Cleaning of this iconic War Memorial and restoration was necessary after white gloss paint was thrown over The Bomber Command War Memorial in Green Park earlier this year.
Conservation work by Antique Bronze took place some weeks later after the memorial was initially hit.
The monument is a magnificent creation by sculptor, Philip Jackson, who won the Marsh Award in Public Sculpture for his work. It’s easy to see why: the artist has personified bravery, comradeship and patriotism in the stance of his figures, their detail and expressions. We enjoyed many conversations with the public who came to visit the memorial during our works.
Why This War Memorial Is Special
Several of the visitors had interesting facts to tell us about the Bomber Command unit which was instrumental in winning World War II. Of the 125k men who served, half lost their lives. Bomber command crews came from 60 different countries. Every member was a volunteer. The average age of those killed was 23 years old.
Hours after the monument was vandalised, an emergency clean was undertaken. It was then that the RAF Benevolent Fund was advised that a monument cleaning service specialising in conservation should take on the due to complexities of working on bronze.
Removing the remnants of white paint from the bronze’s surface was not an easy task. Although much of the paint had been taken off in the initial clean, thousands of smaller splashes remained.
The surface of the sculpture had originally been hot patinated, but areas were fragile. Before the treatment was started, we noted that there was evidence of localised loss of original patina. This meant that to avoid further loss of the surface, the cleaning technique decided upon had to be very gentle indeed.
The aim of bronze conservation is always to leave as much of the original patina intact as possible.
Another difficulty was that the surface was highly detailed meaning that many of the tiny splashes were located deep inside small grooves making them hard to excavate.
It may seem like superheated water or high-pressure cleaning may be an obvious option for this type of vandalism, but the fragility of the patina made this route a concern. The paint was so firmly adhered to the textured surface that to shift it, force would have to be centred on a very tiny surface area which had the potential to break-up more of the original patina.
Solvent cleaning was useful for softening the deposits, and soft nylon brushes did clean the surface without damaging the patina, but this cautious route on such a large monument made it a slow task. Our most useful tool came in an unexpected form – small wooden coffee stirrers provided the perfect profile to clean out grooves, but was soft enough not to scratch the patina.
War Memorial Cleaning Tips for Custodians
If your memorial has been vandalised, consider these three tips:
- Never use sticky tape to cover the surface – even if the graffiti is offensive. Industrial tapes contain residues in their adhesive which will etch through a bronze’s patina often causing more damage than the paint layer itself.
- Call a professional monument cleaning service (like us!) for advice and help – if you try to use high-pressure cleaning methods on bronze, and you have a vulnerable surface, you can instigate serious loss of the original finish.
- Don’t ignore vandalised bronze – it invites further anti-social behaviour.
How To Clean a Bronze Sculpture
Recently, we had an enquiry from the archivist at Pembroke College, Oxford – Amanda Ingram about how to clean a bronze sculpture.
The college had rather a splendid bronze bust which had, unfortunately, been languishing in a basement for some time. It was to be relocated to a prominent position in the college, but it had to be cleaned. Amanda came to us for advice.
I have given it a light wipe with distilled water to remove surface dust but there is quite a lot of it which has a kind of fine crust on the surface. It is as if someone has wiped it with a dirty rag (for example containing paint residue) and this has set on the surface. The other thing is that it looks like parcel tape or something has, at some point, been stuck on his face and has, likewise, left a hard adhesive residue.
Our first suggestion was to try a solvent like acetone to remove the parcel tape residue and this worked extremely effectively. The rest that follows relates only to the dirt. Regarding the wiped, crusty areas we recommended trying to clean with some soap and water. If it worked, then to apply a couple of coats of micro-crystalline wax to the surface for protection. We suggested trying a small patch first and look at the outcome before going too far.
“Is nail varnish remover a suitable acetone or does it need to be a purer version? And, what sort of soap is best to use?”
Our advice was to buy a pure acetone as nail varnish remover often has added components. Although neutral soap solution is always a safe bet, when cleaning a bronze sculpture; it can be ineffective at cleaning stubborn dirt. This means more rubbing of the bronze’s surface is necessary which isn’t a good idea. Diluted Vulpex soap is slightly alkaline, but providing it is properly removed, can be a gentler method.
Amanda returned a short while later reporting that unfortunately, the dirt was still stubbornly in place.
Our advice was to try a little abrasion with something very fine. Just to do a very small area at the start with something like a very fine bronze wool and that this could be used with a little soap solution.
Amanda’s results speak for themselves. She applied Renaissance Micro-Crystalline wax after for the statue’s protection. Her careful approach has yielded some great results. Well done, Amanda!