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Whiter than right

Robin Simon, editor of the British Art Journal and Honorary Professor of English at University College, London, has visited Chartres Cathedral and condemned its present restoration on a Facebook post and in a tweet:

“Just visited Chartres and I am appalled at the misguided ‘restoration’ that is covering the old stone walls in paint, with false pointing, creating a bland and uniform interior where the articulation of the architecture is crudely diminished. The history of the walls, of the building itself, is lost beneath a futile attempt to return the building to some imagined date in the distant past. What makes it much, much worse is the presence of bright electric lighting at crossing, choir and east end that destroys the effect of the greatest stained glass ever made, which used to cast the most wonderful haunting blue light throughout what was a uniquely ethereal interior. The magnificent chiefly 17th-century carved choir screen that wraps around the high altar end is also being whitewashed and the figures painted white, which is diminishing the three-dimensionality of these dramatic groups fully carved in the round. They now, remarkably, look flat, and have a smooth slimy surface with much of the miraculous crispness of the carving and detail lost.”

Robin Simon @robinsimonbaj:

“Just seen #Chartres #cathedral shocking #restoration. Walls painted, false pointing, glaring lights ruining blue light of glass, 17C carved choir screen flattened by white paint. State vandalism, arrogant architects, wrong-headed’experts’. Sign the petition https://bit.ly/2AmSRmN
10:15 AM – 22 Oct 2018

Above, Fig. 1: Chartres Cathedral, with repainted vaulting in the choir contrasting with the existing nave and transepts in the foreground, Chartres, France, as published on July 11, 2012 in the New York Review (Photo: Hubert Fanthomme/Paris Match via Getty Images)

We have repeatedly attacked this restoration and on 16 December 2014 (“Chartres Cathedral Make-Work Scheme”) reported that this restoration had first been challenged in May 2012 by Alasdair Palmer in the Spectator – see his “Restoration tragedy” which began:

“Should old buildings look old? Or should they be restored to a condition where they look as if they could have been put up yesterday? Those questions are raised in a particularly pertinent form by the work going on at one of the most beautiful and inspiring of all old buildings: Chartres cathedral in France.

“Most of Chartres cathedral dates from between 1194 and 1230, when the bulk of the colossal stone structure, with its nearly 200 stained-glass windows and thousands of sculptures, was built. The extraordinary speed of its construction means that Chartres has an architectural and decorative unity that is unique among surviving cathedrals, most of which took a hundred years or more to complete, and were then altered drastically over the succeeding centuries.

“Chartres has suffered from the inevitable indignities inflicted by time. The paint with which the medieval artists originally covered the statues and the walls faded and flaked off within a few generations. Centuries of burning wax candles covered the interior with a thick layer of black soot. But Chartres remains far closer to the original building than almost any other medieval cathedral. The biggest effect of the intervening centuries since 1230 has been the accretion of the patina of age. A sense of the passing of time is part of the experience of looking at Chartres. The stone, the glass, the sculpture — it all looks very old, and its age is part of its fascination and its mystery.

“Or at least, it is in those parts of Chartres cathedral that have not yet been cleaned by the latest restoration project. It isn’t in those parts where the restorers have finished their work, for they look brand-new. There’s no patina of age here: there are only clean and bright surfaces.

“Is that an improvement? The restorers insist that it is…”

On 14 December 2014 Martin Filler, an architectural historian of Columbia University, New York, protested against the aims and consequences of such restorations in the New York Review (“A Scandalous Makeover at Chartres”):

“In 2009, amid a rising wave of other refurbishments of medieval buildings, the French Ministry of Culture’s Monuments Historiques division embarked on a drastic, $18.5 million overhaul of the eight-hundred-year-old cathedral. Though little is specifically known about the church’s original appearance—despite small traces of pigment at many points throughout the interior stonework—the project’s leaders, apparently with the full support of the French state, have set out to do no less than repaint the entire interior in bright whites and garish colors that are intended to return the sanctuary to its medieval state. This sweeping program to ‘reclaim’ Chartres from its allegedly anachronistic gloom is supposed to be completed in 2017.

“The belief that a heavy-duty reworking can allow us see the cathedral as its makers did is not only magical thinking but also a foolhardy concept that makes authentic artifacts look fake. To cite only one obvious solecism, the artificial lighting inside the present-day cathedral—which no one has suggested removing—already makes the interiors far brighter than they were during the Middle Ages, and thus we can be sure that the painted walls look nothing like they would have before the advent of electricity.”

Although the Chartres interior had initially been painted Filler noted that:

“…the exact chemical components of the medieval pigments remain unknown. The original paint is thought to have flaked off within a few generations and not been replaced, so for most of the building’s eight-century history it has not been experienced with painted surfaces. The emerging color scheme now allows a direct, and deeply disheartening, before-and-after comparison.”

Above, Fig. 2: left, Chartres cathedral stone work in its pre- and post-restoration conditions; right, the view looking SE in Chartres cathedral showing painted and unpainted areas adjacent to each other.

THWARTING A THREAT TO CHARTRES CATHEDRAL’S STAINED GLASS WINDOWS

As well as making a historically falsifying transformation of the interior, the funding of the restoration was itself exposing the ancient stained glass windows to needless risks. On 18 February 2016, Florence Hallett (“Chartres’ Flying Windows”) protested against plans to fly part of the cathedral’s stained glass to the United States as a fund-raising quid pro quo for support given by the American Friends of Chartres:

“While the cost of the controversial repainting of the cathedral’s interior has been met by the French state and donors including Crédit Agricole, Caisse Val de France et Fondation, and MMA assurances, the restoration of the cathedral’s famous glass has been funded in part by the American Friends of Chartres (AFC), an organisation that works ‘to raise awareness in the United States of Chartres Cathedral and its unique history, sculpture, stained glass, and architecture and their conservation needs.’

“Based in Washington, the AFC has ambitious plans to fund the restoration of the cathedral’s windows and sculptures. In 2013 it announced on its own site, and via the crowd-funding website razoo.com, that in return for funding the restoration of the Bakers’ Window (two lancets and a rose in the nave), the 13th-century glass would travel to a US museum. Indeed, the still extant webpage makes explicit the nature of the exchange, proclaiming: ‘American Friends of Chartres INVITES YOU to Restore and Bring to the United States a 13th-Century Stained Glass Window for Museum Exhibit’.”

Hallett’s specific challenge to the American Friends on the foolhardy plan to fly ancient stained glass windows to the United States seemed to have proved a successful deterrent. As we reported in a footnote:

“STOP PRESS: At 17.33 today, in answer to an email of 14 February, Florence Hallett was notified by the American Friends of Chartres that:

‘The exhibit of Bay 140 which had been envisaged will not take place because of cost reasons. And, to answer your question, of course all the proper authorizations from the French Ministry of Culture and other authorities had been secured by the DRAC-Centre Val de Loire, which had been nominated by the Ministry of Culture to execute the project. All the arrangements for the exhibit of Bay 140 would have been contractually arranged between the DRAC on behalf of the French authorities and the cultural institution that would have exhibited the window. American Friends of Chartres would not have been part of these contractual arrangements.’ ”

Above, Fig. 3: Top, a section of the Belle Verrière windows at Chartres. Above, a potential means of transport for early 13th century glass

If you owned or were the guardian of such ancient precious glass painting, would you pack it onto an aeroplane and dispatch it across an ocean to another continent? If “yes” you would be able to claim precedents: the ecclesiastical authorities at Canterbury cathedral sent the entire surviving six parts of an original cycle of eighty-six ancestors of Christ, once one of the most comprehensive stained-glass cycles known in art history, on a museum tour around the United States. (See “How the Metropolitan Museum of Art gets hold of the world’s most precious and vulnerable treasures”. )

Florence Hallett is the architecture and monuments correspondent at ArtWatch UK and visual arts editor at theartsdesk.com

Robin Simon gave the ninth annual ArtWatch International James Beck Memorial Lecture – “Never trust the teller trust the tale” – on 7 November 2017 at the Society of Antiquaries of London, in Burlington House, Piccadilly, London.

