inks and papers she used. The practical work has also thrown up new and exciting challenges which do not usually occur in paper conservation. In between removing around 800 backing boards from the paintings we have been consolidating paint, in-painting losses and repairing tears, amongst other interesting treatments. We are in the process of writing an article, which we hope to publish in a conservation related journal, as we feel we have learnt a great deal from undertaking this unusual project.

Sharing enthusiasm

I think what has been another real treat is that we have been given the opportunity to meet some of the people who share our enthusiasm for Marianne North. It has been wonderful to hear such a positive response to the paintings, and to watch visitors in the gallery find images that they have a personal attachment to; whether it is a place they have visited, a particular favourite plant, or, in one case, a picture of a friend’s garden! Through our talks with visitors and meetings with the sponsors of the paintings it has been really interesting and encouraging to see what a broad spectrum of people enjoy Marianne North’s work.


Rebecca Chisholm giving a talk to visitors in the Marianne North Gallery (Image: RBG Kew)

Many thanks to all those who made this project possible – the condition of this fantastic collection is now greatly improved and many more visitors to the Gardens will be able to enjoy the work of this remarkable woman.

- Eleanor -

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