February Artwork of the Month: Maclise wall painting conservation project

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Maclise wall painting conservation in progress

01 February 2019

After seeing the Battle of Waterloo in the film Peterloo (2018) and in BBC’s Les Misérables (2018) you may think that you’ve seen it all, but a team of specialist wall painting conservators are making new discoveries while working on Daniel Maclise’s painting of Waterloo in the Royal Gallery. Phase 3 of the conservation project begins again in early February 2019 working on the two monumental wall paintings of Trafalgar and Waterloo.

Maclise wall painting conservation in the Royal Gallery, 2018


Maclise’s Waterloo

In 1858 the Fine Arts Commission selected Irish artist Daniel Maclise to undertake a commission to paint a series of 18 murals in the Royal Gallery. From this commission, only two were completed, the first of which was the monumental The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher after the Battle of Waterloo. Maclise began work on Waterloo in 1859, painting in fresco, which quickly proved extremely difficult when trying to capture the level of detail Maclise wanted. Prince Albert, Head of the Fine Arts Commission, suggested that Maclise change technique and complete the painting in waterglass. The results were immediately successful, and Maclise completed the painting in less than two years. Sadly, only a decade or so after completion, the wall paintings appeared to have started to fail.
Previously, it was thought that Maclise’s use of waterglass had caused the deterioration in the presentation of the painting, but a pioneering conservation project has suggested that other factors have marred the display artwork over time.


Maclise conservation project: Waterloo and Trafalgar

Beginning in 2012, detailed research and testing revealed that the cause of the problems was in fact excessive use of unsuitable coating materials, rather than a failure of painting technique. These coatings were applied to the paint surfaces during a series of restorations dating back to the 19th century in an attempt to improve the appearance of the wall paintings. Over the last 160 years the paintings have been affected by periodic water leaks and there was also damage from WW2 bombing. The poor lighting in the Royal Gallery and surface dirt that has accumulated over the years only worsened the look of the wall paintings.

Despite regular attempts to conserve the wall paintings from the 1870s to the 1960s, today the paintings appear faded and difficult to read. In this current conservation programme the conservators have established that the best results will be gained from a combination of improving the lighting in the Royal Gallery and conservation treatment of the wall paintings.

There will be two final phases of conservation this year, each lasting three weeks taking us to completion of the treatment programme. Plans are now underway for a new and sensitively designed lighting system that, in combination with the conservation treatment, will greatly enhance the appearance of the paintings.

Maclise wall painting conservation in the Royal Gallery, 2018

To find out more about the earlier phases of this conservation project working on Trafalgar and Waterloo you can watch short films about Phase 1 and Phase 2 online.

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