The statue of Field Marshall Smuts was unveiled in Parliament Square on the 7th November 1956. Sculpted by one of the nation’s favourite artists, Jacob Epstein, and cast by Art Bronze Foundry (London) Ltd, this monument is another fine example of British foundry skills.
To the casual visitor, the statue’s black surface didn’t look out of place among a sea of other statesmen of varying shades of bronze on Parliament Square, but to a bronze conservator, the deep black surface was our first piece of evidence that something was amiss.
True black patinas on monuments of that period and earlier are very rare. Black waxing, or boot-polishing statues, however, was a common method used to ‘tidy-up’ sculptures that had been looking poor for decades. It was a cheap way of covering over disfigured surfaces and corrosion.
The black layer on Marshall Smuts lifted easily suggesting that, indeed, the coating was not a patinated finish, which a foundry would have applied. This coating was obscuring a lower layer which had evidence of a patchy green patina. During initial cleaning tests, we discovered that the identical shade of green was found quite universally over the body. Although it can be difficult on bronzes to differentiate between a naturally forming green patina and an artificially patinated shade, it is very uncommon to find a naturally forming green patina being a standard shade across a surface. This is because the corrosion will have formed very specifically according to the pollutants on that area of the bronze, the shape of the surface, prevailing winds along with many other factors. To have the same circumstances at a variety of points across an outdoor sculpture would be highly unusual. The evidence pointed to the original patina being green.
Consulting historic imagery was frustrating. There were many images of the statue being unveiled and even video footage, but alas, all were in black and white. However, it was possible to discern that the statue appeared to be very pale in colour completely opposite to the existing black shade and the other dark bronzes in Parliament Square.
We discovered a passage in Public Sculpture of Historic Westminster Vol. 1 (Ward-Jackson, 2011, pp 206-208) stating that at the time of the unveiling The Times reporter found the viridian green patina ‘unexpectedly vivid’ and hoped that time and the London atmosphere would ‘soften the tone and also the glossiness of the finish. ’ Other newspaper reports described it as “bright green” and “startling green”.
These were the first items of textual evidence that we found confirming that the sculpture’s original shade was not black, but green. This was followed up with discussions with the Art Bronze Foundry who are still in existence and within the same family’s hands; consultation with Westminster Archives & Local Studies Officer and watching BBC commentary of the unveiling by Richard Dimbleby. We also corresponded with The South African Legion, who contacted some of those who had attended the initial unveiling for eyewitness reports. These pieces brought together a solid picture of the original finish.
With further study of the physical green fragments dotted across the surface, and the statue’s overall condition, some conservation decisions had to be made. Treatment was absolutely essential to slow the degradation of the sculpture which had become quite acute. The existing black coating had failed in large segments and it was clear that activity was taking place beneath at the detriment of the metal’s surface. It was felt to be of paramount importance to recognise Jacob Epstein’s original intent for the sculpture, which was very different to the current aesthetic.
It is unknown why the statue was given a pigmented black coating during its past. It is not the first outdoor sculpture to have had such a treatment when it began to look poor and it could well have been a decision made in ignorance of the artist’s intended finish.
The conclusion was made to return Field Marshall Smuts to as close a resemblance to his original finish as possible. During the works, he was cleaned, corrosion stabilised, and re-patination was undertaken to match the existing patina fragments. He now stands proudly, keeping a military watch over the Square as he would have done 61 years ago.