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The Storm Before the Calm

July 1, 2011

One major conservation project that has been frequently discussed since the National Galleries of Scotland handed the Portrait Gallery over to the building contractors two years ago is the cleaning of William Hole’s painted surfaces. By that I mean not only the murals depicting key events in Scottish history on the ambulatory level, nor just the splendid gilded processional frieze around the Great Hall – but also the spectacular astronomically-themed ceiling with applied constellations.
Tyvek Clad Ambulatory

Surreptitious tests from my scaffolding eyrie all those many months ago while applying a protective layer of tyvek to the walls revealed an alarming but not that surprising, accumulation of dirt.

Cleaning test on Ceiling

Unlike the mural and frieze schemes that were cleaned a mere 30 years ago, as far as we are aware the ceiling has never been tackled since the building opened in the 1890s. Greasy deposits from Queen Street, tobacco stains and general household grime have combined to create a significantly murky surface. It was clearly unthinkable to re-open the building without making every effort to ensure that these great works of art, such a fundamental and unique aspect of the building, as inaccessible as they may initially appear, were given some much needed conservation attention.

Thanks to the generous funding of WREN (Waste Recycling Environmental Ltd) over the last couple of months we have leapt into action with our project manager hard hats securely affixed and our steel toe-capped shoes at the ready!

On Monday 20th June an ambitious 6 week cleaning project began.  Recruited to assist the Conservation Department and to manage a large and international team of conservation students, are conservators Fiona Allardyce and Karen Dundas. They both bring to the project their extensive experience of other similar decorative, architectural schemes of this period in Scotland, most notably at Mansfield Traquair Centre nearby.  Ten students from post-graduate painting conservation courses at the University of Northumbria, Newcastle, Courtauld Institute, London, Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, Helsinki, Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart and Winterthur University, Delaware will all take part and gain invaluable experience by doing so.

And so the planning weeks have passed and we can now begin. Having believed that scaffolding in the building had finally departed along with the contractors another extensive ‘birdcage’ has just been installed in the Great Hall this week.

Scaffolding going up June 2011

The materials, including a mountain of cotton wool, have been ordered, important Health and Safety issues are being addressed and cleaning tests are underway to establish a sound and effective methodology. Personally, after all these preparations I just cannot wait to get started. Keep abreast of our progress by following our regular updates on the Heads Up Blog.

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