Spring 2023 saw a major landmark in efforts to conserve and protect six historic wall paintings in Parliament. Specialists and conservators collaborated to transform two paintings in a scheme in the Palace of Westminster’s East Corridor, including the arrival of brand-new glazing. Find out here how the team complete complex conservation projects in the Palace of Westminster, a UNESCO world heritage site.
In 1908, Parliament commissioned six paintings depicting scenes from Tudor history for the East Corridor. This location branches out from Central Lobby, the beating heart of the Palace of Westminster. It is therefore one of the busiest spaces in Parliament.
The Heritage Collections team conduct a survey of the Palace’s wall paintings every five years (described in our post about conserving works of art). In 2017, we found that two of the paintings in the East Corridor scheme required treatment to the paintings surfaces.
One of the paintings, Ernest Board’s ‘Latimer Preaching Before Edward IV, 1548’ (WOA 2591), could be treated in its fixed position in the Palace. The other, Frank O. Salisbury’s ‘Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon before Papal Legates at the Blackfriars, 1529’ (WOA 2590) could be removed and was sent out to specialist conservators. It had been out of the Palace for five years before its return in March 2023.
As well as the reinstallation of Salisbury’s work, this year also saw new glazing for both paintings. This essential new glazing transforms our views of these extraordinary works and preserves them for the future.
Background to the Paintings
The Victorian designs for the Palace had included a plan for the decoration of this corridor. Yet it was not until the early twentieth century that Lewis Harcourt MP, the first Commissioner of Works, successfully coordinated a scheme of artworks. Private donors covered the costs and helped select the specific historical moments to be painted, in consultation with Harcourt. Each scene selected is from the Tudor period—a recurring theme across Parliament’s decorative arts.
The well-known painter, Edwin Abbey, coordinated the scheme and commissioned six major contemporary artists: Ernest Board, Frank Cadogan Cowper, Denis William Eden, Henry Arthur Payne, Frank O. Salisbury, and John Byam Liston Shaw. Each created a painting that is about 2 metres square and, and each fills a ‘compartment’ of the corridor’s architecture.
The artists’ work was deeply influenced by Arts and Crafts and Pre-Raphaelite styles. In 1902, a German writer approvingly described the artists who worked on Parliament’s East Corridor murals as ‘neo-Pre-Raphaelite.’ The murals, completed in 1910, therefore have a unique visual style but align in genre with the historical narratives of all the Palace’s wall paintings.
Parliament’s Heritage Collections team undertake a thorough inspection of all wall paintings every five years (known as the ‘Quinquennial’). In 2017, conservators discovered that mould threatened Salisbury’s ‘Henry VIII’and Board’s ‘Latimer’.
In preparation for East Corridor conservation, our conservators conducted detailed research into archival documents and historic conservation records to discover how exactly the paintings were made and installed. The paintings are all thought to be in oil on canvas and were all originally adhered to bespoke plaster supports in the six corridor compartments. There is limited evidence about the exact techniques and materials but there does survive a paper trail of correspondence and the team commissioned selected paint analysis. Collections Conservation Manager Caroline Babington explained:
It was a process of detective work figuring how these paintings were made and installed. There was a lot we didn’t know because of the access issues; the glass could not just be lifted off. We only discovered the full truth during the emergency programme. Unlike the wall paintings elsewhere in the Palace these were painted off-site in the artists’ studios, on temporary stretchers to be affixed to the plaster supports in the corridor compartments on their delivery. Unusually, the Office of Works supplied the canvases to the artists, but unfortunately all six artists involved in this project felt the canvases delivered to them were hopelessly set up, and all wrote to complain to Edwin Abbey. The artist Cowper even included a sketch to show how bad it was!
When they were first installed, each canvas was glued directly into a compartment. They were applied to a carefully prepared plaster support set against the brick walls of the corridor using a technique known as ‘marouflage’. Typically, this meant a glue paste applied to the plaster support and the canvas with a spatula, and then the two stuck together. Unfortunately, by the 1950s Henry VIII was found to be seriously damaged and so was detached for treatment and fixed onto timber support that could be reinserted in the compartment. The records found are brief and seemed to imply that this treatment was carried out for all the Corridor paintings, and therefore that they could all be removed. This is likely to have been the time when all the Corridor paintings were re-glazed.