Alasdair Palmer has written frequently on art restoration for the Spectator and the Sunday Telegraph – see “Restoration tragedies” 26 August 2012.

Martin Filler is a prominent American architecture critic and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

WHO PROFITS?

The various strongly made cases against the Chartres Cathedral restoration project, rest in essence on the folly of attempting to replicate a speculative incompletely-informed notion of how an interior might have appeared many centuries ago when brand new. At Chartres this particular exercise is not only wrong-headed, it is, as Alasdair Palmer pointed out five and a half years ago, especially egregious: this attempted replication of an original state is inflicting a peculiarly brutal and unforgivable expunging of an ancient building’s historically lived evolving appearance. “Brutal”, because having been uniquely executed as a distinct artistically integrated whole this cathedral’s precious fabric had thereafter survived in uniquely unmolested form. Here was a building whose monumental lucidity might be considered a match for the timeless Parthenon. Here was a building which, unlike the Parthenon today, had not become a cadaver on a test bed for aggressively invasive conservation methods; which retained its forms and, even, an especial ancient illumination – one that, as Robin Simon attests, had once “cast the most wonderful haunting blue light throughout what was a uniquely ethereal interior”. Gone. And all in exchange for an $18million building contract that is already running over schedule and will, no doubt, end over budget.

When faced with incomprehensibly barbaric mistreatments of old art and monuments we must ask not only “why?” but “who profits?” The last is no slur. It is a necessary step towards explanations for otherwise inexplicably perverse cultural actions. It is indisputably the case that such high-prestige art and architecture restorations generate much employment, purchases of materials, scaffolding etc. – and that they can greatly enhance professional reputations. None of those consequences is necessarily wrong or bad in itself but due acknowledgement of them should constitute a component part of any calculus of appraisal of restorations or proposed restoration campaigns. It is concerning that in today’s rapidly accelerating restoration boom, material/professional interests are looming ever-larger as it proves increasingly easy to raise funds for large-scale building projects made on the back of the culturally-loaded, ethically coercive, names of “conservation” and “restoration”.

We have shown that it is European Union policy to increase activity in the arts sphere as a means of generating jobs in compensation for those being lost to less moribund economies: “I am especially happy to highlight the importance of culture to the European Union’s objective of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. At a time when many of our industries are facing difficulties, the cultural and creative industries have experienced unprecedented growth and offer the prospect of sustainable, future-oriented and fulfilling jobs.” See “Why is the European Commission instructing museums to incur more risks by lending more art?” and “The European Commission’s way of moving works of art around”.)

We know that the Chartres project has been part funded by the French Government. In this climate, greatly more vigilance and disclosure are now urgently required. No such project should ever be sprung on the world again. Monumentally dramatic proposals should be examined widely publicly and well in advance of the scaffolders moving in.

ASSORTED CONSERVATION RATIONALES

Above, Fig. 4: Left, the original interior of St Paul’s Cathedral as recorded in an undated but apparently 18th century painting that is owned by The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, at which date Sir Christopher Wren’s original painted finish comprised of three coats of warmly tinted oil paint that had been stipulated, according to Wren’s son, “not just for beautifying, but to preserve and harden the stone” still survived.

It was only disclosed during the recent under-researched stripping of the interior of St. Paul’s that Wren’s oil painted surface had contained lead white, ochre and black pigments so as to produce precisely the warm “stone colour” found in other Wren churches. Above, right, we see the new dazzling white surfaces of the building’s interior and its sculptures when illuminated by one of new electric chandeliers installed during the restoration because, as Martin Stancliffe, the cathedral’s then 17th Surveyor to the Fabric, put it, “the heart of my vision for the interior [was] to clean it and relight it”.

It is striking not only how frequently programmes have proceeded on artistically/art-historically injurious premises, but also how very contrary the aims of those various programmes can be. Where at Chartres cathedral attempt is being made to replicate a far-distant hypothesized original decorative scheme, at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, as Florence Hallett established, a major project to transform an interior was made on a reverse (and equally perverse) artistic/historical agenda. At St Paul’s, with a much more modern documented and visually recorded building, a programme was implemented to expunge the last traces of the original architect’s initial (and easily replicable) decorative programme with aesthetically falsifying – and, in the event, health-threatening – consequences even though the originally applied tinted oil paint was a known quantity, having survived intact in protected places.

In London too, much money was quickly raised but here it was spent stripping an interior down (with chemically-invasive materials never before used inside an occupied, still functioning cathedral) to create an a-historical modernist whiteness rather than to retain surviving traces or fully replicate the known original historic surface decoration. In consequence, not only has a powdery surface of stripped-down raw stone been exposed, but an already misleading appearance was subjected to the very greatly amplified artificial lighting that is shown above and was first established by Florence Hallett’s investigations: “Cleaning St. Paul’s Cathedral”, ArtWatch UK Journal 17, Winter, 2002; and “The supposedly ‘model’ restoration of St. Paul’s Cathedral”, ArtWatch UK Journal 18, Spring/summer 2003. Online, see Michael Daley: “Brighter than Right, Part 1: A Modernist Makeover at St Paul’s Cathedral” (1 June 2011) and “Brighter than Right, Part 2: Technical Problems of Protection, Health and Safety at St Paul’s Cathedral” (5 July 2011).

Above, Fig. 5: Left, a conservator removing a latex “cleansing pack” from a carved head at St Paul’s Cathedral, as published on the cover of Conservation News in May 2002. The journal reported that the latex was left on the surface for “one to four days” and that after its removal the stone was cleaned with “damp sponges and bristle brushes”. Right, a carved head at St Paul’s after being cleaned with water and bristle brushes. (Photography by Peter Smith/Jarrold Publishing.)

The chemical stripping-down of the cathedral’s interior surfaces to a novel whiteness was in accordance with an idée fixe of the 17th Surveyor to the Fabric, not of Sir Christopher Wren. In a 2005 programme note to a service held in honour of the restoration’s donors (“How the glory of St Paul’s was restored”), Mr Stancliffe declared that “the heart of my vision for the interior [was] to clean it and relight it”. In the Times of 10 June 2004 he announced his “pretty controversial” intention to introduce “six huge chandeliers” to flood the interior with artificial light. A year later he told the Guardian “we have installed new chandeliers and more lights” and expressed specific satisfaction on “seeing our initial vision gloriously realised.”

Above, Figs. 6 and 7: Top, the blotchy appearance of the stripped-down stone surfaces. Above, a simple, quick demonstration of the present dangerously powdery surfaces.

