Sign up to our mailing list

We are glad you're enjoying our site, please sign up to our mailing list to receive the latest news and events listing.

Cleaning and conservation of Chapel artwork commences with tours every week


Mon 20 Jun 22

From now until the end of August, visitors to the Chapel will have a rare opportunity to see first-hand our expert team undertake the meticulous and skilful work of conservation of Benjamin West’s epic ‘Preservation of St Paul after a Shipwreck at Malta’ in situ.

The Chapel and Conservation Tours are available to book every Mondays & Tuesdays until 2 August where you can discover first-hand about the exciting conservation work taking place in the Chapel. Our expert guides will share the history of one of the most beautiful chapels in the country on a special 30-minute talk.

Conservation specialists, Paine & Stewart, have completed their preliminary cleaning trials and have begun the specialist work of cleaning and conserving the painting with the aim of improving the presentation of the chapel altar which is compromised by heavy deposits of dirt and dust accumulated since the last conservation intervention undertaken during the 1980s.

Their work is based on the principle of minimum necessary intervention and includes testing and assessment to ensure that materials and methods meet the highest standards of conservation practice today.

Overseeing the project is Martin Ashley, Surveyor of the Fabric for the Old Royal Naval College and Chief conservator Francesco Rosellini who led the James Thornhill’s conservation in the Painted Hall.

Conservation techniques have moved on since the last time the Benjamin West painting was conserved, where the approach was more aggressive involving chemicals and stripping back and retouching before layering on varnishes.

Today, as in the work undertaken in the Painted Hall, the approach is much subtler, using more gentle methods and materials. Tests and trails on a section of the painting illustrating a shoulder and rolled sleeve have already shown significant improvement. The gentle and non-evasive clean gives us with a dramatic and remarkable effect making the section lighter and easier to read.

The programme of cleaning includes the removal of embedded deposits of surface dirt and dust from all surfaces using dry surface cleaning with soft brushes and Wishab conservation sponges to gently remove dirt and dust deposits adhering to surfaces. Air extraction removes deposits and reduces the amount of free dust on the painted surface.

In some instances, where it is felt that a further level of cleaning is required to remove more ingrained dirt, it may be necessary to undertake wet surface cleaning, where more tenacious dirt is cleaned with deionised water applied with a high absorbency sponge to remove surface dirt and debris.

Then, if necessary, a solution of conservation materials using tri-ammonium citrate is applied over the painted surface (either by cotton wool swab or the absorbent sponge dipped in the reagent and wrung almost dry), followed by immediate clearance several times with a dry absorbent sponge.

Preliminary testing has been undertaken to establish a cleaning material and method with the optimum working properties (controllability; ease of application; non-toxicity; no physical or chemical alteration of original materials; the avoidance of residues).

The results of this testing concluded that a 1% solution of tri-ammonium citrate in deionised water worked very effectively to remove the surface dirt.

Work has also started on the elaborate frame, designed by Richard Lawrence, which suffers from localised damage along its lower edge and an overall distribution of dust and grime also significantly compromising the visual quality of the frame.

The Old Royal Naval College is a charity which relies on the generosity of the public to help maintain and protect some of the nation’s finest art and architecture. The charity increasingly needs to raise vital funds to continually invest in conservation and enhance our visitor offer.

Money raised from The Chapel and Conservation Tours and donations will help us conserve the painting, install a new and environmentally friendly lighting scheme, and provide new ways to discover and enjoy West’s masterpiece.