Restoring the great hall paintings
Both the Thomas a Becket and the Saint Margaret of Scotland paintings by Benjamin West have been restored thanks to the generous donations by our supporters.
Background to the project
The cartoons were one of the few items left behind when the Bishop of London left Fulham Palace in 1973. They were initially stored on site and then hung in the museum established in 2019.
The cartoons’ significance to Fulham Palace relates largely to who obtained them for the building and why. Research has narrowed the possibilities to Bishops Blomfield 1828-56, Tait 1856-68 and Jackson 1869-85. This means that the cartoons have a long association with the Palace and as such are very significant to us.
The cartoons were in very poor condition, with a lot of cracking and losses of paint. A survey by Jim Dimond Conservation Ltd in 2016 laid out the options of treating the paintings. A cosmetic treatment would stabilize the painting surface, but the most difficult option was to remove the canvas lining and plywood backing before re-lining and making repairs. This 2nd more radical option would provide the most long- lasting benefits and our preference was to go forward with this option provided we could find funding.
After receiving funding for this project in 2020, the work was undertaken from February to July 2021 by Jim Dimond, and intern Luz Vanesco. Final retouching was completed by Jim once Luz had finished her internship. The paintings were returned to hang in the great hall at Fulham Palace in November 2021.
Jim is a paintings conservator/restorer with 35 years’ experience working in both public and private sectors in the UK. He has experience of restoring very badly damaged paintings.
Luz is a paintings conservator with experience in Latin America, Spain and the UK. She graduated from the Courtauld Institute of Art in 2020, and is currently working at the Tate Gallery.
Fulham Palace Trust thanks the Pilgrim Trust who provided a grant of £20,000 for this project. We are also very grateful to the Country Houses Foundation and the Friends of Fulham Palace who provided match funding.
Further details of the cartoons and restoration process
Benjamin West (1738–1820) was the first American artist to achieve an international reputation and to influence artistic trends in Europe. He came to England in 1763 and never left. He became the most progressive and successful proponent of history painting in the country.
Cartoons are preparatory drawings or paintings. The cartoons of St. Margaret of Scotland and St. Thomas à Becket were designs for stained glass windows for William Beckford’s mansion Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire.
Both cartoons were originally painted in oil on paper, which is quite rare, though oil cartoons on paper are known. They are very large cartoons (both 285 cm x 107 cm).
The whole composite was made from a series of overlapping pieces of paper to get a support large enough for the image. Subsequently, the paper paintings were glued or lined onto pieces of poor quality canvas. This lining had caused a great deal of wrinkling, cracking and a lumpy appearance. Sometime after they were created, the lined paintings were additionally glued to plywood and attached to a stretcher and this solid support was the cause of further surface deformation and some cracking.
Initial cleaning of both cartoons removed a layer of surface dirt, and two varnish layers. Paint flaking was stabilized using the application of an acrylic adhesive and some heat setting.
The only way to get an improvement in the surface of the painting on paper and to mend the many damages was to gently remove both the panel support and the lining, and then create a better support for the fragile paper. The whole complicated structure was carefully dismantled layer by layer, starting by carefully separating the lined painting from the panel using a long palette knife and then cutting away the lining itself in thin strips. This was achieved by attaching a firm but reversible facing layer to the front of the painting, and working on the back of the object, face down.
Once down to the original paper support the conservators were able to undertake tear and damage repair by consolidating with wheat starch and EVA dispersion mixture. The tears were further supported with a patch of spider tissue and wheat starch applied locally over each piece of damage.
The numerous paper losses in the paintings were filled with carefully cut out pieces of medium weight paper, followed by re-lining. The re-lining system used was a new approach for both conservators.
After varnishing the conservators filled and re-touched the painting to disguise the losses in the old paper support where the new paper inserts had been put in.