The brightness of this “restoration” was achieved at great aesthetic and material cost. As shown above, the surfaces have been left without patina and remain disfiguringly blotchy even after cosmetic attempts to mitigate the grosser consequences of the standardised indiscriminate cleaning method (see below). As for the supposed “conservation” purposes of this multi-million pounds programme, the interior’s now powdery surfaces are more vulnerable to environmental pollution and fluctuations of temperature and humidity than at any time in the building’s history. That the originally oil-paint protected surface of this limestone has been left as powdery as chalk was easily demonstrated by brushing the above sleeve against it.

CHECKS? BALANCES? TOOTHLESS WATCHDOGS?

Approval for the use of an experimental cleaning method on the interior of a publicly occupied and in-service cathedral had been given by The Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England in November 1999 following (claimed) earlier approvals by a bevy of heritage watchdogs: English Heritage; SPAB (The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings); The Victorian Society; and The Georgian Group. It is not possible to establish the precise chemical basis on which formal approval was given by the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England because, in breach of good conservation practices, the three technical parts of the eight part submission document were withheld on grounds of commercial confidentiality. For information on technical matters we had to rely on the cathedral’s own fluctuating (and often self-contradicting) accounts; on our correspondence with the 17th Surveyor to the Fabric, which he terminated in March 2003; and on documents obtained by cathedral employees whose health was adversely affected by the restoration.

The cleaning agent used on St Paul’s interior was an experimental, technically undisclosed, adaptation of a commercial product. In both its composition and effects, it earned censure from leading conservation experts (see below). It was a commercially available, latex rubber poultice laced with a mix of chemicals that were said to comprise an agent specifically tailored to be similar to the mild alkalinity of St. Paul’s Portland stone – that is, it was a special version of the “Arte Mundit” water-based paste manufactured by the Belgian company FTB Restoration. The instigator/director of the restoration, the architect and the 17th Surveyor to the Fabric at St Paul’s Cathedral, admitted (at a lecture on October 21st 2003) to having slim knowledge of matters chemical and of having devolved – “entrusted” – responsibility for the application of the new paste to the conservators of the firm Nimbus who themselves were learning on the job while the cathedral remained in full commercial and ecclesiastical use.

Professor Richard Wolbers, conservation scientist and solvents expert at the Winterthur Museum and Gardens, University of Delaware Art Conservation Department, was highly critical of a number of technical features of the programme and reiterated his fear that the authors “seem to have taken a poorly characterised material, a latex paste, and modified it with the addition of a considerable amount of EDTA – largely as an adaption in their minds, I suppose, of one of the main ingredients in the Mora’s AB57 cleaning system.”

(The Mora AB57 method was the notorious cocktail of EDTA, sodium and ammonium, detergent and other ingredients in a paste that was twice applied and twice washed off Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings. We have chronicled the artistically disastrous consequence of stripping all organic material from the ceiling plaster. Within a generation the newly-exposed bare plaster had been secretly re-restored to remove powdering of the plaster, and then, in part-compensation, it was massively relit with coloured LED lights – see “The Sistine Chapel Restorations: Part I ~ Setting the Scene, Packing Them In” and “The Twilight of a God: Virtual Reality in the Vatican”.)

John Larson, the then Head of Sculpture and Inorganic Conservation at the Conservation Centre, National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, said that applications of moulding materials had contributed so much damage over the past 200 years that museums around the world “have now banned” their use, and that the application of liquid latex by brush or spray “has a dramatic effect on porous material such as stone…as it dries latex shrinks and clings tenaciously to the surface.” The effect of pulling it off the stone “exerts strong mechanical forces on the surfaces when the stone is carved and deeply undercut, as shown on the cover of Conservation News.” (See Figs. 5, 6 and 7 above.)

Above, Fig. 8: Left, sculptures at St. Paul’s being cleaned by steam jets; right, a detail showing the sculptures in the ambulatory of Chartres Cathedral on 11 July 2012. (Photograph by courtesy of Hubert Fanthomme/Getty Images.)

All horrible restorations are horrible in their own ways. Steam cleaning sculpture is considered an acceptable “conservation technique” even though it is visually deadening and leaves marble surfaces resembling white granular sugar and greatly more exposed to environmental pollution and fluctuations of humidity and temperature. We have witnessed conservators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, painting dead white steam-cleaned Greek marble carvings with water colours. One, when asked what he was doing, replied that he was “putting back the patina” destroyed by the cleaning. That, presumably, is why the Greek sculptures at the MET now sport a uniformly tasteful biscuit-coloured “patina” regardless of their age and geographical origins. As seen above, at St Paul’s Cathedral the all-white, sans-patina effect found favour and sculptures were left as raw-white as the building itself. At Chartres, however, the new visually deadening whiteness of the sculptures is the product of yet another method and philosophy. The sculptures are not being stripped down to the innate interior whiteness of the stone but are having a white skin of paint superimposed – before also being further brightened by artificial lights. The aesthetic, psychological and spiritual consequences of this practice at Chartres can be seen above right where just a few years ago the not-yet “restored” figures in the ambulatory still shared our common spaces. There, among us, touchable and as if alive, they had for centuries acted their roles in a drama greater than Shakespeare’s – one that, millennia ago, had been played for real on earth and, for believers, at God’s will for our benefit. Their once miraculously constructed living tableaus and endlessly changing chiaroscuro are now, as Robin Simon has so poignantly described, flattened and left with “a smooth slimy surface with much of the miraculous crispness of the carving and detail lost.”

Even now, it is not too late to save an unmolested portion of this cathedral for future generations who would otherwise never be aware of the loss and adulteration: a petition – and an invitation to comment – beckons at a touch.

Michael Daley, 30 April 2018

CODA:
Today, 30 April 2018, Electronics Weekly reports that the lighting firm Osram has announced it has won a contract to light St. Peter’s in Rome: “‘We won worldwide recognition for the LED lighting system we installed in the Sistine Chapel’, said Osram Licht CEO Olaf Berlien. ‘We are very excited about this new opportunity to demonstrate our skills as a provider of complex, large-scale lighting solutions by conducting the lighting project in St. Peter’s.’” The report does not say how much Osram will be paid to light St. Peter’s (and, thereby, showcase its own products) but it does give further information on the lighting installed in the Sistine Chapel “The aim was to light the paintings so they appear to be lit by sunlight…Researchers went so far as to incorporate the current thinking of historians – that Michelangelo mixed paints in daylight rather than under candlelight or the light of torches, and therefore needed a cooler over-all colour temperature to get the best view of them today”. Michelangelo, of course, painted in the light of the chapel and for the chapel’s then sources of lighting. Indeed, when the ceiling was stripped down with the Moras’ AB57 chemical cocktail, art historian apologists for the garish colours that emerged contended that Michelangelo had had to make his colours so intense in order for his painting to read through the gloom of the chapel. As Professor Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt of New York University and a Vatican spokesman for the restoration, put it in Apollo in December 1987: “Michelangelo…painted the ceiling in the knowledge that his forms would have to carry in the daylight or in the golden glow of candles and oil lamps. That’s one reason why his [restored] colours are so bright. Now that they are being revealed, the anachronistic spotlights only distort the appearance of the frescoes. In fact, the strong artificial lighting of cleaned areas of the Ceiling originally contributed to the false impression which disturbed critics of the conservation project.” In other words, now that the original colours of Michelangelo had been recovered, the chapel’s strong artificial lighting was surplus to aesthetic requirements. Why, then, was Osram recently invited to create a system of lighting for those (controversially) restoration-intensified colours that mimics the power of direct sunlight? For St Peter’s, Osram have a different agenda: “the lighting will be adjustable to suit different occasions, and will ‘accentuate the properties of the materials used and the building itself, highlighting the plasticity of the structure, its marbles and its architecture.'”


