Preserving Whistler’s murals
By Anna E Cornelius, on 8 April 2019
This blog is from Graeme McArthur, Conservator at UCL Culture.
UCL’s Whistler Room, located next to the Octagon Gallery, is so named because it contains murals painted by the artist Rex Whistler, who studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and whose career was sadly cut short by the Second World War. These were originally completed in 1935 for a private residence on Gower Street; however by 1959 the house was due to be demolished. The murals were saved by literally cutting them out of the wall and removing them to their current location. They are part of the UCL Art Museum collections and therefore come under the care of UCL Culture.
The murals are painted in oil on top of house paint, supported by around 2cm of the original wall plaster with an auxiliary support of wood battens and plaster of Paris. Unfortunately the change in environment and support has caused severe stability issues. Ongoing conservation has been required since 1960 as the house paint layer keeps cracking and flaking away from the plaster beneath. Glazing was added in 1963 to try and alleviate these issues, but although it protects the surface from physical damage it has not improved the environment.
In late 2018, two of the murals were beginning to crack quite badly again so the decision was made to bring in a paintings conservator Jim Dimond who has been working on these murals since 1993. The worst mural affected by far is the Three Graces, which has severe cracking and flaking across most of its surface. Because of the plaster backing, each mural is of considerable weight, so removing them is not an easy task. As can in these photos, the full weight of the mural is resting on fitted wooden battens along the bottom of the mural. Thankfully, we had help from UCL Culture’s team of technicians from the Bloomsbury Theatre, otherwise this work may not have been possible.
Once out of the wall and laid out horizontally, the raking light from the window made the damage to the surface even more visible. Thankfully the thickness of the house paint means that the paint lifts in large flakes so little material is lost.
To re-lay the flakes, a low viscosity acrylic dispersion was used. It is purposely designed for this sort of treatment and will easily penetrate behind the paint flakes. Affected areas were flooded with an excess of the adhesive, applied either with a brush or a needle and syringe where required. Flakes were then gently pushed back into places using a heated spatula set to around 60-70˚C with excess adhesive being removed with a cotton wool swab. This is painstaking work; the Three Graces alone took an entire day to conserve.
The two conserved murals have now been returned and their condition is much improved. Unfortunately, the nature of these complex objects means that they will almost certainly start to crack again. In order to prevent further episodes of cracking, the UCL Culture conservation team will employ a frequent regime of condition checking so that the Whistler murals can be fully appreciated by visitors to this space.