Read about the surprising things that have happened to one of our Directors, Lucy Branch, in Diary of a Conservator published in World of Interiors August 2015. Beautiful illustration by Hannah Waldron.
Restoration Comedy by Lucy Branch, Published by World of Interiors, August 2015
You need a sense of humour to do my job. As a conservator of public art, I have the privilege of helping statues and monuments survive into the future. What could be so ridiculous about such a seemingly serious job? The objects I work on are high-profile and cannot be removed to the private enclave of a conservation studio. My studio is in the public domain and it’s very hard to control or predict that environment. What this means is that my working day might involve being up to my elbows in water while treating a sculpture in the Beatty and Jellicoe fountains in Trafalgar Square, or courted by a thousand tourists who would like their photos taken with the restorer at The Tower of London, or even finding a news crew up my ladder, while working on Shakespeare in Leicester Square, who wanted to know my opinion on Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. One morning, I went to work on Eros to find a man dressed up as a dog had got there first.
Just before the most recent Royal Wedding, I worked on the gargantuan bronze elements of The Queen Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace. This project was a joy and not just because we were required to down tools and watch the Changing of the Guard each day. The project began weeks before we started on site by looking at the history of the object. This aspect of the work involves dedicated research from published and unpublished documents and photographs. The aim is to try to ensure we know as much about how the object and what how it originally looked as possible.
Once the scaffold went up, it was time to meet the magnificent allegorical sculptures in person and get to grips with establishing their true condition. This might seem belated, but when tendering we don’t have the luxury of a scaffold so it is experience and a good pair of binoculars which are relied upon to anticipate what work will need to be done. Up close, it was evident that their surfaces had been coated comprehensively in a thick-pigmented wax containing a lot of lamp-black probably to hide the extensive disfiguring corrosion that was rampant below it. There was very little of the original patina to be found. Samples were taken for analysis, and we compared what we found from the physical evidence with what we found in the historic record.
It was quite something to stand next to those giant bronzes. They are truly otherworldly and above the pettiness of humans. They represent noble themes: peace, progress, agriculture and manufacture and with one hand upon the shoulder of Manufacture, I was a little awed at the extent of work that needed to be done so that they might be ready in time for their role on the world stage.
Before the physical work began, an accurate methodology and plan was devised. Due consideration was given to how far to intervene and what implications to the object certain treatments might have. This ethics stage of our work has come about through the damage done to historic objects, particularly between the 1930’s and 1950’s, in the name of restoration – the tragedy of the Elgin marbles must never be repeated. Only then did the craft aspect of the work begin. Failed wax layers were removed by steam and soap, corrosion layers thinned and treated, re-patination of the bronze where the original patina had been lost and copious layers of hot wax applied to protect the surface for the future.
I’d like to say my lasting memory of the project was seeing how wonderful the statues looked when the euphoric throng of people engulfed the monument on the big day, but actually being almost arrested for trying to blow up Buckingham Palace when one of our hired generator’s exploded will probably never be forgotten.