Caring for Kenwood: An Introduction to Painting Conservation

Kenwood House in North London is undergoing vital repairs to secure the 18th century mansion for future generations. Jemma Edwards joins us this week to give the latest update on the Caring for Kenwood programme.

I started my internship with English Heritage in November last year and am an intern attached to the ‘Caring for Kenwood’ project at Kenwood House. My role in the team however is quite different, as I am based in Collections Conservation working as the paintings conservation intern.

Not to be confused with the other Conservation Team – who look after all sorts of things including the buildings we work in – Collections Conservation is made up of the people who look after and maintain the huge variety of objects that make up the collection of English Heritage, including all sorts of things from the crown jewels to Wellington’s false teeth (in my opinion, all of the best bits!). My specialism is paintings conservation and having graduated early last year I have been very pleased to be in the middle of such a huge and exciting project.

Temporary scaffolding allows us good access to assess and condition check the paintings before work starts.

As my first priority I have been working closely with the team to help ensure that the collection at Kenwood House is protected for the duration of this project and we have been working hard to do this. So far, this means that I have been climbing up scaffolding in order to ensure the paintings are protected from dust while the buildings works continue on around them and I have also been able to help in other practical ways, from surveying door furniture to monitoring the site while the works continue.

To protect the paintings which couldn’t be removed from the house, we’ve done this by making our own protective covers to sit on top of the paintings and keep them snug, away from dust and dirt generated on the building site. In the entrance hall this almost makes them look like they have their mop caps on ready for bed – but it does the job it needs to and the paintings will stay safe underneath this soft fabric cover.

With the protection in place, the paintings are safe and secure from dust whilst on site work takes place

As well as this vital on site work I am also working hard in the studio to ready some of our other paintings for re-display in the autumn when Kenwood House re-opens to the public. I am currently working on a large paper object that has come out of the stores at Kenwood and is now in need of serious structural repair, with many old damages as you can see in the images we took for documentation.

Before treatment, with facing paper to stabilise the worst tears until the painting is cleaned.
Before treatment, with facing paper to stabilise the worst tears until the painting is cleaned.
Before treatment, you can see the canvas that’s been used to try and support the painting now it’s off the wall.
Raking light – a bright light shone from an angle across the painting – shows deformations in the surface of the paper.
A UV light image highlights old retouching (painted over losses or later additions).
A UV light image highlights old retouching (painted over losses or later additions).

So far I have surface cleaned, removed varnish and also cleaned off later overpaint layers by combing over the surface very meticulously, amounting to at least 500 hours of work so far, a long and complex job. I will soon be treating the tears and reinforcing the structure of the painting in order to keep it safe for future generations to come. The work is painstaking but extremely satisfying and I am learning a lot along the way.

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