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19.11.2018

Lucy Odlin's year at The Painted Hall

Icon and HLF intern Lucy Odlin spent a year working at The Painted Hall as part of her Painting Conservation Internship. In her chronicle, she looks back on what was an intense, if not very unique and career-defining experience.

At 8.30am every morning the stillness inside the Painted Hall was broken by the clanking metal sound of the 67-step ascent up the metal staircase leading to the ceiling platform. 80 tonnes of curiously elegant steel scaffold veiled the decorated interior of the Painted Hall, one of the most spectacular examples of baroque ceiling painting in Northern Europe. The Lower Hall ceiling measures 15 x 30 metres, and is 18 metres from the ground. It has not been seen in its entirety from ground level for nearly two years, but will once again be revealed in early 2019 following completion of this major Painted Hall Conservation Project. The interior represents a career-defining moment for the artist Sir James Thornhill (1675 – 1734), whose flambouyant design The Triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny earned him a knighthood and took 20 years to complete.

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This internship was extremely hands-on from day one and I was involved in all aspects of practical conservation of the gilded and painted surfaces in the entire Lower Hall, both ceiling and walls. The main practical tasks were to remove thick deposits of surface dirt and dust (and occasionally pigeon excrement and the odd splash of gravy), consolidate vulnerable flaking paint, surface clean, and reintegrate and improve the appearance of the varnish where necessary. One of the most notable aspects of working in the Painted Hall was the sheer scale of the surfaces to be treated, and I definitely needed to develop a head for heights! It was also physically demanding to work at the top of a ladder with a craned neck, with the ambient noise of whirring industrial fans, excited school groups and a steady stream of inquisitive visitors surrounding us for the entire project. I listened to a lot of classical music this year. I’m not sure I will ever get completely used to being observed so intently – I was drawn to the conservation profession precisely because of its ‘behind-the-scenes’ status – but increasingly, bold engagement projects such as this one are a fundamental part of the work of cultural heritage professionals.

The privilege of being a conservator is being able to get up close to objects and surfaces typically only appreciated from some distance. In this case, being able to examine and treat a painting normally only seen from 18 metres below was quite extraordinary, not least because it is unlikely that another conservator’s hand will pass the same surface in this lifetime. 

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Images: 

1. Cleaning the ceiling © Lucy Odlin 2018 courtesy of Stefania d’Alba
2. View of the Lower Hall from ground level © Lucy Odlin 2018

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