Mengs’ copy of Raphael’s School of Athens was painted in 1755 as one of a series of exemplary works for the gallery at Northumberland House. It was damaged both by a fire there in 1868 and in the subsequent salvage operation.
There is minute blistering of the paint surface in places particularly the upper right area of the painting. This gives the surface a patchy matt appearance when viewed from certain angles.
The canvas is very large, 4.32 x 8.11 metres, and difficult to handle. It is likely that many of the old tears in the canvas occurred during its salvage after the fire at Northumberland House. There is also a repeating pattern of creases along the upper edge that suggests that while the canvas was rolled up, the end of the roll was crushed.
Before its acquisition in 1926, the canvas was lined and also strip-lined. On this occasion we have been doing minimal treatment, surface cleaning and adjusting some of the retouchings. We will also be exchanging the fabric dust protection on the reverse, the old material having become brittle.
The Mengs was the subject of a major conservation project in the early 1980s before its display in the Cast Courts. Peter Young and Susannah Edmunds led a team that included students from the Hamilton Kerr Institute. Due to the size of the object there were several stages when they called on other museum colleagues to help.
They carried out extensive treatment that included fixing loose paint, repairing tears in the canvas and strengthening the edges with an additional strip-lining. A very discoloured varnish was removed, transforming the painting. The canvas was attached to a newly commissioned stretcher before being raised up with a system of pulleys to avoid twisting the painting.
After a new isolating layer of varnish, losses in the paint were filled. There were losses associated with the many tears as well as with the blistering of the paint layer as a result of the heat of the fire.
As part of the current project the painting is being moved from the south wall to the east wall. While it was down we wanted to take the opportunity to check its condition and carry out any remedial work that was necessary.
The process of taking the enormous canvas off the wall and the construction of the splendid temporary easel is the subject of a previous blog. (link: http://www.vam.ac.uk/blogs/vam.ac.uk/blogs/reviving-the-vas-cast-courts-… )
We found that the paint was still secure; the previous fixing treatment having been very successful. We removed the surface dust and dirt that had settled on the painting in the last 30 years or so.
Retouchings are often built up in layers imitating the layer structure of the original paint. We found a number of places where this process seemed incomplete i.e. the final layer of retouching had never been applied. Working on such a scale they were easy to miss. Gabriella Macaro and Audrey Marko spent some time adjusting these retouchings.
The painting is huge when you are standing in front of it and yet it looks small in the context of the Cast Courts. Ours is a small intervention compared to the scale of the conservation work that was undertaken in the 1980s.