The Spring 2015 ArtWatch UK Journal

The forthcoming ArtWatch UK members’* Journal examines restoration problems; betrayals of trust; the role of conservators in the illicit trade in antiquities; and, the escalating commercial scramble by museums that is disrupting collections and putting much of the world’s greatest art at needless risk.

* For membership details, please contact Helen Hulson, Membership Secretary at hahulson@googlemail.com

ArtWatch UK Journal No. 29

Preview ~ Journal No. 29’s Introduction:

MUSEUMS, MEANS and MENACES

Museums once provided havens for art and solace to visitors. They were cherished for their distinctive historically-given holdings and their staffs were answerable to trustees. Today they serve as platforms for conservators to strut their invasive stuff and as springboards for directors wishing to play impresario, broadcaster or global ambassador. Collections that constituted institutional raisons d’être, are now swappable, disrupt-able value-harvesting feasts. Trustees are reduced to helpmeet enablers of directorial “visions”. No longer content to hold display and study, museums crave growth, action, crowds and corporately branded income-generation. For works of art, actions spell danger as directors compete to beg, bribe and cajole so as to borrow and swap great art for transient but lucrative “dream” compilations. Today, even architecturally integral medieval glass and gilded bronze Renaissance door panels get shuttled around the international museum loans circus.

Above, a window that depicts Jareth – one of no fewer than six monumental windows depicting the Ancestors of Christ that were removed from Canterbury Cathedral (following “conservation”) and flown across the Atlantic to the Getty Museum, California, and then on to the Metropolitan Museum, New York. (For a report on how such precious, fragile
and utterly irreplaceable artefacts become part of the international museums loans and swaps circuit, see How the Metropolitan Museum of Art gets hold of the world’s most precious and vulnerable treasures.)

Above, top, one of Ghiberti’s Florence Baptistery doors (which were dubbed “The Gates of Paradise” by Michelangelo) during restoration. Above, one of three (of the ten) gilded panels from the doors that were sent from Florence to Atlanta; from Atlanta to Chicago; from Chicago to the Metropolitan Museum, New York; from New York to Seattle; and, finally, from Seattle back to Florence. To reduce the risk of losing all three panels during this marathon of flights, they were flown on separate airplanes.

In such an art-churning milieu this organisation’s campaigning becomes more urgent. Fortunately, our website (http://artwatch.org.uk/) has increased our following fifty-fold – and see, for example: “How the Metropolitan Museum of Art gets hold of the worlds most precious and vulnerable treasures”. Here, we publish an abridged version of the fifth lecture given in commemoration of ArtWatch International’s founder, Professor James Beck, and examine persisting betrayals of trust, errors of judgement and historical reading, problematic “conservations”, and questionable museum conservation treatments of demonstrably looted antiquities. For these we warmly thank Martin Eidelberg, Alec Samuels, Alexander Adams, Einav Zamir, Selby Whittingham and Peter Cannon-Brookes. We commend two books, one for its freshness of voice, the other for a pioneering combination of high-quality images and scholarly texts in coordinated print and online productions. We also reproduce our online archive and related letters to the press.

Last July the outgoing chairman of the British Museum’s board, Niall Fitzgerald, disclosed in the Financial Times that because the director, Neil MacGregor, “obviously isn’t going to stay for ever” it was right that a new chairman [in the event a long-standing BM trustee and former editor of the Financial Times, Sir Richard Lambert] should lead the search for his successor. In December – and with levels of secrecy that would have thrilled his one-time mentor at the Courtauld Institute, Anthony Blunt – MacGregor dispatched one of the most important free-standing Parthenon sculptures, the carving of the river god Ilissos, to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. In lending Ilissos to St Petersburg just months after Russian troops had annexed part of Europe and Russian-armed separatists in Eastern Ukraine had brought down a Malaysian Airlines Boeing with a loss of 298 lives including around 100 children (see cover), the British Museum conferred an institutional vote of confidence in Putin’s Russia at a time when the West has mounted economic sanctions against his incursion and his continuing de-stabilisation of Eastern Europe. Moreover – and in a gratuitously provocative manner – by subjecting one of its most precious and controversially held works to needless and inherent risks, the British Museum presented its institutional a*** to everyone in Greece who is seeking to re-unite all of the surviving Parthenon carvings. On 9 December 2014 we protested in a letter to the Times (“Where should the Elgin Marbles be housed?” – see p. 29) that the action had gravely weakened the case for the British Museum retaining its controversially held “Elgin Marbles” and that it constituted a failure of imagination and a dereliction of duty on the part of the museum’s trustees.

Above, the carved figure of Ilissos, as displayed (top) at the British Museum, in the context of the surviving group of free-standing figures from the West pediment of the Parthenon; and, (centre and above) as displayed when on loan to the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Above, details of the back of Ilissos, (as photographed by Ivor Kerslake and Dudley Hubbard for the 2007 British Museum book, “The Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum”, by Ian Jenkins, a senior curator at the museum) showing the faultline in the stone that runs through the entire figure.

Perhaps the provocative loan was a piqued riposte to Mr and Mrs George Clooney’s attempts to have the British Museum’s Parthenon sculptures returned to Athens? Or, perhaps, simply a flaunting confirmation that nothing within the museum’s walls is now considered sacrosanct. In any event, 5,000 objects were put at risk (see below) last year in pursuit of MacGregor’s desire to transform the great “encyclopaedic” museum into a glorified lending library – or, as he puts it, into “a universal institution with global outreach”. The loan to Russia breached a two centuries old honouring of the original terms of purchase which required the Parthenon carvings collection to be kept intact. We now learn that those sculptures are to be further denuded with three more loan requests under consideration. We have supported the British Museum’s retention of the Elgin Marbles for over a decade, in print and in debates in New York, Athens and Brussels. (See Journals 19, 20, 25 and 26.) A key consideration was the relative safety of the sculptures in London and Athens. This latest policy reversal tips that balance in favour of Athens and thereby blows the moral case for the retention of the sculptures in London. It makes it impossible for us to maintain our previous support.

Such was the secrecy of this operation that the British Government was informed of it only hours before the story broke in a world-exclusive newspaper report. Under its new chairman the museum’s board proved supine, authorising the manoeuvre despite its own concerns over the sculpture’s safety. Officially, the museum betrays an almost delusional insouciance on the inherent risks when fork-lifting, packing, fork-lifting, lorrying, fork-lifting, flying, fork-lifting, lorrying, fork-lifting, unpacking – twice-over – an irreplaceable world monument on a single loan. Art handling insurers testify that works are at between six and ten times greater risk when travelling. Against this actuarial reality, the museum’s registrar variously boasted that “museums are good at mitigating risk”; that the loan had needed undisclosed insurance; and that, if intercepted by thieves, “they would be unable to sell it”. The source of this institutional confidence is unclear. As we reported in 2007 (Journal 22, p.7), in 2006 the British Museum packed 251 Assyrian objects – including its entire collection of Nimrud Palace alabaster reliefs and sent them in two cargo jets to Shanghai, with stop-overs in Azerbaijan, thus subjecting the fragile sculptures to four landings and take-offs. On arrival in Shanghai the recipient museum’s low doorways and inadequate lifts required the crated sculptures to be “rolled in through the front door”. Three crates remained too large and had to be unpacked “to get a bit more clearance”. One carving was altogether too tall and “we had to lay him down on his side” to get him in, the British Museum’s senior art handler said. It was then found that the museum’s forklift truck was unsafe (and needed to be replaced), and, that “a few little conservation things had to be done”.

