The Pilgrim Trust Icon internship at the Painted Hall, Old Royal Naval College
By Eliza Doherty
Eliza Doherty completed her Postgraduate Diploma in Conservation Studies at City & Guilds of London Art School in 2014. Since graduating, she has worked on a range of projects in London and abroad, including the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice and an archaeological site in North Sudan. Eliza is particularly interested in the conservation of decorative surfaces, and began her internship in the Painted Hall in February, where she has been working tirelessly to preserve Sir James Thornhill's masterpiece for future generations.
Last December, the Old Royal Naval College began an ambitious project to conserve over 40,000 square feet of eighteenth century paintings and gilded decorations in the Painted Hall. I was fortunate to be chosen to take part in the project as the Pilgrim Trust Icon intern and earlier this year swapped the Sudanese desert—where I’d spent two months conserving archaeological material—for the magnificent centrepiece of Maritime Greenwich and Sir James Thornhill’s spectacular painted interior.
For the first six months of the internship, I worked as part of the team of conservators at Paine & Stewart on the decorative surfaces in the vestibule, beneath Thornhill’s striking painted dome. These surfaces include oil gilding on stone and timber, and oil painted walls, while our treatment involved surface cleaning, localised consolidation of gilding and flaking paint, the insertion of repairs, and reintegration of losses. As we are a team of five, part of the challenge was that of continually ensuring a homogeneous level of cleaning and reintegration.
Although I have some experience working in buildings open to the public, this project is distinctive since part of the attraction of the tours is the opportunity to see conservation work in action.
The immense scaffold that has been erected for the purposes of the project is a work of art in itself, and provides a unique opportunity to see Thornhill’s masterpiece in extraordinary detail, together with the extensive carved and gilded decoration. Since April, the Old Royal Naval College has been running up to nineteen tours a day on the scaffold: a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the public to learn more about the history of the building and see Thornhill’s painting and technique within touching distance of the ceiling. Though touching the ceiling is, of course, forbidden. Although I have some experience working in buildings open to the public, this project is distinctive since part of the attraction of the tours is the opportunity to see conservation work in action. As such, I am slowly adjusting to the reality of being watched while I work, and it is lovely to see visitors taking such a keen interest.
View of the Painted Hall from the vestibule
An immensely satisfying part of working on this project is the visible difference we are making, as over five decades of dust and dirt are carefully removed. Part of the scaffold is currently being dismantled and from the end of October, the completed vestibule—which had suffered extensive damage from water, fluctuating temperatures and humidity, and high light levels—will be on full view to the public. The conservation team are eagerly awaiting this moment.
Spread out across the hall, each of us occupy a private little world, with only a podcast for company, and I think back to all those who have left their mark in the Painted Hall before me.
Though working on site has its challenges—principally, the physical nature of the work and hot/rather cold working conditions—I feel very fortunate to be able to ascend the scaffold each day for a few moments alone with Thornhill’s ceiling. Through documenting and conserving the hall, we are constantly noticing hidden details: brush hairs in the paint and gilding, pentimenti, carved or handwritten signatures of past restorers and craftspeople, an old varnish bottle… I have come to value the repetitive, almost meditative nature of the practical work: an inevitable part of working on a grand scale. Spread out across the hall, each of us occupy a private little world, with only a podcast for company, and I think back to all those who have left their mark in the Painted Hall before me.
The Painted Hall will re-open for ceiling tours on 21 October. For more information, visit: www.ornc.org/painted-hall-ceiling-tours-tickets
For a chance to meet the conservators please see the upcoming Conservation Live programme.
Photo (header): Eliza cleaning the gilded decoration, taken by Stefania D’Alba