The Parliamentary Art Collection includes over 10,000 works of art across a huge range of media, from huge wall paintings to small pencil sketches – Medieval statues to contemporary textiles. They require a lot of care, ranging from day-to-day preventive work, to active conservation treatments. Collections Conservation Manager Caroline Babington and her team make sure that the objects are kept in the best condition possible, for future generations to continue to enjoy. But as a working collection in a very busy building, it’s not always straight forward.
Q: How did you become Collections Conservation Manager at the Palace of Westminster and what does your role involve?
Caroline Babington: I originally trained on a specialist 3 year post-graduate conservation course at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and spent 10 years at English Heritage as wall painting conservator and then Head of Wall Painting Conservation. I became accredited in 2000 and was freelance before joining Parliament in 2006. Initially I assisted with general curatorial work, but by 2010 it was clear that a formal collections care role was needed. The job has grown ever since, and I now job share with Alison Foster.
CB: We manage the ‘health’ of the Parliamentary Art Collection, through a conservation and care programme aimed at minimising damage and keeping the art collection in a good condition. Alison and I are assisted by Jana Kostalikova, our Collections Conservator, and we work with freelance specialist conservators and other Heritage institutions. We also work with university and college conservation students through work placements.
Q: The Palace of Westminster is very large and is filled with artworks. How do you decide what is conserved when?
CB: Through regular inspections and an organised process of surveys – essentially very big, detailed lists. We give each artwork a ‘condition score’, so we can see what care it needs to keep it in the best possible state. But unexpected things can happen that bump artworks up the list. There might be an accident, such as a water leak, that means priorities change.
Q: Many works of art are in Parliament’s main spaces, such as the House of Lords Chamber and Central Lobby. How do you care for art in such busy environments?
CB: It’s a real challenge! With the very big – often monumental – works like wall paintings, that can’t be moved or taken out for conservation, it’s all about planning our programme around the parliamentary timetable. This often means working when the House isn’t sitting. It takes a lot of organisation and negotiation.
The more a space is used, the more ambient dust and pollutants are whirling around, so things do get grubby in these spaces. Accidental knocks and scuffs are more likely. We run monitoring programmes, so we know which are the dustiest spaces and organise our cleaning around that.
We make regular checks on our artworks to keep an eye on their condition and environment. Incorrect temperature and humidity are two of the most difficult things to deal with. The Palace is an historic building, but also a working one – it’s not a museum – so there are limits on what we can change and control.
The demands on the building have changed hugely over the years, with many more visitors and pressure on it. It’s pretty rare to have an historic building in its original working use, with the collection that was designed for it. Caring for our collections is always balanced with the purpose of the building – the business of the House comes first.
For wall paintings, every five years we make a thorough inspection called a ‘quinquennial’. It’s a formal survey where we look at our entire collection, which is more than 50 monumental paintings. The whole collection is managed by regular specialist survey, some such as textiles require more frequent checking. We carry out detailed inspections and carefully document what’s going on with each work of art.
Q: The cleaning you do isn’t like the dusting we do at home. Can you tell us about this?
CB: The Lords and Commons have their own excellent cleaning teams that work on the furniture and fabric in those spaces. But artworks are cleaned by our own specialist team.
There’s a formal, weekly programme for cleaning sculpture to keep it in tip top condition. Then there are specialist collections. For example, Portcullis House is home to 40 very large, modern textiles which have their own cleaning preventive programme. So we look after different media in different ways.
In conservation, the day-to-day preventive work matters more than anything. Things like making sure the heating is right, keeping artworks clean, and how we manage people using those spaces.
Q: The oldest objects in our collection are the medieval King statues in Westminster Hall. Do they get special treatment because they’re so old?
CB: Absolutely. They are regularly surveyed by specialists, who know them well. And we keep on top of the preventive and maintenance work so that they’re well presented and secure.
They were carved in the late 14th century and were originally painted. If you think back 600 years you’d have seen the most stunning statues with gilded crowns, and orange and green robes. Sadly, the paint is almost all gone, but we still have their shape and regal expressions. They’re still very impressive.
Q: What’s the biggest conservation project that you’ve worked on at the Palace?
CB: That has to be the conservation of two huge wall paintings by Daniel Maclise in the Royal Gallery. They depict the Battle of Waterloo and Nelson at Trafalgar, were completed in the mid-1860s, and each one is 50 square metres.
