Second year students on the Postgraduate Diploma in the Conservation of Easel Paintings were involved in a term-long project to document the condition of the entire paintings collection of Watts Gallery, based in Compton, Surrey. The project was proposed by Michael Morrison, Senior Partner at Purcell Miller Tritton: architects, designers and historic buildings consultants, and supported by Perdita Hunt, Director of Watts Gallery, as part of their application to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Watts Gallery

The Watts Gallery is a historic building, which was built in 1903 to house the collection of G. F. Watts’ paintings and those of his contemporaries. The students undertook an environmental survey of areas within the building where paintings are displayed or stored. During the environmental survey the students monitored the humidity, temperature, light levels, pests, flora and fauna, under the supervision of Christina Young. They also made notes on pollution, visitor numbers, security, and general housekeeping.

In collaboration with Watts Gallery staff, and supervised by Pippa Balch and Clare Richardson, paintings were removed from display and examined from the front and back. The students gleaned fascinating insights into Watts’ techniques and the paintings’ conservation history. The students observed Watts’ fondness for painting over bright yellow priming, prepared specially by Winsor and Newton. Elsewhere, they found he had abandoned priming his canvas altogether, and instead reversed commercially primed canvas so that the ground layers were visible. In one instance a portrait was found to have had an additional layer of fine muslin applied above the canvas to give a more flattering skin texture to the lady subject.

Watts was greatly concerned with preserving his works for the future. He sought a more permanent technique, experimenting with unusual media. Unfortunately these experimental methods were often less stable than traditional techniques, and as a result many of the paintings in the gallery are suffering and require conservation treatment. Early attempts to protect the paintings include the application of paper backings to the frames to prevent the ingress of dirt and insects. These backings were carefully removed and replaced, in order to inspect the paintings, and were found to have been partially successful in their aim, although the odd dead spider occasionally surprised us.

Logbooks document the work of previous conservators working in the Gallery. An early example of documentation reveals that a conservator was found to have attached a small piece of tacking margin to the reverse of the stretcher when treating Ophelia in 1955. A hand-written accompanying note gave observations regarding the original technique and recommendations that the painting should be stored in a regulated environment.

Following the completion of the environmental and condition surveys, the students worked to improve the conditions in the store and wrapped many of the paintings housed there to protect them against fluctuating conditions. The findings of the surveys were presented to the Watts Gallery, and some immediate recommendations contained in the environmental survey have already been implemented. The Department found the collaboration to be a valuable experience, and hopes to continue links with the gallery in the future.

Clare Richardson
Lecturer on Conservation and Technology