Tuesday 10 February 2015

Resin, rays and restoration


The Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich must be one of Britain's grandest dining rooms - and is certainly one of its greatest Baroque masterpieces. Once completed, it was deemed too good for the retired sailors it had been intended for; instead, it has been used for formal events such as the lying in state of Admiral Lord Nelson's body. Every year, the toast to his immortal memory is still drunk here.

I explored the hall during conservation of the West wall, and was able to get up close to the work. Now it's the turn of the Lower Hall - the main area, currently looking a little faded by comparison - and a condition survey has just been completed. It involved use of a scaffold in the hall, and a cherrypicker crane to examine the heights of the vestibule's cupola. 

One happy finding is that the structure of the ceiling is sound. Wren's favourite plasterer, Henry Doogood, did such a fine job that the plaster is still in immaculate condition today. There are just some minor cracks from movement of the timber joists.

Unfortunately, there are more problems in the hall than were found in the west wall area - and the main villain is the light which pours through the large windows. They add much to the ambience of the room, and offer wonderful views of Wren's buildings, but also expose the painting to damaging levels of sunlight. When the work is completed, a key challenge for the conservators will be minimising future damage without plunging the hall into gloom. They are already considering possible solutions such as mesh blinds with UV filters.

Light isn't the only culprit, however. Since Sir James Thornhill completed the paintings in 1727, there have been a number of restorations, some better than others. The last major restoration, by the Ministry of Works in the 1950s, removed about 15 layers of darkened varnishes! In particular, at least one restoration used a pine resin varnish which is proving incredibly difficult to remove. Although more durable than solvent-based varnishes, it has now fractured, resulting in 'blanching' where the damaged surface appears whitened. The 1950s restoration, co-ordinated by the magnificently-named Westby Percival-Prescott, used a dizzying selection of powerful chemicals but couldn't get rid of all of the varnish, and it was left intact in darker areas in particular.

A further problem is the environment. Not only does this large space have uneven temperatures and humidity, but the main doors let in regular gusts of outside air. Along with the restoration, there will be changes to public access so that visitors enter through the lower King William Undercroft. Combined with a new heating system, this should provide a more comfortable and controlled environment for the paintings. 

One of the joys of the first stage of the project was that thousands of members of the public could tour the work and get really close to the west wall paintings. That initiative will be repeated in the Lower Hall while work takes place from 2016.

The project has funding from various grants, but needs to raise more money. While Thornhill was paid £3 per square yard for the ceiling (and just £1 per square yard for the walls), conservation is likely to cost £675 for the same area. Even allowing for inflation, that's more than double the cost! If you'd like to support the work, you can donate here or become an ORNC Angel


Björn H said...

Thank you for this informative article. I often recommend this place, the chapel opposite and Queen's House to tourists on their way to Greenwich Observatory

HughB said...

Why do people paint ceilings? You can't appreciate the beauty or skill without getting a crick in your neck...unless of course this was planned to be a dormitory rather than a dining room.

CarolineLD said...

Good recommendations, Bjorn; do you know the Fan Museum?

Hugh, maybe it's for the benefit of those who fall off their chairs drunk!

Ralph Hancock said...

Hugh B: Yes, but a proper painted ceiling represents something remarkable taking place in the sky and worth looking up to, as with this painting by Tiepolo.