Behind The Scenes, 6 May 2020: A light in the dark - conserving an iconic painting
6 May 2020
A few weeks ago we set down our tools, halted our installation and put collections back into storage as we prepared for lockdown. Although these are uneasy times, it’s also a chance for us to reflect on how far we’ve already come and look ahead. One of our works perfectly captures that search for light in the darkness. It’s William Daniell’s ‘Eddystone Lighthouse, During a Storm’, and it’s one of many works of art to undergo special conservation in preparation for our opening.
‘Eddystone Lighthouse, During a Storm’ is an iconic work from our collections and a visitor favourite. You might recognise it from the former Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery where it was on display for many years, and remember its dramatic contrast between the swelling darkness of the sea and the light beaming from the lantern room.
An associated print
While we’ve been closed for redevelopment, we’ve had the chance to spend more time with the associated print that Daniell published. Over the course of a decade, he made several tours of coastal Britain and sketched the views he encountered. These were gathered together and sold as an eight volume luxury print series. Our large painting was made in conjunction with the print in 1825 at the end of his tour.
Prior to this, he would have encountered the great gale that hit the south west coast in November 1824. It's a well documented event – a hurricane force wind and storm surge that hit the south coast of England on 22 November 1824 – particularly Devon and Dorset. We can only imagine how wild the conditions must have been out on the dangerous Eddystone Reef. In the print, Daniell shows a great deal of interest in the movement of the torrential sea. This detail isn’t so evident in the final painting..... or is it?
A conservation discovery
We worked with a paintings conservator to look closely at the painting under special lights and lenses. She found that it had been cleaned several times, but only selectively! Past cleanings had spruced up the light from the lighthouse but left the rest of the painting mostly untouched before revarnishing. Over the past century these layers of varnish had discoloured and darkened, making the contrast between light and dark all the more pronounced. We were faced with a tough decision: should we clean the work and bring it back to what might have been the artist’s original intention, or keep the highly contrasted painting as it’s known and loved?
After much deliberation we decided to have the painting cleaned, which meant the removal of the old varnish. These layers, our conservator said:
were interspersed with dirt layers and were particularly thick over parts of the sea and obscured a lot of detail.
We are thrilled with the results. From these details below, which were sent to us while the work was undergoing treatment, you can see the brightness of the reflected candlelight of the lighthouse and the subtle stormy hues of pink and orange that had been lost under yellowing varnish.
The full form of the lighthouse and the all-consuming waves crashing on to the Eddystone rocks have all emerged from the darkness too.
The painting’s ornate gilded frame also been retouched and now shines more brightly. You’ll have to wait a bit longer than expected to see the impressive final results, but for now we hope this story offers a beacon of light as we navigate these stormy seas.
A little extra reading
If you're interested in some further reading, here's a diary extract discovered with the William Daniell print by one of our Visitor Services Assistants. He came across it last year when he was working on our long-term project to improve the storage and documentation of our works on paper. It’s taken from a letter from James Simmons, lightkeeper at the Eddystone, to John Authur Esq, Customs House, Plymouth and is dated 25 November 1824:
The storm was very severe from the evening of the 22nd and increased with the rising of the tide, at or about five o’clock in the morning of the 23rd. The sea was tremendous, and broke with such violence on the top and round the building, as to demolish, in an instant, five panes of the lantern glass, and sixteen cylinder glasses, the former of which is of unusual thickness.
The house shook with so much violence as to occasion considerable motion of the cylinder glasses fixed in the lamps, and at times the whole building appeared to jump as if resting on an elastic body. The water came from the top of the building in such quantities, that we were overwhelmed, and the sea made a breach from the top of the house to the bottom.
with thanks to Terah Walkup, Art Curator and Russell Heath, Visitor Services Assistant