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House of Lords: Royal Gallery Frescos

Volume 720: debated on Monday 12 July 2010


Asked By

To ask the Chairman of Committees what steps are being taken to restore the frescos in the Royal Gallery.

My Lords, the Waterloo and Trafalgar murals in the Royal Gallery are painted on plaster using the water-glass technique, and no safe and effective method for their cleaning has yet been established. Early next year, the Curator’s Office will subject the paintings to a full condition survey. The feasibility of improving the appearance of the murals through conservation or lighting techniques will be considered by the Works of Art Committee.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. I am glad to hear that some action is going to be taken. Does he not deplore the present state of the murals in a place that is a showcase for Heads of State as well as many members of the public? Does he not agree that the Japanese experts who did a wonderful job in the Sistine Chapel should be consulted on the future of these murals? Finally, does he realise that “son of a gun” is not an American expression but an English one? Many women can be plainly seen in those murals, women who sewed, cooked and nursed—so “son of a gun” is an English expression.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the last part of her question. The water-glass technique was originally developed in Germany in the mid-19th century and adopted by Maclise for painting the Royal Gallery murals. They were begun in 1859 and finished by 1866. By 1869, only three years later, there were comments in the press that the paintings were already substantially faded. It is not known why this happened. The technique was successfully used elsewhere in the Palace. It is not a question of not having done anything about it, but a question about finding a way of doing something about it and so far no way has been found.

I am of course aware of the work done to the frescos in the Vatican. They are a different kind of fresco from our water-glass technique frescos. They were substantially and very successfully restored in the 1980s and the results are very striking, as the noble Baroness says. However, the same techniques could not be used on the Royal Gallery murals because of the water-glass technique that they were originally painted in. The Vatican work cost several million dollars, which is another factor.

My Lords, have any other frescos in the British Isles needed similar restoration? Both the splendid pictures that adorn the Royal Gallery are rare in terms of their size and indeed because they are frescos, which do not thrive in our climate. The German technique, introduced by Prince Albert, was very experimental at the time. If we have knowledge of any other work done with a similar technique, would it not be helpful to see whether they can be restored at all and what the cost may be?

Of course, other frescos in the Palace have been restored, but they were not done using the water-glass technique—that appears to be the difficulty. Other frescos elsewhere have been cleaned, dirt and dust have been removed and they have been greatly improved. I point out to noble Lords that Maclise painted a quarter-sized version of the Trafalgar mural on canvas in rich colours. It is in the Walker gallery in Liverpool and is available to look at on the internet, which I did before I came to answer this Question. It gives some idea of how magnificent the colours must have looked when they first went up, but unfortunately they have not survived 150 years.

My Lords, although the technique used in the Royal Gallery is different from the technique used by Michelangelo in painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, would it be worth consulting the Vatican Restoration Laboratory, which established new rules in 1978 for restoration, before we abandon any idea of restoring our own wonderful murals?

My Lords, we have not abandoned the idea. Over the years, the Curator and the Works of Art Committee have looked many times at ways in which we might be able to do this, but so far no method has been found. Tests have been done on the murals which have not really had any satisfactory results. Lighting has been considered and perhaps could be improved. New lighting techniques will be adopted for the Armada paintings which might help, but even good lighting will not restore the colours to the murals as they are.

My Lords, if the frescos proved difficult or impossible to restore, as the Minister seems to be implying, would it be total heresy—I suspect it would—for me to suggest that we should commission a contemporary artist to replace the pictures in the Royal Gallery?

My Lords, the Chairman of Committees has said that the frescos were painted using a technique developed in Germany. Has anyone asked the Germans whether they have similar problems with frescos in Germany and, if so, how they have dealt with them?

My Lords, as I said earlier, the House has looked at this issue over a number of years. I can only guess that the Germans would have been asked, although this technique was established in the middle of the 19th century so there is not likely to be anyone around with an original view on it. We have looked into ways of doing this and, so far, nothing has been found.

My Lords, France’s heritage is rich in frescos, as we all know. If there is to be an international search for a good method of doing it, could we have some guarantee that the French would not be excluded on political grounds?

My Lords, the French certainly would not be excluded, despite the subject of the two murals. Maybe, at the time, they were not foolish enough to use the water-glass technique.