How modern apparatus is helping to restore Kew's unique Victorian gallery
Microscopes, scalpels, a UV lamp and a fume cupboard are just some of the apparatus conservationists are using to restore Kew's Marianne North Gallery – Ambra Edwards finds out what this involves.
It’s very rare for conservators to deal with such a big collection by just one artist. We feel we’re really getting to know Marianne and we’re learning how she worked. She made sketches in pen and ink that she then filled in with oils squeezed straight from the tube.Eleanor Hasler, Conservationist at Kew
Having made my way through the labyrinth of dim corridors and stairways in Kew’s Herbarium, I emerge, blinking, into a room filled with angelic light.
‘Welcome to the Marianne North conservation studio,’ says Eleanor Hasler. It’s like stepping into another world. The blinds are drawn, but the room is bathed in a cool, even brightness, thanks to the banks of daylight bulbs that illuminate every surface.
The bitter, dusty smell of the Herbarium is left behind, replaced by something wholesome and floury. The walls are hung with bamboo sieves and elegant little brushes, and the shiny white surfaces almost remind me of a sushi bar, were it not for the laboratory apparatus of microscopes and scalpels, UV lamp and fume cupboard.
Eleanor designed the studio herself to provide optimum conditions for the two-year restoration project. It’s as you might imagine the scriptorium of a medieval monastery would have been.
There’s an air of concentrated contentment, with no sound apart from a painstaking scratching, as the team of skilled conservators labour away at their intricate tasks.
Restoring 833 paintings
At one bench, Helen Cowdy gently swabs soot from the surface of a painting with a tiny wad of cotton, while her colleague Emma Le Cornu scratches away stubborn adhesive with a set of dentist’s tools.
Technician Elanor King, meanwhile, is stirring a saucepan on a hot plate – cooking up a bubbly white jelly of Japanese wheat-starch glue. You might think that the sheer scale of their project, with no fewer than 833 paintings to be conserved, might induce a certain panic.
But the team seems more elated than alarmed. 'Sometimes we find bits of leaf or twig stuck in the paint, so she was clearly working in the field.
'Other paintings were completed later – often she made notes to remind herself which colours to use. And all kinds of other, very personal, inscriptions have come to light too.
Building the gallery
It was in 1879 that Marianne offered her paintings to Kew, and engaged James Fergusson to build a gallery in which to display them. In many ways he succeeded admirably – the diffused, natural light from the clerestory windows has kept her bold colours in good condition, with little fading.
However, the walls were built only one brick thick, and the roof had begun to leak, so the paintings have been exposed to penetrating damp.
Sooty air and fluctuating temperatures have also taken their toll, while the boards she used to back her paintings have degraded, and the pine frames have leached volatile acids, threatening to destroy the paintings they enclose.
Removing each painting from its frame
The first step in the restoration project was for Eleanor to remove each painting from its frame, examine it quite literally in microscopic detail, so she could then draw up a conservation plan for each one.
‘Luckily for us, Marianne North used very good quality paper, prepared with a ground that has prevented the oil paint from leaching. So the main task is to remove the backing board from every painting and remount it with materials that won’t become acidic, and in such a way that it doesn’t touch the frame,’ explains Eleanor.
The paintings that need least attention are being tackled first, so that as many as possible can be back on the walls when the renovated gallery reopens later this year.
The remainder will be represented by facsimiles, so that the overall effect isn’t compromised.
‘Everyone always talks about their first impression of the gallery, blasted by this mass of colour – we don’t want to take away from that amazing experience.’
Year two is when the tricky business starts – trickier, that is, than teasing off stuck-on paper in 5 mm squares, or slicing horizontally through a board to preserve an inscription on the back.
Marianne sometimes extended her painting beyond the paper and on to the board, in which case the thinnest sliver must be pared from the surface of the board to preserve the image.
Occasionally she added additional strips of paper, painting heavily to disguise the joins. To re-back these paintings, Eleanor pastes a sheet of Japanese paper over the front surface to keep the pieces in register. ‘It’s always rather scary doing that, but it’s the only way to hold it together while we work on the back,’ she explains. When the backing is finished, the paper has to be carefully peeled off.
Restoring damaged paint
Then there is damaged paint to be repaired, gathered in microscopic flakes from the corners of the frames and glued back into place with gelatine.
Alternatively, (again working under a microscope) it is softened and spread with a heated spatula – ‘it’s just like ironing, but on a miniature scale,’ remarks Eleanor.
‘Sometimes we feel like the builders of cathedrals – we know our work won’t be visible, so the satisfaction has to be in the job itself.’
In some cases, bits of paint have been lost altogether and the issue of in-painting rears its head.
Marriage of art and science
Should they attempt an ‘invisible’ repair, repainting in Marianne North style? Or is it more ethical simply to infill the colour, to disguise the glaring white hole from a distance? Are you, in short, conserving the appearance or the history of the object?
‘Conservation is a great halfway house between art and science – you really have to use both sides of your brain. There are ethical and historical issues to be addressed,’ explains Eleanor.
‘You need the creative skills and technical hand skills, but at the same time you need to be thinking about why things are deteriorating and exactly what will happen if you use a particular treatment – so you’re thinking in terms of physics and chemistry too.’
Funding the restoration
There’s also the delicate business of financing the enterprise. While the Kew team has been successful in securing Heritage Lottery funding to the tune of £1.8 million, Kew still has to raise the equivalent amount, hence the launch of the Adopt a Painting Scheme.
Already, about 160 paintings have been adopted, but there are still more than 670 currently available.
‘It’s so interesting to learn why people have chosen particular paintings,’ observes Eleanor. ‘Often they’re commemorating a place that has been special in their lives, somewhere they’ve shared with a loved one.’
Other people have just known and loved the gallery since childhood, continues Eleanor. ‘Marianne North was such a remarkable woman. It’s gratifying to discover that she is still so well loved,’ she adds.
Author: Ambra Edwards