However, while Salisbury’s painting could indeed be removed as the records stated, Board’s was found still to be fixed directly to the plaster. Accordingly, while one could be taken for off-site conservation, the latter had to be treated in situ.
Conservation Programme and Reinstallation
The conservation project faced several challenges. The paintings are large (over 2 meters square) and they are in a busy and high-profile space. Removing the fixed glazing was technically demanding, and the mould that was on the painting surfaces was a health hazard. There was also concern over the fragile condition and active deterioration of the artworks themselves.
Our Conservation lead worked closely with a specialist microbiologist and the painting conservators with the support of the Parliamentary Safety team to find ways to treat the mould. With the plan in place, we constructed a built platform and sealed enclosure with air scrubber units in East Corridor. We carefully removed the glass and frames from ‘Henry VIII’ and ‘Latimer’, then took the painting of Henry VIII on its bespoke wooden panel support out from its compartment.
It was at this point that we learnt that ‘Latimer’ was still fixed to the original plaster support. So, the solution was temporarily to board this painting over until conservation could be undertaken where it sat.
To reduce any risk to those working in Parliament the work was carried out on a Sunday with only a dedicated team of around 16 people in attendance, including art handlers, mould expert, collections teams, conservation architect, and conservators, all in full Protective Personal Equipment (PPE).
Salisbury’s painting of ‘Henry VIII’ was taken to an external specialist paintings conservation studio for treatment. It has now been returned to its original compartment in East Corridor. Conservators carefully fixed fragile and flaking paint and checked for structural issues with the panel and the canvas.
For the cleaning they used an array of techniques to remove mould and layers of dirt, this included using dry cleaning with ‘smoke sponges’ gently to remove accretions followed by tiny swabs wetted with deionised water to fully clean the paint surface. Some minor retouching of small paint losses and hairline cracks was needed to bring the painting back to its best presentation. The condition of the recently installed painting is now checked regularly as part of the annual wall paintings preventive care programme with a more detailed survey carried out every five years. The next quinquennial condition survey is due in 2028.
‘Latimer’ was treated in its position on the wall in East Corridor. Lead painting conservator, Alison Seed ACR, spoke to us during the conservation process about her and her team’s work:
We’ve […] been cleaning the painting with a very soft cosmetic sponge, which is then reducing any large traces of mould as well as any surface dirt. […] Unfortunately, the painting has also been flaking, so there’s been a history of tiny flakes of paint loss […] so while we’ve been carefully examining the surface and looking very closely, we’ve been consolidating any loose flakes of paint to make sure the painting is stable into the future.
Alison Seed ACR wrote in detail about her work on this project as part of a collection of research papers, Interactions of Water with Paintings (edited by Rhiannon Clarricoates, Helen Dowding, and Adèle Wright; Archetype, 2019).
Alongside the conservation of the artworks, the conservation team led on a pioneering new method for glazing them. The East Corridor paintings have been displayed behind glass since their installation in 1910. This original glass was likely replaced in the 1950s. The team removed the existing glazing, which fell short of current standards for safety, access, and aesthetics.
The Heritage Collections team commissioned bespoke glazing for the paintings, as well as re-using the original brass facing strips (that border the painting), preserving its intended original aesthetic. The fresh commission included a newly designed framing system to house it, which meets building regulations and provides optimum visibility and protection.
The new glazing protects these artworks against damage and dust. It also crucially allows safer access to the artworks behind for future conservation and remedial work if needed as it has been designed to allow safe removal and replacement.
Conservation Manager Lucy Odlin explained that
We used high quality glass with safety and visual properties suitable to the location, an extremely in-depth collaborative decision which drew on knowledge from the conservation architects, fire, and security teams as well as input from several other external specialists with backgrounds in environmental monitoring, painting conservation and display case fabrication to name a few. The new glass is UV filtering and has a low reflect surface that significantly reduces reflections from the surroundings, meaning these paintings can now really be appreciated without distracting reflections from the surrounding architecture.
Our conservation team and expert contractors have achieved an astonishing transformation of these two unique artworks. Visitors to Parliament and Members will undoubtedly notice the changes in the corridor, now that these striking works of art have had their lustre restored.
The scheme is a key part of the fabric of Parliament, linking the world of contemporary politics with the richness of British history through the creative arts. Work will continue to ensure the remaining paintings in the scheme enjoy the same high standard of care and visual impact.
You can find out more about the work of our conservators in a post about conserving our works of art.