The guide | Live conservation - Museums Association

The guide | Live conservation

Miranda Brain and Myles Mears on a revealing project to conserve a historic painting in full public view
Conservation
Miranda Brain and Myles Mears
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Conservation in Action was a project that ran at the Queen’s House in London

Conservation is usually a profession that hides behind the scenes, but for six weeks between October and December 2021, the work of the painting conservation department at the National Maritime Museum in London came out into the open at the Queen’s House.

The Conservation in Action project was undertaken by two paintings conservators, myself (Miranda Brain) and Sarah Maisey, and involved the retouching of historic damage on Willem Van de Velde The Younger’s masterpiece, A Royal Visit to the Fleet on the Thames Estuary.

The work was created in 1674, while the father-son duo were working in London in a studio in the Queen’s House given to them, along with a salary, by King Charles II. We believe the original was painted in the same room we undertook the conservation in.

Maximising the potential

The retouching of this painting in the Van de Velde studio was carried out in front of the public, giving us a great opportunity to engage visitors with how we look after and conserve artworks in our collection. The small size of the room enabled visitors to get up close and personal with the painting, allowing them to see the precision and delicacy of our treatments.

A low barrier with examples of the materials we were using during the retouching process was used to separate the public from the work being undertaken. This helped to explain to the public how these materials differ from those used in the original construction of the painting.

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With more than 200 people visiting the project each day, the help of paintings conservation volunteers and students was invaluable. They helped answer questions about the art historical importance of the work and discuss its relevance to the collection and the location in which we were working. They were also able to address some of the more specific conservation questions, allowing us as conservators to steadily treat the painting. 

Widening the conversation

Interacting with visitors gave us a brilliant opportunity to discuss collections care and the work that goes into preserving the museum’s collections. Through the Conservation in Action project, we were able to demonstrate the importance of artistic intent and preserving the age and integrity of the painting.

Curator Imogen Tedbury in front of the painting © National Maritime Museum

It also helped to highlight the reversibility of our treatments and the principles behind conservation and our decision making. Additionally, the project gave staff and volunteers a greater insight into the work of the conservation team, which is now able to be disseminated more widely to members of the public. 

Retouching this artwork in what we believe to have been the Van de Velde studio was particularly special, as we were able to reunite the painting with its likely place of origin. The last artist to have put a paintbrush to this painting was Willem Van de Velde the Younger himself.

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To work on the painting in this location, therefore, was incredibly humbling and special. This event allowed us to highlight the importance of the Van de Veldes and their studio, to not only to maritime art, but also to the Royal Museums Greenwich collection, and to the Queen’s House itself.

Overcoming challenges

The project provided a series of challenges for the conservation team and the collections services department as a whole.

The idea of bringing the painting from the controlled space of the conservation studio into the gallery took careful planning and consultation by specialists across the museum. But doing this achieved the goal of providing a more intimate experience for the public and bridging the gap between the artwork on display and the highly skilled work that goes into conserving it.

Only a fraction of Royal Museums Greenwich’s vast collection can be displayed at any one time, so this was a great way to give people an insight in what goes on behind the scenes. It was also an opportunity to promote our Prince Philip Maritime Collection Centre, which provides behind-the-scenes tours and an extensive public engagement programme that is supported through our learning team.

At a time when international visitors are a fraction of pre-Covid numbers it is paramount that we invest in our local and national visitors more than ever. The Conservation in Action event provided an experience with the collection that we hope will have inspired new ideas of what a museum can offer and provide a more inclusive experience into the world of conservation.

Several months before, a local youth group came to the collections centre for a series of conservation workshops, which resulted in a series of short films presented in the gallery space.

To see the conservation of a historic painting offer so much was extremely rewarding and exciting. To be able to reveal new stories and make them accessible to the public was wonderful.

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