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Victorian Treasures – A conservation perspective

10 March 2017 by David Crombie

Installing Perseus and Andromeda

My colleague Alex Patterson has described in a previous blog how this fantastic display of works from National Museums Liverpool’s collections formed part of a touring exhibition that went to four venues in Japan over 2015 and 2016. This sort of large touring show involves a huge amount of organisation by many different people, and is by far the largest exhibition loan of its kind that I have been involved with during my time at National Museums Liverpool. It is also a big undertaking from a conservation point of view, as there is so much to think about in terms of protecting so many key works.

Our main duties as conservators on a project like this were to ensure that the pictures were all in a good enough condition to travel to start with, and then to make sure they remained as well protected as possible over the course of the loan. This included treating any problems with the paint surfaces before they went, but also making sure they were all safely fitted within their frames.

Sending any painting out on loan involves a certain amount of risk, but some of these 66 works were very large and fragile paintings, and several were in large ornate frames, which can mean a higher level of risk. For this loan, we were lending the largest watercolour in the NML collections, ‘Sponsa di Libano’ by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, which is over 3 metres high! Also included was Frederick Lord Leighton’s ‘Perseus and Andromeda’ from the Walker, which has a very large ornate gilded frame. These are difficult to handle safely, and need a lot of people and lifting equipment to move them and secure them safely on the wall.

Loading the freight pallet (left) and the completely built up pallet (right)

The paintings were all sent out in specially designed protective crates, and all were shipped by air to Japan. The crates have to be handled very carefully at all stages, including at the airport. Airport cargo sheds can be very busy, noisy places, with fork-lift trucks whizzing everywhere carrying goods to go all over the world. They seem like the last place you would want to be taking fragile paintings!   However, the cargo warehouse staff were very skilled, and are used to handling such valuable cargo. They loaded the crated works onto large aluminium air freight pallets that look like huge tea trays, taking note of the position and weight of each crate so that the pallets are evenly loaded when they go into the plane. The pallets are then covered in polythene to protect from any rain outside the freight shed, and tied down securely with tough netting. Once over in Japan, the crates were unloaded at the airport and transferred into specially designed trucks with temperature control and air-ride suspension, for the travel to the different venues.

Condition checking on gallery (left) and the final installation in Tokyo (right)

At each venue, the unpacking of each work was supervised and each picture was carefully condition checked to make sure nothing had changed before it went up on the wall. With 66 paintings, this takes quite a lot of time, and we did some very long days on the gallery to get them all checked and ready! Then the Japanese handling staff would work through the exhibition fixing all the pictures in place on the walls. Once the lighting was adjusted correctly, the show could open. (Works on paper are more light sensitive than the oils, so light levels have to be controlled to prevent damage).

This process was done in exactly the same way for all the venues including the last one which was the Yamaguchi City Art Museum in the south west of Japan. When this closed, all the paintings were taken down and condition checked again, then loaded into trucks for the road journey back to Tokyo. At the airport, they were again loaded onto freight pallets ready for the flight back to the UK. After a last truck journey from London, they reached us back here at the Conservation Centre in Liverpool.

Victorian Treasures runs until 7 May. Visit our webpage for more information and to see some highlights from the exhibition.

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