Work has begun to restore two of the most prominent – and by far the largest – works in the British Houses of Parliament, and if all goes well, they may go some way to rehabilitating the reputation of the artist who painted them.
The frescoes, by Irish artist Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) depict the death of Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, and the meeting of the Duke of Wellington and Prince Gebhard von Blücher on the field of Waterloo. Maclise won a national competition to execute the paintings in the Royal Gallery of the newly-constructed House of Lords, a large ceremonial space typically used for the grandest of official ceremonies or dinners. His work was particularly encouraged by Prince Albert, in his role as head of the Fine Arts Committee overseeing the decoration of the new Palace of Westminster.
Unfortunately, the paintings began to darken and fade soon after they were painted. At the time, blame was accorded to Maclise and his methodology, which involved what is known as the “water-glass technique”, which Prince Albert sent him to Germany to study. This painting technique starts out in the traditional fresco method, with pigment painted on patches of fresh, wet plaster applied to the wall surface. After this, a coating consisting of water mixed with a silica is applied on top of the pigment while the surface is still wet. The concept here is that, once the entire surface dries, the paint and plaster will be covered with a microscopically thin, protective layer of glassy film. It never really worked very well, which is probably why you’ve never heard of it.
It seems however that the fault lies not in Maclise’s stars, as it were, but in ourselves. As The Guardian reports:
The conservation work, which has involved research by academics in Germany on the fresco technique, has absolved both men of blame. Despite damage from leaking windows, settlement cracks probably dating from the 19th century, and the near destruction of the gallery in the second world war when masonry from a bombed tower crashed through the roof, the frescoed plaster is still sound.
“None of it was poor Maclise’s fault,” said Caroline Babington, collections care manager. “The place was still a building site and the whole city was burning coal. It wasn’t the paint turning black, it was just filthy London air.”
We forget now, when London is no longer plagued by dense clouds of fog and soot, how filthy the city became thanks to the Industrial Revolution and the widespread use of coal in homes, businesses, and transportion. I can recall living in London at the turn of the preceding century, and watching a Victorian grand hotel near my home slowly being cleaned of over a century of grime that had accumulated on its façade. In the space of a few months, it went from being a structure that appeared to have been painted entirely black, back to its original pale pink granite and gleaming white marble.
You can get a sense of how bright Maclise’s frescoes originally were by checking out his completed study for “The Death of Nelson”, which is now at The Walker in Liverpool. The contrast between the blues, reds, and whites should immediately remind you of the Union Jack, naturally enough. The composition appears to be linear, with all of the figures spread out from left to right, but notice how the artist has placed the dying Nelson and his surrounding companions at the top of a semi-circle on the deck of his ship, pushed back so that the action actually arches away from us toward the center.
At closer range, the comparison between the finished study of the center of the painting in Liverpool, and that of the finished work in its current state of preservation in the House of Lords, is readily apparent:
Similarly, in Maclise’s painting of Waterloo, which you can see below at full width, everything appears to be rather murky, faded, and dirty.
However in this study of the central portion of the composition, in which Maclise shows the Prussian and British leaders shaking hands, we get a sense of how vivid the colors of the completed work once were, in comparison of the current state of preservation of the fresco versus that of a far more vibrant study:
I can’t say that, for my part, I’m a big fan of this sort of historical painting, even though for much of the 18th through early 20th century, these sorts of works were considered the epitome art. Thanks to the rigors of the academic method of art instruction, history paintings were definitely considered to be at the top of the pecking order among the members of the art establishment during this time, and artists competed fiercely to gain these commissions. Today however, a painstakingly executed history painting, albeit not one quite so large as one of these, would fetch a fraction of what a hastily-executed sketch by an Impressionist would achieve in a gallery or auction.
Perhaps because these works of art are often so vast, and crowded with so much action, it’s difficult to see them as something more than giant comic books. Or perhaps because the celebrate the achievements of man, rather than the grace of God, they are often utterly banal. For every great history painting that we might name, there are 100 more which we don’t even know about or remember, languishing away in museum basements or down dark corridors of public buildings.
Yet in this case, I think that the effort to clean up these particular works, which will inevitably result in a wider reexamination of Maclise and his art as a whole, will prove to be a good thing. These frescoes were considered enormously significant at the time of their execution, and crowds of people flocked to see Maclise’s designs, sketches, and finished products. Gaining a better understanding of the man and his work would simultaneously help to raise interest in and knowledge of a genre of painting which, while now largely out of favor, still represents an important and influential chapter in the history of Western art.