When the resulting quid pro quo loan of Chinese terracotta figures was sent to the British Museum the following year, two dozen wooden crates were held for two days at Beijing airport because they were too big to enter the holds of the two cargo planes that had been chartered. When the crated sculptures arrived at the British Museum, they were also found to be too big to pass through the door of the Reading Room (from which Paul Hamlyn’s gifted library had been evicted – then temporarily, now permanently). The door frame was removed but three cases were still too big. These had to be unpacked outside the temporary exhibition space in the Great Court. The “temporary” misuse of the Reading Room became a permanent fixture until the new £135m (on a £70-100m estimate) exhibition and conservation centre in the antiseptic style of a Grimsby frozen food factory was opened last year (see back cover). Having insultingly evicted the Paul Hamlyn art library, it is now being said that the Reading Room “lacks a purpose” and that Mr MacGregor is musing on possible alternative uses to … reading books in a fabulous library previously occupied by national and international literary and political luminaries. One of these alternatives would be to raid the museum’s own diverse and encyclopaedic sculpture collections so as to tell a singular, MacGregoresque multi-cultural world story. Were he to be indulged in this (English Heritage witters alarmingly that the Reading Room’s Grade 1 listing does not necessarily preclude changes of uses), the director would leave a monument to himself achieved by subverting the historically-resonant, listed purpose made classical building in order to patronise and spoon-feed future visitors who might better have made their own judgements on the relative merits of the artefacts held in the museum’s various assembled civilisations.

If the present lending policies are not curtailed a further monument to MacGregor’s reign will be found in the art handling facilities of the new “improbably large” conservation and exhibitions centre. These are such that a crated elephant would now “arrive elegantly, the right way up”. What – surprisingly – did not arrive was the exhibition of treasures from the Burrell Collection that is being sent on a fund-raising world tour. This tour was made possible by the overturning in the Scottish Parliament of the terms of Burrell’s bequest which prohibited foreign loans. The overturning was made with the direct support and participation of Neil MacGregor and the British Museum was to have been the tour’s first stop. (Only three voices against the overturning were heard in the Scottish parliamentary proceedings: our own; the Wallace Collection’s academic and collections director, Jeremy Warren; and, the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, who attacked the “deplorable tendency” for museum staffs to deny the grave risks that are run when works of art are transported around the world.) As we reported online (“A Poor Day of Remembrance for Burrell”, 11 November 2013, Item: MR MACGREGOR’S NO-SHOW AT THE SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT HEARINGS), after a reproach in the Scottish Parliament, Mr MacGregor replied: “It was suggested by the Convener on 9th September (column 33) that as the British Museum might be involved in helping organise the logistics of a possible loan, and as works from the Burrell Collection might be shown at the British Museum, I might find myself in a position of conflict of interest. I think I can assure the Convenor that this is not so. The British Museum would not profit financially from either aspect of such co-operation with our Glasgow colleagues…” In the event, the first stop of the world tour was at Bonhams, the auctioneers, not the British Museum.

Michael Daley. 1 March 2015.


Applying recreated authenticity to historic buildings in the name of their conservation

12th October 2011

Simon Jenkins’ apologia for heritage industry “Disneyfication” (- as discussed in our last post) was echoed by Simon Thurley, the Chief Executive of English Heritage, in last weekend’s Financial Times (“Disneyland with footnotes or ancient skills revived”). Thurley claimed that at Stirling Castle, Historic Scotland has “recreated Queen Mary’s Lodgings with a fearsome degree of authenticity”, even though it had almost no surviving interior material to go on, other than “a few chimney pieces and a couple of doors”. Such an oxymoronic combining of the terms “re-creation” and “authenticity” merits examination. Current attempts to remake history are occuring in a distinctly complacent and insufficiently examined cultural/bureaucratic context.

The peg for Thurley’s article was the payment by Historic Scotland of one of those nicely rounded restoration bills (£25m) queried by the Daily Telegraph blogger, Andrew Brown in response to a public appeal for a neat half a million pounds to “conserve” Roald Dahl’s writing hut by moving its contents to the nearby Roald Dahl museum as a “major new interactive exhibit” for school groups and “thousands of visitors a year”.

The Royal Palace at Stirling Castle was built in the late 1530s for King James V and his wife Mary of Guise but it had been used as a barracks for nearly 300 years. £12m was spent “putting the interiors of the palace to rights” (Fig. 1) and £2m alone was spent copying the (authentic) Unicorn Tapestries in the Cloisters Museum, New York (Fig. 2). Thurley cites as an antecedent for this kind of hypothetical “recreation”, the Governor’s House in Williamsburg, Virginia, which having been burned to the ground in 1781 was rebuilt as new in the 1930s (Figs. 3 & 4). Although Thurley sniffs “This was not restoration; it was a recreation” he seems untroubled that the original authentic contents of the Stirling Castle interiors had been lost before the Governor’s House was first built. While noting that although the Williamsburg rebuilding was judged by some American academics and most European curators to be “Disneyland with footnotes” when just such recreations were later made on this continent in the wake of the devastation of the Second World War, Thurley misses the fact that frankly declared attempts to recreate historically and architecturally important buildings on the basis of surviving visual and documentary evidence are of a different order from Britain’s heavily bureaucratised drive to convert old buildings, by means of speculative, “interactive, historical enactments and vulgar websites that dangle Reality TV style soap operas as history, into tourism moneypots.

English Heritage explicitly states that the conservation movement has evolved from a “reactive process” that prevents change into a “flexible process” that recognizes the best way to save a building is “to find a new use for it.” It further admits that to achieve this more “constructive” end, “we work collaboratively with architects and developers at early pre-application stages”. Such collaborations spawn increasingly patronising and crass marketing campaigns.

At Stirling, a truck decorated with the castle’s Unicorn emblem constitutes “The Stirling Castle Road Show” which tours Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee offering city centre shoppers the chance to discover what is on offer at the castle for “a great day out”. Marketing Executive Nicola McCrae masterminds this “new way to promote the castle and visitor experience”. The visitor experience includes a deceiving invitation to: “step into the astonishing richness of royal life in the 1500s” by presenting James the Fifth’s palace as “one of the finest and best-preserved Renaissance buildings in Great Britain”. The claimed “crowning achievement” of this supposedly best-preserved palace is the banqueting hall (Figs. 5 & 6) where the original roof, which was removed in the late 1700s, has been replaced with a replica of an original roof that survives at Edinburgh Castle’s Great Hall. Replications and hypothetical reconstructions now abound at the castle.

