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Rare opportunity to see conservation in action as work begins on Benjamin West’s epic painting


Wed 27 Apr 22

The Old Royal Naval College has long attracted the finest artists and architects in the world as demonstrated by Benjamin West’s magisterial altarpiece in the Chapel. From 9 May 2022 until the end of August, visitors to the Chapel will have a rare opportunity to see first-hand our expert team undertake the conservation of this major artwork in situ.

Painted in 1789, Benjamin West’s epic ‘Preservation of St Paul after a Shipwreck at Malta’ is one of the artist’s most important works. Today it requires urgent conservation.

At a colossal 25 x 14 feet, the floor to ceiling painting demonstrates the sheer range of West’s talents and his ability to mix profound subject matter with a dramatic handling of light, movement and narrative, the key ingredients in any history painting. The altarpiece is now the only one of West’s major works to survive in its original location, here in the Chapel at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich.

The composition depicts the scene in the Acts of the Apostles in which Saint Paul is shipwrecked on his way to Rome where he will be prosecuted. At the centre of the painting, Paul stands heroically over the fire lit by the ship’s passengers to keep warm. Intruding on the scene is the snake from whose poisonous bite Paul miraculously feels no effect.

The way the scene is portrayed shows West responding to the baroque spirit of the Old Royal Naval College’s architecture, marrying this earlier more dramatic sensibility with the harmonious forms of Neo-Classicism. The maritime scene would have been appropriate for the Chapel, which served naval pensioners, many of whom might have recognised their own experiences in West’s narrative.

Following a programme of investigation by leading painting conservators, Paine and Stewart (who recently executed the award-winning conservation of Thornhill’s Painted Hall), a full surface clean of the painting’s surface will be necessary. Adhering to the principle of minimal intervention, the primary intention will be to retain the existing varnish.

Dust residue and other surface debris has severely compromised the aesthetic qualities of this painting and there is a significant reduction of the original luminosity of the pigments, as well as a flattening of the powerful 3- dimensionality of the figures. The elaborate frame, designed by Richard Lawrence, suffers from localised damage along its lower edge and an overall distribution of dust and grime also significantly compromises 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.

We are seeking your support to help us with this important project. Every donation 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.

Find out how you can support us.