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Welcome to the Marianne North Conservation Studio

Helen Cowdy
6 May 2010
Read about the Marianne North Gallery Conservation project taking place in the newly built Preservation Studio in the Herbarium at Kew.

There’s more to a Marianne North painting than a pretty plant!

I am part of the team working to conserve the Marianne North paintings and through a series of posts we hope to share some of the incredible things we are finding during this project. Our team is working hard to meet the target to restore all 832 paintings in just two years. As you can imagine this is extremely sensitive work which involves a steady hand and lots of concentration. We are all paper conservators and our varied interests and backgrounds have really helped the team work well together - from photographers, art historians and artists to a mathematician!

The Marianne North project is an incredible opportunity for any conservator as it is unusual to be able to work on one artist’s collection continually, so this is a real treat for us and chance to learn so much about one person, the collection and how it was created.


Paintings by Marianne North - North American Carnivorous Plants; Foliage, Flowers and Fruit of Sacred Lotus in Java; Foliage and Flowers of a Tropical American Shrub and Honeysuckers

All the paintings are examined, photographed and recorded – possibly the most important part of preservation. Our treatment records will provide future data for conservators and curators with information about the methods and chemical treatments we have used and why we have used them. This information can be used to help maintain the historical and cultural value of the collection.

Beginning the conservation

The paintings that are being conserved are oil paint on a pre-prepared paper, the majority of which were adhered to a poor quality mount board which aimed to prevent the paper from sagging in the frames. The boards and the adhesive used have degraded in time and become acidic, which ultimately puts the paintings at risk. The majority of our time is spent removing these boards which we pare down with scalpels – a very labour intensive task working layer by layer, from the back of the board to the back of the paper and can take between one and four hours per painting. 



A selecion of conservation tools                 Removal of old backing board

Each of us see the treatment of a painting through to completion and are often working on five or six different paintings at any one time. This means that we can vary our work load. Paring down more than one large painting a day is really hard work on our wrists and hands, so it is really important that we can break up repetitive movements with other treatments like surface cleaning, pH testing or documentation. We use an alkali solution to raise the pH of the paper to neutral, attach new archival quality boards and clean them. All paintings will go back into their original frames which have been cleaned and restored.

The Marianne North Conservation team give free informal talks on the project, Marianne North and their hidden finds once a month in the Marianne North Gallery. You can find out more about these events on Kew's what's on pages.

- Helen -


Further Information

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