In the King’s Inner Hall the ceiling-mounted brightly coloured roundels known as the Stirling Heads are facsimilies made from surviving original heads after their “painstaking conservation” (Fig. 7). On the basis of surviving scraps of colour on the carved wooden originals (which, mercifully, are exhibited in a separate gallery within the castle), the facsimilies have been speculatively painted in the “bright colours” that were “almost certainly” used originally. Colour looms large throughout these reconstructed interiors on the belief that they “would have been overwhelmingly colourful, rich and elaborate [because] James and his French wife Mary of Guise aimed to present themselves as wealthy, learned and sophisticated.” The visitor will learn that “royalty ate well and entertained lavishly” but less of what their learning and their beliefs consisted.

The Palace contains a Chapel Royal that was one of the first Protestant churches in Scotland and retains authentic 17th century murals (Fig. 10). It was taken over by the army and became a dining hall, schoolroom and storerooms. Today, it can be hired for weddings and/or wedding receptions: “Stirling Castle’s Chapel Royal offers a spectacular area for a wedding ceremony, wedding reception, or pre-dinner drinks for those dining in the Great Hall.”

Speculative reconstructions reach their apotheosis with old bones (Fig. 8). In the Great Kitchen, visitors are invited to “Rub shoulders with the busy kitchen staff preparing food and drink for a royal banquet” – the said staff members being the ubiquitous heritage industry tableau dummies (Fig. 9): “This bustling scene has been re-created for visitors, with a soundtrack to help create the atmosphere.” A soundtrack from the 16th century? For such deceptive absurdities, visitors are charged £13 a head (£10 for “concessions”, £6.50 for children).

With a staff of 4,300 and comprising Europe’s largest conservation charity, the National Trust similarly hopes to achieve its seeming goal of preserving and protecting everything that doesn’t move by “encouraging millions of people to visit and enjoy their national heritage”. Keeping children – even small unruly ones – happy is seen as the key to maximising Heritage Income. The National Trust’s chairman, Simon Jenkins, concedes that although you cannot have blazing sun on a medieval tapestry, or children bouncing on an ancient bed, “it is jolly nice to have a bed they can bounce on somewhere.” To the charge of “Disneyfication” he responds “If it means making our properties more popular, then I am totally unrepentant.” There are other ways of presenting history. For those repelled by crassly commercial exploitations, we would commend the delightfully kept, privately-owned, magically tranquil ruins of Jervaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire.

Michael Daley

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Fig. 1: One of the main rooms at James V’s Palace at Stirling which is said to be “much as it may have looked on completion around 1545″.
Above, Fig. 2: A detail of one of the copies of the Unicorn tapestries in the Cloisters Museum, New York.
Above, Fig. 3: The front of the Governor’s House in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Above, Fig. 4: The back of the Governor’s House in Williamsburg, as photographed around 1935 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, one of America’s earliest female photographers.
Above and below, Figs. 5 & 6: The Banqueting Hall, Stirling Castle, which can be hired for corporate seminars, formal banquets or ceremonies.
Above, Fig. 7: Some of the surviving original Stirling Heads, as exhibited in the castle museum.
Above, Fig. 8: A facial reconstruction of skeleton made for the Castle Exhibition where visitors can study a “cold case investigation of the injuries suffered by a man killed at Stirling about 1300.
Above, Fig. 9: One of the Great Kitchen scenes, as re-created for visitors, with an accompanying soundtrack.
Above, Fig. 10: The Chapel Royal. On Scottish gala evenings “Following in the footsteps of kings and queens of centuries past… guests are welcomed by a piper for a drinks reception in the Chapel Royal.”
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.


Brighter than Right, Part 2: Technical Problems of Protection, Health and Safety at St Paul’s Cathedral

July 5th 2011

On June 15th the BBC news website reported that a £40m 15 years long restoration of St Paul’s cathedral by “state-of-the-art conservation techniques” had recovered Sir Christopher Wren’s “original vision” and left the building “as fresh as the day it was completed”. Major restorations invariably generate breathless accounts of recovered original glories made by vanquishing the “grime of centuries” – but grime only ever dates back to the previous restorations. At St Paul’s these were in the early and late twentieth century and the proposals for this last restoration explicitly declared that far from returning the interior to Wren’s original painted scheme, it would be stripped to a never-intended, never encountered state of bare-stone whiteness – see Part 1. As for the operation being “state-of-the-art”, consider these defensive/confessional remarks by David Odgers, of Nimbus Conservation, in 2005 just after the remains of Wren’s paint had been stripped: “Being completely inexperienced in the use of the material at the beginning, the learning curve was steep and problems of protection, health and safety issues and night time application had to be addressed”. This is the story of that learning curve.

The method used for cleaning the St Paul’s interior was novel and experimental but as such it was unproven. In both its composition and its effects it earned censure from leading conservation experts (see below). The cleaning agent was an adapted, commercially available, latex rubber poultice laced with a mix of chemicals that were said to comprise an agent tailored to be similar to the mild alkalinity of Portland stone – a special version of the “Arte Mundit” water-based paste manufactured by the Belgian company FTB Restoration. The instigator/director of the restoration, the architect and the 17th Surveyor to the Fabric at St Paul’s Cathedral, Martin Stancliffe, admitted (at a lecture on October 21st 2003) to having slim knowledge of matters chemical and of having devolved – “entrusted” – responsibility for the application of the new paste to the Nimbus conservators (who were learning on the job while the cathedral remained in full commercial and ecclesiastical use).

This state arose despite Mr Stancliffe’s boast that Nimbus had been selected as contractors after “the optimum formulation of the material had been achieved.” In practice, Nimbus, being entirely unfamiliar with this supposedly thoroughly researched and tested material, found its application by hand to be “slow, messy and to leave a streaky appearance on the cleaned stone.” Thus, when this multi-million pounds single-sponsor restoration was approved and underway it was discovered that: a) the result would look awful; b) it would take forever; and, c) it was leaving a terrible smell (of ammonia) throughout the cathedral.

With the restoration in full progress, the manufacturer went back to the drawing board and radically changed the paste’s approved composition and method of application. It has not been made clear of what the chemical changes consisted or whether approval for them was obtained (see below). With thousands of square metres of stonework to be cleaned, FTB Restoration devised what Mr Stancliffe and Mr Odgers described as “a method for spraying on the material using compressed air with a specially designed pump and nozzle”. This enabled each restorer to apply in “only a few minutes” up to 3.5kg of chemically laced latex paste per square metre (See Figs. 1,2,3,4 & 5). The industrial speed of application – between 50 and a 100 square metres a night – and, with it, the wider commercial prospect of buildings remaining open to business during interior restorations, caused great excitement in the upper tiers of heritage administration. With 2m visitors a year to St Paul’s and admission charges then at £6, now at £14.50, closing St Paul’s during the interior restoration would likely have lost something in the region of £50-60m, but, as we will see, the technical “solutions” to the initial unanticipated problems created serious consequences of their own.

Approval for the Arte Mundit cleaning method had been given by The Cathedrals Fabric Commision for England in November 1999 following claimed earlier approvals by a bevy of heritage watchdogs: English Heritage; SPAB – The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings; The Victorian Society; and The Georgian Group. It is not possible to establish the precise chemical basis on which formal approval was given by the CFCE because, in breach of good conservation practice, the three technical parts of the eight parts submission document have been withheld on grounds of commercial confidentiality. For information on technical matters we must rely on the cathedral’s own fluctuating (and self-contradicting) published accounts, on our correspondence with Mr Stancliffe (which was terminated by him in March 2003), and on documents obtained by cathedral employees whose health was affected by the restoration (see below).

