Freshening Frescoes: Restoring Two Of Britain’s Largest Paintings

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.

RoyalGallery

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.

Study

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:

NelsonWestminster

NelsonLiverpool

Similarly, in Maclise’s painting of Waterloo, which you can see below at full width, everything appears to be rather murky, faded, and dirty.

WaterlooWestminster

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:

ParliamentWaterloo

DetailWaterlooClean

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.

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Thought-Pourri: Lost And Found Edition

Thanks to travel, Thanksgiving, and a trip to the dentist, I’ve not had the chance to post recently, so let’s get back into the swing of things with the weekly roundup of some news from the art and design world.

Lost: Marketing Michelangelo

In what seems something of an unusual decision, an Italian civil court has ruled that a tour guide operator must immediately cease and desist using images of Michelangelo’s “David” to advertise its tours of the Accademia in Florence, where the monumental statue is housed. While the motive for the lawsuit, which was brought by the museum, appears to have centered around the inflated pricing of the tour company (entrance to the museum normally costs around $9.50 while the company charges over $53), it has implications for other Italian cultural institutions as well. “The director of the Uffizi gallery,” The Guardian notes, “which brims with renaissance masterpieces, said it was preparing similar claims.” Will this mean a corresponding decline in the use of unlicensed images of the David and other works of Italian art for things such as fridge magnets?

David

Lost: Departing Dalí (?)

Catalan Surrealist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) is primarily known for his bizarre paintings, but he made a number of bizarre objects, as well, including a telephone shaped like a lobster, and a sofa shaped like the lips of American actress and entertainer Mae West (1893-1980). The sofa was originally commissioned by British art collector Edward James (1907-1984) for his country house, which was filled with Surrealist art and furnishings. The first of the two owned by James went under the hammer at Christie’s London on December 15th, 2016; Christie’s sold the second in February of this year. The British government has just stepped in and placed a temporary export ban on the second couch, to allow time for funds to be raised in order for the piece to remain in the UK. As there are several of these by Dalí in existence, and this particular one was slightly altered by James to fit in his house, I’m not sure that it will attract a great deal of public support, but stay tuned.

MaeWest

Found: Missing Magritte

Speaking of Surrealism, regular readers will recall that, about a year ago, I reported that art restorers had discovered a missing piece of a painting called “The Enchanted Pose” (1927), by the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte (1898-1967). The large canvas had vanished in the early 1930’s, when the artist asked the gallery that had been displaying it to return the picture to him. Over the past decade or so, researchers were surprised to discover that at some point Magritte chopped up the painting, and used the resulting, smaller-sized canvases for subsequent works, all painted in about 1935-36: “The Portrait”, now in the MoMA collection, “The Red Model” in Stockholm’s Modern Art Museum, and “The Human Condition”, at the Norwich Castle Museum. Now, Art Daily reports that the final piece of the puzzle was just discovered in the Magritte Museum in Brussels, beneath a painting titled “God Is Not A Saint”.

EnchantedPose

Found: Murillo Masterpiece

A last-minute addition to The Frick exhibition on the portraiture of Spanish Old Master painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), which I mentioned a few weeks ago, is a rediscovered portrait by the great Spanish Baroque artist. Previously dismissed as a copy of a lost work, the portrait of writer and aristocrat Don Diego Ortiz de Zúñiga was examined up close by Spanish art expert Benito Navarrete Prieto, from Murillo’s hometown of Seville, and determined to be the real thing – and not before time, either. Navarrete Prieto made the discovery just three days before The Frick exhibition opened, and the museum was able to accommodate the loan from Penrhyn Castle in Wales, where the painting has been hanging for over a century. Previously for the show. I suspect the exhibition catalogue is going to have to be rewritten, as this is a major find when it comes to Murillo’s body of work, given the rarity of the artist’s portraits, and the exceptional quality of this piece.

Murillo

Lucy Worsley: An Appreciation

Most people spend their lunch hours…well, eating lunch, I suppose. I don’t normally have time to take an hour, as it happens, and while I do manage to eat at some point, I tend to spend my midday repast watching documentaries online. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been delighted by several television programs hosted by British historian Lucy Worsley. Dr. Worsley is Joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the charitable institution that runs and maintains several famous royal residences in Britain, including Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London.

A television documentary charting the origins of the palace of Versailles, or the rise and fall of the Romanov dynasty, might seem the sort of thing that only a real history nerd could love, and I make no apologies for being just that sort of nerd. Yet Dr. Worsley is not the sort of dry, boring history professor that one might expect to tackle such subjects. She’s smart, sassy, and just a tiny bit saucy, so that you never quite know what she is going to do next.

Take “If Walls Could Talk”, a four-part series about the domestic history of the English home. Each episode tackles a different room of the house: living room, bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen. Dr. Worsley traces the development of each room from the Middle Ages up to the present day, and during the course of her journey she not only educates the viewer, she manages to make him laugh as well.

In “The Bedroom” for example, I learnt the origin of a number of common phrases in English whose origins I never stopped to question before, such as “hitting the hay” or “sleep tight”. We get to see what went into the construction of a bed from the Tudor period, as well as some of the bizarre nighttime rituals which our forbearers engaged in to try to keep both critters and evil spirits away, when they turned in for the night. In order to prevent what otherwise could have turned into a rather dry presentation of facts from becoming dull however, Dr. Worsely plays dress-up, and goes about doing some rather unusual things.

In “The Bathroom”, in order to demonstrate the bizarre 18th century medical advice which recommended sea water as a cure-all, she dons a Georgian bathing costume, downs an atrocious-looking drink made of milk and sea water – “This tastes exactly like vomit,” she remarks, in her wonderfully unique accent, after spitting out the noxious concoction – and then plunges into a very cold and rough-looking sea. Later in the same episode, in order to demonstrate how far bathroom development had come by the Art Deco period, she checks into a suite at Claridge’s Hotel in London, gets a period makeover (including having her hair set in a Marcel wave), and shows how a glamorous film star of the 1930’s would have relaxed in a state-of-the-art luxury hotel bathroom, complete with cocktail and bubble bath.

Lest one think that this is merely history as popular entertainment, Dr. Worsley manages to bring some real historical analysis into these programs, by examining not only the motivations of the people involved, but also by looking more closely at some of the documents or objects associated with them. In her survey of the Hanoverian monarchs for example, she draws our attention to the almost hereditary problem of father-son strife that occurred during the reigns of the first four Kings George, where each father as he ascended the throne managed to alienate his son and heir into setting up his own, rival court. This allowed rival factions in Parliament to politically manipulate king and crown prince into casting their support in one direction or another, with respect to the development of policy.

In tracing the time that the Mozart and his family spent in London when the great composer was just a child prodigy, Dr. Worsley reads to us from letters which Mozart’s father Leopold wrote back to Austria, giving a foreigner’s perspective on the moreys of English society at the time. She also shows us how propaganda, published in the Georgian equivalent of the tabloid press, was used both by Mozart’s detractors, as well as by the Mozart family itself, to affect the boy genius’ career. And because she herself is a competent pianist, Dr. Worsley gets to sit down at the keyboard with musicians and musicologists, in order to look at some of the complex compositions coming from the mind of this wunderkind.

Many of Dr. Worsely’s documentaries are available to stream on YouTube, but her work can also be found through PBS and other sources. I encourage you to take the time to seek her out. You’ll not only learn a great deal, while appreciating her rather impish sense of humor, but you’ll have a great time while doing so.