They are in waterglass, which is a special technique of painting on plaster, and are set into the walls along either side of the Royal Gallery. It’s an unusual technique so there was little experience anywhere in the world of conserving this kind of painting. We started a dialogue with Cologne University of Applied Sciences in Germany, as the technique had been developed in Germany. We also commissioned three Masters research theses to learn more about the paintings – how they were made and the potential for treating them. Eventually we were confident that we could begin conservation work.
CB: In conservation there are so many things that you might be dealing with, from vibration monitoring to managing dust, to dealing with blanching on a surface. Sharing knowledge with other institutions and experts is vital.
Q: What is the most complicated piece that you’ve been involved in conserving?
CB: During a quinquennial we discovered wall paintings in the East Corridor had suffered a mould attack. Latimer by Ernest Board and Henry VIII by Frank Salisbury were behind thick glass, over two metres square, and mould had started growing under it.
They were tricky because their records were deceptive. We were under the impression that both paintings were oil on canvas, stuck on board on a timber support, then set into the walls. Henry VIII was, but Latimer was fixed to the wall itself, so couldn’t be taken out.
And they’re in a narrow, busy corridor that connects directly to Central Lobby. The only day we could work there that suited the Parliamentary calendar was Remembrance Sunday 2017!
Q: Do you have a favourite work of art in the collection?
CB: There’s a really small sketch that I’m deeply fond of, by the artist Charles West Cope. It’s only four or five inches, and you’ll find it in West Front Corridor. It’s a drawing of fellow artist Daniel Maclise in Strangers’ Gallery, painting his fresco. The caption is ‘Maclise under difficulties’ and you just know that the artists back in the 1840s were struggling to paint their frescoes. It’s intriguing.
He’s got a gas lamp, and goodness knows what the scaffolding was that he was sitting on. At the time, Parliament was a building site [after the 1834 fire]. This drawing helps you to walk back in time to when artists were actually creating the paintings that you see today.
I also love Diane Ibbotson’s contemporary painting Flux, of Falmouth Harbour at sunrise.
Q: Are there any hidden gems in the collection?
CB: The sketches for Edward John Poynter’s mosaics in Central Lobby are amazing. The face of Harmony has recently been cleaned. It had a kind of deterioration called blanching where it’s whitened and the whole paint surface is very dirty.
The conservators found a clever way to reverse this and restore the original painting. It’s absolutely stunning, just beautiful. These sketches were on loan to the V&A for over 100 years, and in storage for much of that time, with nobody looking at them, so it’s really exciting.
Q: You also worked on the John Rogers Herbert wall paintings that were discovered in the late 1980s in Poets Hall/Upper Waiting Hall. Can you tell us about these?
CB: I was a student on work experience and got to come and work on Herbert’s King Lear and Armitage’s River Thames in 1987. They were frescoes painted in the 1840s but within a decade they were smoke-blackened and dirty. There were howls in the press about how they were a waste of public money, but that is really unfair on the artists who’d done a great job. They were true frescoes but Parliament was still a building site, and had a big open fire. There was a leaking roof – you can still see where the water ran down the walls. These paintings just didn’t have a chance. They became an embarrassment and in the 1890s were covered up and forgotten about.
CB: Almost 100 years passed before they were uncovered. Even with the techniques we had back in the 1980s, we got amazing results, so the cleaning was very exciting. That was my first taste of Parliament and I guess it was a bit addictive.
Q: What is the role of framing in conservation?
CB: It’s really important. Frames can be beautiful and can even be artworks in their own right. It’s vital that they complement the painting – they make one another sing. We have a portrait of Pugin by Herbert in a wonderful original frame. It’s really beautiful, gilded with the classic, in-style ornament around it. On the other side of the room from that we’ve got Pickersgill’s portrait of the architect Barry and there’s a fantastic frame on that too. They’re a wonderful pair.
CB: Frames also protect paintings. They keep the canvas true and correctly aligned, and some have protective backings, to protect from water and humidity. Glass protects against UV, pollution and also mechanical damage – you can’t touch a painting that has glass in front of it.
CB: A challenge for the conservation team is that offices can be hot, which tends to dry out our frames. It’s another thing to be aware of and manage.
Q: If you could take something from the art collection home, what would that be?
CB: That’s difficult because I can’t take a wall painting! So I would have to take the Cope drawing of Maclise.
The other drawing that always intrigues me is another little 19th century sketch. It shows a ventilator shaft, with women looking down into the House of Commons as they were not allowed into the Chamber itself. It was drawn not long before the fire of 1834. That absolutely blows my mind.