In December 2002, Mr Stancliffe and Mr Odgers gave a joint account of the ongoing restoration in Conservation News. They explained why the Arte Mundit poultice method had been adopted and why the so-called “Mora Poultice” method had been rejected. It might be noted that the latter is a cocktail of thixotropic paste, sodium bicarbonate, ammonium bicarbonate, detergents and the aggressively powerful chelating agent EDTA – ethylene diamine tetra-acetic acid. That poultice had been designed for cleaning marble buildings and was used experimentally on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes to disastrous effect (see our post of April 1st). By 1992 research had shown that the brightness produced was not a product of marble surfaces having been cleaned but of their being etched by the EDTA into dissolved irregularities which scatter light in all directions.

It was thus known before this restoration began that consuming stone is a consequence of EDTA levels being either too high or left too long on the surface. The Mora poultice was also rejected because the copious amounts of water needed to remove it would have turned St Paul’s Portland stone brown when, as we saw in Part 1, Mr Stancliffe’s ambition was to produce white stripped-stonework in defiance of Wren’s original warmly toned oil painted decorative scheme.

Mr Stancliffe and Mr Odgers reiterated in their joint Conservation News article, that the chemical composition of their Arte Mundit paste had been “specifically formulated” after a great deal of research (but by then the research seemed to have run into the restoration itself). While it had been found necessary at the outset to add EDTA to the latex paste, they said, this had been done only “at a concentration of 2000mg/kg (0.2%)” precisely to avoid injuries to stone when used at solutions of 11% in the Mora poultices. Before discussing the hugely varying EDTA levels seen to have been used at St Paul’s, consideration should be given to Arte Mundit’s initial principle cleaning ingredient – the pungent alkali ammonia.

Sprayed applications compound the health risks associated with hazardous chemical products. Although Mr Stancliffe and Mr Odgers admitted “the downside of using compressed air is that the Arte Mundit is applied as a fine particulate and releases ammonia into the atmosphere”, they seemed to regard this as a nuisance rather than a threat to health. Until then, as they put it, the paste had “contained ammonia” but, because “St Paul’s is visited by thousands of people each day, it would be inappropriate for the Cathedral to smell of ammonia.” They added that “Recent developments have meant that the concentrations of ammonia have been significantly reduced in the Arte Mundit so that potential risk has been minimised.” It was not there said of what the “developments” consisted or to what figure the ammonia had been reduced, but it was admitted that atmospheric concentrations of ammonia (which is generally detectable at 4ppm) had reached 10ppm in the cathedral. Needless to say, reducing the smell of the most pungent chemical ingredient is not the same as eliminating or reducing the risks presented by all the chemicals present in the sprayed paste.

Sand blasting the interior surfaces had been rejected partly because installing absolutely airtight isolation to retain airborne dust would have been too expensive (see Figs. 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9). In April 2003 a Health and Safety Executive officer (who was under the impression that the only change made to the Arte Mundit paste had been a reduction in its ammonia content and who seemed unaware that EDTA had been incorporated even though it was listed in the manufacturer’s safety data sheet to which she referred – see Figs. 10, 11 & 12) reported, in a seeming counsel of ineffectuality, that “In order to clean a large, old cathedral it is expected that dust will become airborne and it may be that this is contributing to the respiratory problems [of staff members]”. Despite not finding any trace of what she termed “EDA” anywhere in the cathedral, she had “asked the contractor to improve the ventilation in the work areas during the cleaning process.” (See Figs. 3, 4 & 5.) Quite mystifyingly, she added that this EDA, “was not a separate substance within the mixture but we wished to ensure that it was not produced as a by-product.

When in October 2002 a member of the cathedral’s staff who had suffered severe skin afflictions requested a copy of the manufacturer’s material safety sheet (Figs. 10, 11 & 12), she discovered that the paste was then containing EDTA at up to10% – which is to say, almost the same as in the discredited (and rejected) Mora Poultice, and therefore at up to fifty times greater than the figure shortly to be claimed by Mr Stancliffe and Mr Odgers in the December Conservation News.

That safety sheet was no rogue document. In March 2003, when declining to answer our questions on inconsistencies in the official accounts, Mr Stancliffe produced certain “fact sheets” which, he averred, “answered all potential questions which you or anyone else may have on this aspect of our interior cleaning programme.” The sheets (entitled “The Arte Mundit Fact File”) were models of un-clarity and consisted entirely of questions jointly put to the restorers and to the Arte Mundit manufacturer by themselves, along with the answers they gave to their own questions. Thus, to “What controls are in place to ensure that the application and removal of the Arte Mundit is competently handled?” (their question 23), Nimbus/FTB replied “The contract has been entrusted to a company run by and employing accredited conservators.” This circular defence would suggest that the restorers, even while learning on the job, were judged capable of monitoring their own performance as well as the performance and the safety of their untested and still evolving methods.

These “fact sheets” contain contradictory material. They give an account (in answer to their question 16, “Has the formulation been changed?”) of the manner in which Arte Mundit’s composition had been changed after the 1999 approval of its “optimal” formulation: “In the first fifteen months of using the material the concentration of ammonia was less than 0.5%. Further development of the product allowed to [sic] reduce the level of ammonia, which is now less than 0.005%.” This account prompts two concerns. First, the reduction of ammonia to one hundredth of its original levels is not confirmed in official restoration documents (see below). Second, in answer to question 16 it was also stated that, regardless of the claimed dramatic reductions of the ammonia level, “The level of EDTA was not changed and the efficacy of the product remained identical.” This beggars belief: there are two cleaning agents in the paste, one an alkali, the other an acid – ammonia and EDTA. If the former was reduced to a hundredth of its original level, how could the efficacy of the whole not have been diminished on the one hand, and slewed in its pH composition, on the other? And, for that matter, what is the level of the EDTA? There is no confirmation in the “fact sheets” of Mr Stancliffe’s and Mr Odger’s joint claim in the December 2002 Conservation News that EDTA was used at 0.2%. In answer to question 4 (“What are its [Arte Mundit’s] constituents?”), EDTA is mentioned as a component but no figure is given for it. In answer to question 7 (“Are there different types?”), it is said: “Yes there are five different types, Arte Mundit I, II, III, IV and V. These are similar except the concentrations of EDTA differ with the lowest concentration (less than 2.5%) being Type II and the Highest concentration being Type V. Arte Mundit I contains no EDTA.” So what type was being used at St Paul’s? To find an answer we must turn to question 15 (“What type is used at St Paul’s?”) where it is revealed that: “After tests carried out at St Paul’s Arte Mundit V was formulated by Dr Eddy de Witte to address the specific conditions found at the Cathedral.” But on this answer we learn that the type of Arte Mundit which contains the highest levels of EDTA (at up to 10%), Type V, was the very one that had been specifically developed for St Paul’s – so from where does the figure 0.2% derive? Had EDTA been required only at the Stancliffe/Odgers claimed level of 0.2%, it would surely not have been necessary to develop a special type of Arte Mundit at all, because the already existing Type II, containing EDTA levels of up to 2.5%, would more than have sufficed?

