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A fresher face for Saint Margaret

Roxane Burke, collections and conservation assistant

While the museum and historic rooms at Fulham Palace are temporarily closed to visitors during this third national lockdown, collections and conservation activities have been continuing. It is always a wonderful opportunity to share these events on our blog. Two of our largest pictures were taken off from their brass hanging chains in the great hall and removed for conservation. This delicate task was achieved by Fine Art Transport Services, who managed to effortlessly move and transport the paintings without a hitch! A time-lapsed video was recorded to capture this feat.

The correct way to remove 18th century Benjamin West masterpieces from your great hall

The paintings themselves are large-scale romanticised, religious depictions of two figures; St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland (c.1046-1093) and Thomas à Becket (c.1118-1170), a former Archbishop of Canterbury who was brutally murdered by knights of King Henry II’s court. They were created by Benjamin West (1738-1820), an American-born painter, for art collector William Beckford (1760-1844) who commissioned several designs for stained-glass windows for his home of Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire.

St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland by Benjamin West (1798). Educated woman and prominent figure in the reformation of the Church in Scotland. Cartoon suffers from cracking and warping.

I write “home” but this is an understatement, the term does not well describe the over-ambitious and grandiose Gothic Revival style house which was also referred to as Beckford’s Folly! At present, only the north wing remains since the original tower’s soaring height, combined with problematic construction, meant the building was prone to collapse and was demolished eventually in 1845.

These two figures were painted on paper and laid on canvas as full-scale templates for future work in a different type of media. These objects are known as ‘cartoons’. West’s style was heavily influenced by Raphael’s cartoons, for tapestries meant to be hung in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. With George III’s patronage, West would have been invited, alongside other prominent contemporary artists, to the saloon at Buckingham House where the cartoons were displayed (now on loan at the V&A Museum). His legacy stands as a leading figure in the development of historical painting in Britain.

Thomas à Becket by Benjamin West (1798). The stained-glass window, based on this painting, did survive and was bought at action by the Bristol Corporation in 1823, now the Lord Mayor’s Chapel, Bristol. Paper edges surrounding the frame have lifted and curled in several areas.

It is quite remarkable that these paintings were able to survive until today since it is unknown if they were meant to be retained or disposed of after they were copied. Nevertheless, from a preservation perspective, paintings on paper are more challenging than those on canvas. The type of media is more vulnerable and prone to damage from its surrounding environment, particularly from changes in humidity levels and temperature. This leads to warping and cracking, affecting overlying layers (such as primer and paint) resulting in flaking and loss of material. Age and composition are contributing factors leading to deterioration. The portraits have visible signs of instability around the edges of the paper sheets where sections have lifted from the support and deformed.

Conservation treatment so far, before (left) and after (right) the painted surface of St. Margeret’s face was cleaned and stabilised. Photos accredited to Luz Vanasco.

The aim of the conservation treatment is in-depth examination of the paintings, with subsequent stabilisation of unstable areas. This work will be completed by intern Luz Vanasco supervised by fine art conservator Jim Dimond, as part of her six-month placement. The conservation placement has been generously provided through a grant from the Pilgrim Trust.  We hope our currently fundraising efforts will allow our second cartoon by West, which shows Thomas à Becket, to be treated too shortly.

Whenever we are able to reopen, be sure to visit these wonderful, newly-conserved paintings in the great hall!