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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.   

A painting of a court scene, with a white man in a flowing red robe sat in a stately chair at the back looking towards a man leaning with his right arm on a canopied red throne or chair, clearly looking like a familiar depiction of Henry VIII with a beard and elaborate gold, black, and red jacket and cape; a white woman in a lavish dress with white and black lace and cloth flowing headscarf kneeling at his feet.  Her dress is covered in floral patterns.  To the right, three ladies in waiting dressed with headdresses in white or black and gold, with black dresses with detailed coloured patterning and fur robes about their arms.  Above them in the top right of the painting another figure in all red with a red cap on and a beard looks down.  The background is covered with arms in red, blue, gold, and with other small details, like crosses.  The painting is in a rich vivid colours and a Renaissance style, showing figures largely in profile and flattened, but with large bright swirls and rounded forms.
Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon before Papal Legates at Blackfriars, 1529, Mural by Frank O. Salisbury © Design and Artists Copyright Society, Photo credit: Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 2590.

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.

A white preacher with a long white beard, wearing white and black loose shirt, leans out of a pulpit on the left of the composition with his left arm outstretched towards a group of people on a raised dais opposite, tallest of which is a young white boy on a throne. He is wearing a floppy hat in black and white and a gold and ermine coat, with white stockings and shoes.  About him are courtiers dressed in black with black floppy hats, and in the near side two waiting women, with lavish dresses with floral patterns in gold and blue, and a page boy in a black and white checked tabard tied at waist with puffy sleeves and with white hose and slipper shoes. In the foreground, a small white and brown dog with a gold collar sits, and in front of the dog, a guardsman holding a pikestaff and with a red and black tabard with a shield on the back and a black floppy hat. Along the front of the dais are a marbled red and blue column with a handrail extending to the distance.  Below in the far distance are a large crowd of people. Above them is the outlines of a gothic building with arched windows in three panels and with quatrefoils at the top of them. A small canopy extends from the middle top of the image, covering the dais. The painting is in a rich vivid colours and a Renaissance style, showing figures largely in profile and flattened, but with large bright swirls and rounded forms.
Latimer preaching before Edward VI at Paul’s Cross, 1548 Mural by Ernest Board ©UK Parliament WOA 2591

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.

Conservation Needs

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!

An arched compartment, bordered at the top by fan vaulting at the top of columns on its left and right and with a window in the top of the arch in five segments (the middle two filled with two heraldic decorations each).  Below is exposed wall, showing stone strips with the bits in between filled with brick and plaster. At the foot of the photo, a fixed sign in medieval style writing reads ‘Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’.
The compartment and wall behind Salisbury’s painting; photograph ©UK Parliament

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. 

Two people in white jump suits with hoods and gloves sit between a stone archway.  One is removing a white plastic cover form their shoe.  To their right, another man in a white suit bends over to pick something up as other figures beyond him look on. On the left of the photo, some white sheeting or covering sits over a structure, in front of which is a crate on a pallet lifter.  To the right in the foreground, stone arches with grooves and detailed footing rise to the ceiling, with some wooden arches on the far right, and leant against one of them is a wheeled lifting platform.
Taking a break from treating the painting; photograph ©UK Parliament

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.

A section of a wall painting showing a woman in Renaissance fine gold and black dress with figures around her is being treated by a figure in an all-body white protective suit with a mask and purple gloves.  Around the painting is a wooden structure with white plastic sheeting, and the person working on the painting, at its bottom right side, crouches on a wooden surface.
Hands-on treatment of the painting on site before removal for conservation; photograph ©UK Parliament

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.

Two people with brushes or swabs sit around a large canvas of nearly 2m by 2m by visual estimation.  One, a white woman with blonde hair tied back and wearing all black, is sat in the near corner to the photographer using her right hand to apply something to the bottom corner of the painting. She is sat on a green office chair.  The other is a white man wearing  a head torch, sat at the far side working on the right hand side of the painting.  The painting is propped up on a desk or table.  Around the left hand side are two large floodlights shining on the canvas. The walls are blue and the door behind the man at the far end has lab coats hung on it.  Various items and shelves are visible around the corners of the image.
Conservators at work on the painting in an off-site studio; photograph ©UK Parliament

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.

A moving GIF showing a white sleeve and purple glove dabbing the painting with a white sponge. The frame then cuts to show the sponge with a small bit of dirt on up close, being held by a hand with no glove.
Conservators cleaning the painting in East Corridor

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).

New Glazing

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.

Two men wearing gloves carry a large rectangular thin pallet balanced in the middle on a small platform with wheels.  Another man looks on.  The floor is covered in elaborate coloured patterned tiles.  In the background is a very tall large window stretching out of shot, with small arched compartments within it.  To either side are statues of human royal figures, and more are in other niches to their right and left amid carved stonework.  Two green benches are visible on the right and left of the image in against the wall.
The glazing makes its way across Central Lobby; photograph ©UK Parliament

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.  

A white man in a blue jumper and jeans wearing blue gloves holds one end of a large glass pane.  The glove of another person is visible holding the inside of the other end.  The pane rests on two blocks of wood on a boarded scaffold platform.  The pane is angled to the left, moving towards a bright coloured painting dominated by red in a compartment in the wall.  Stone niches and columns and arches surround the two installers and a small pointed chandelier hangs in the distance.
The glazing being installed; photograph ©UK Parliament

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.