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Solving a seemingly insurmountable dilemma!

October 27, 2011

What do we do when two paintings are simply too large to reach the top floor of the Portrait Gallery?

Ready to roll

Onto the horse

This was the problem faced by the Conservation Department this summer as it was discovered that two very large historical group portraits – both essential to one of the major exhibitions on the top floor, Imagining Power exploring Scotland’s Jacobite history – would neither fit up the stairwell nor in the new lift (the paintings had previously been on display on the ground floor).

Holding collective breaths as the 'gate' is closed

Traditionally in this situation paintings are removed from their wooden stretchers and rolled onto a large ‘drum’. We were anxious to avoid this as both paintings had complex conservation histories having been both fully lined (a new canvas added using a paste adhesive) then strip-lined (tacking margins only strengthened with canvas using a wax-resin adhesive). Everyone put their heads together and an alternative was researched, discussed and finally implemented amid lots of breath-holding, teeth gnashing and finger crossing!

On the move 2

On the move

Essentially (and this is very much a concise summary) a ‘horse’-like structure was built to size. With the painting lying face down only the central parts of the stretcher were cut and removed temporarily for transport. The horse was then rolled across the back of the painting and attached at either end by two end wooden ‘gates’. The result was a canvas fully supported as it lay ‘draped’ across the rounded, padded, mobile form. Once safely transported from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art to Queen Street the procedure was reversed and the original stretcher was bolted back together. It all sounds so simple!

Time to un-roll

In this instance pictures do speak louder than words…. Suffice to say that despite elevated stress levels all round, it was an exemplary project for cultivating good team work and a large group of conservators, technicians and art handlers was involved both in the preparation and on the ‘action’ days.

Re-attaching the stretcher

Thanks to everyone’s attention to detail, enthusiasm and good humour I am delighted to report that the two paintings were transferred safely and without incident.


Looking spectacular in the newly refurbished top-lit gallery space you would never know the structural trauma and hours of hard work involved in getting them there!

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