Painting by numbers

Eleanor Mills, 29.07.2015
An innovative fundraising campaign
James Thornhill’s masterpiece in Greenwich is getting some much-needed attention, as a fundraising campaign is launched for its conservation to begin in 2016.

Raising significant funds for conservation projects is always a challenge – it is difficult to attract new interest in what are essentially old buildings and objects in need of care and attention.

Will Palin, the director of conservation for the Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) in Greenwich, has been faced with such a challenge in conserving James Thornhill’s magnificent painted hall, completed in 1727.

Palin, an 18th-century specialist, explained that Thornhill was “Britain’s greatest exponent of English Baroque painting, and deserves decidedly more recognition.”

“Thornhill’s painted hall is one of the great artistic and architectural creations in Britain, breathtaking in its scale, spectacle, drama and decoration," said Palin.

"Thornhill incorporated complex narratives extending through politics, maritime and mercantile developments, to religion and astronomy – it’s a celebration of Britain’s achievement in the arts, politics, and sciences, all which made Britain a world power.

"The more you look at this artwork the more you get from it – I want the visitor to be given the ability to unlock its vast entertainment value.”

The ORNC recently launched an innovative fundraising campaign to conserve Thornhill’s ceiling: a paint-by-numbers version. “It kept interest bubbling over and the finished canvas looks amazingly good – like an Impressionist version of the ceiling,” said Palin.

The initial fundraising target is £1m to enable conservation work on the ceiling to begin next summer. A more traditional fundraising campaign of dinners and events will take place too, but as an initial launch the painting by numbers scheme has raised significant awareness.

A large team of conservators will work on the ceiling using the funds raised by the ORNC, which the Heritage Lottery Fund has promised to match fund.

The work is urgently needed. Palin explained that the way people used to ensure the condition of a painting was maintained would be to add a layer of varnish. 

“It was a simple, effective and cheap way to conserve a work, but each time a layer was added, it sealed in another layer of dirt," he said.

"Mixed with the higher temperature at ceiling-height, and an influx of water vapour and dirt particles, the layers of varnish have locked in a kind of slurry that we need to get rid of. 

“The colour, vibrancy and clarity of the painting has been lost because they’ve been increasingly obscured by all these layers of varnish.”

The last time the ceiling was cleaned was in the late 1950s, when conservators removed as many as 15 layers of varnish, and then added one of their own.

“The 1950s layer of varnish has microscopic cracks which have added an overall white sheen effect to the entire painting,” said Palin.

Due for completion in 2018, Palin aims to make Thornhill’s masterpiece “even more beautiful”, for the public to enjoy in its full glory.

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