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Leighton House

Conservation of G.F. Watts' wall paintings

A fascinating project by Tobit Curteis Associates.

Conservation work for G.F. Watts' wall paintings, Leighton House. Image courtesy of Jaron James.

As part of our ongoing conservation work at Leighton House, we commissioned Tobit Curteis Associates to carry out a fascinating project around a pair of wall paintings by George Frederic Watts, which were presented to Leighton House after Leighton's death.

Read our interview with Tobit or watch the short video from the Related Content section below.

What was the state of the wall paintings when you started your work?

Generally, the paintings were in a reasonably good condition but because of the history of them both being detached from the walls, treated by the contemporary restorers, and then mounted in large-scale frames, they have been turned into easel paintings rather than being wall paintings which meant the context was lost and they became slightly meaningless. But the actual physical condition wasn’t too bad on our initial assessment. When we looked closer, however, we found that there was some discoloration, flaking and many more things that we needed to deal with than we initially anticipated.


G.F. Watts, Humanity in the lap of Earth (left) and Study for Figure in "Chaos" (right)

What were the conservation and presentation challenges?

There were a number of options of how we could treat the paintings, ranging from leaving them in their big Victorian gold frames so they look like easel paintings to completely removing all the Victorian plaster and presenting them as fragments of archaeology on the walls. In fact, we decided to go for a middle way, where we retained a lot of the Victorian retouching and repairs but we present them without the frames so you still see they were part of the building. As far as the techniques go, we were consolidating and readhering flaky paint, cleaning the surface to reduce the amount of residues which gave them a very dull appearance and eventually applying a fine protective varnish over the surface.

Detail of G.F. Watts' wall painting in UV light.

How are they going to be displayed in the 'new' Leighton House?

It is always really difficult when you are dealing with detached wall paintings. When we investigated, we found that the surviving paintings were only 3 to 4 mm thick and that really limits what you can do with them in technical terms. So we had to make decisions about what we were trying to show: were we trying to show archaeology? or works of art? or bits of the house that has  disappeared?. Then we had to decide what would that mean in technical terms and how we can then present it and preserve it and stabilise it. And then we had to look at the space that was left for us in the museum, at Leighton House. So how can we show this on these raw brick walls and tell the story that we are trying to explain to people?. In terms of conservation, that I think it is the most complicated thing. The treatment was delicate, it had to be handled very carefully because the pigments are so sensitive but it was not controversial.