When a cathedral worker whose station was next to a cleaning area complained to the Clerk of the Works on May 13th 2002 that strong smells were affecting her throat, he prepared a report (see Fig. 13) on May 17th saying that he had asked Nimbus to “get details of material, and improve ventilation”. On that day, she fell sick and was off work for a fortnight with a blocked nose and a bad chest having reportedly been told by the Clerk “Don’t worry, whatever they were using has been banned, they shouldn’t have been using it”.

In the following August a Health and Safety Executive COSSH ASSESSMENT (Control of substances harmful to health – see Fig. 14) identified the main active components of the Arte Mundit paste as: “EDTA (<30%); ammonia (<0.5%)”, which is to say with ammonia still at its original (and not the claimed massively reduced levels) but with EDTA levels then at up to an astounding 150 times higher than Stancliffe and Odgers were to claim publicly in December 2002.

The consequences of exposure to the EDTA-laced Type V paste, as stated on FTB Restoration’s own Material Safety Sheet of August 16th 2001, (where EDTA levels were already put at 10% and not at the later claimed figure of 0.2% – Figs. 11, 12 & 13) were said to be: “irritating to eyes, respiratory system and skin”. The primary route of exposure was: “Skin and eyes contact. Vapours inhalation.” The symptoms relating to use were: through inhalation – “Sore throat. Cough. Shortness of breath”; by skin contact – “Redness”; by eye contact – “Redness, pain. Tears”; by ingestion – “Abdominal pain, nausea.

The staff member who had requested the safety sheet had recorded her own afflictions as they occurred. They made disturbing and progressively grimmer reading (– see Fig. 13). Because that member of staff had previously suffered from skin ailments, a specialist medical examiner who had been hired by the cathedral and who, (like the HSE inspector mentioned above) had accepted the claim that “the only change that was made [to the Arte Mundit] was to reduce the level of ammonia from 0.5% to 0.005% because of ‘the slight smell of ammonia that was present after the initial application’”, contended that her afflictions could not, “on the balance of probabilities”, safely be attributed to airborne chemicals in the cathedral. Nonetheless, he admitted that his decision might have to be reconsidered were “compelling further evidence in favour of occupational causation to be adduced”. This staff member had not been alone in her afflictions. In January 2003, a Press Association article (“Cathedral staff ‘have symptoms of chemical poisoning’”) reported that:

Staff at St Paul’s Cathedral have been falling ill with symptoms of chemical poisoning, it emerged today. The Health and Safety Executive is sending investigators to the London landmark after staff reported suffering chest pains, respiratory problems and skin complaints. Chief suspect is the substance being used to clean the stonework of the historic building as part of a £40million restoration project. Arte Mundit, a cream paste that removes stains and dust on most surfaces, is being sprayed on to the fabric of the building. It contains ammonia, the smell and intensity of which has prompted the cathedral authorities to carry out all spraying at night. The man in charge of the project, surveyor to the fabric, Martin Stancliffe, was not available for comment today…Another substance in the cleaning mixture that might be causing the health problems is latex – it can cause skin allergies, sneezing, throat irritation and asthma…St Paul’s Cathedral registrar John Milne said that 20 out of 150 people working at the Cathedral had reported conditions which might be related to the restoration…

In the March 2003 Conservation News, the St Paul’s/FTB Restoration method (as described there by Stancliffe and Odgers in December 2002) was challenged by conservation specialists. Professor Richard Wolbers, conservation scientist and solvents expert at the Winterthur Museum and Gardens, University of Delaware Art Conservation Department, charged the authors with appearing “not to understand very well the chemistry of the materials they are using” and of seeming to “resort to what I would call several common (and spurious) arguments to rationalise the ‘safety’ of their cleaning systems over other methods cited.” For example, he wrote, “EDTA is one of the strongest chelating materials one could bring to such a surface.” It would certainly dissolve “any calcium carbonate beneath it in the stone substrate that it may come into contact with…It is almost as if they simply adopted a commercial material that was easy to obtain or apply without considering what specific chemistry they were bringing with it to the stone surfaces or how it might affect the other constituents they might be adding.

Professor Wolbers was highly critical of a number of other technical features of the programme but reiterated his fear that the authors “seem to have taken a poorly characterised material, a latex paste, and modified it with the addition of a considerable amount of EDTA (largely as an adaption in their minds, I suppose, of one of the main ingredients in the Mora’s AB57 cleaning system).

John Larson, Head of Sculpture and Inorganic Conservation at the Conservation Centre, National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, said that applications of moulding materials had contributed so much damage over the past 200 years that museums around the world “have now banned” their use, and that the application of liquid latex by brush or spray “has a dramatic effect on porous material such as stone…as it dries latex shrinks and clings tenaciously to the surface.” The effect of pulling it off the stone “exerts strong mechanical forces on the surfaces when the stone is carved and deeply undercut, as shown on the cover of Conservation News.” (See Figs. 1 & 2.)

Seemingly in the face of such attacks, accounts of the St Paul’s/FTB Restoration method shifted once more. In the May 2003 Conservation News Mr Stancliffe and Mr Odgers ignored Prof. Wolbers’ criticisms, which, they said, would be answered in a future article not by themselves but, instead, by the man who had developed Arte Mundit for the Belgian firm, Dr Eddy de Witte. Having said in December 2002 that “The original oil paint [of Sir Christopher Wren] is found to soften and can then be removed with water and scrubbing and this is both acceptable and desirable, as it is removing an unwanted and dirty paint layer”, Stancliffe and Odgers now insisted that Arte Mundit “is certainly not a paint stripper.” Apologising for having “misled” readers on the point, the pair claimed that when they had said “original oil paint” they had not been referring to the original oil paint but to “subsequent distemper applications and not to the original paint.” The distemper “is indeed softened by the latex”, they added, “as it would be by soaking with water”. At this point they admitted that the paste contained EDTA but gave no indication of whether it was at solutions of up to 0.2%, 10% or 30%.

A key concern of conservationists facing such methodological discrepancies was whether or not the EDTA migrated into the stone during the periods of curing after being sprayed as a water-bound paste on to porous surfaces that had already been attacked with caustics and abrasives by previous restorers. With regard to Prof. Wolbers’ fear that Arte Mundit’s EDTA would have the time and the opportunity to invade and damage the stone yet another set of Stancliffe/Odgers claims was revised. In their May 2003 account, they claimed that the latex solution was sprayed to a depth of only 2mm and left for only “two or three hours” when in December 2002 they had said that the curing lasted “usually 24-48 hours”. In May 2002, Conservation News reported that the latex was removed after “one to four days”. In April 2003, the BBC reported that the latex was left on the stone surfaces for between “One to four days [depending] on the thickness and temperature”.

In December 2002, Stancliffe and Odgers had claimed that after removal of the Arte Mundit paste and subsequent washing and scrubbing, the stonework “still retains a patina”. In May 2003 they admitted that John Larson had rightly pulled them up for their “inappropriate use of the word”. Today the surface of the stone can be seen to have been left porous, susceptible to invasion by pollution, and chalky. Its weakened surface can now be rubbed away with a wipe of dry cloth – see Figs. 15 and 16.

Michael Daley

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Fig. 1, above: a conservator removing a latex “cleansing pack” from a carved head at St Paul’s Cathedral, as published on the cover of Conservation News in May 2002. The journal reported that the latex was left on the surface for “one to four days” and that after its removal, the stone was cleaned with “damp sponges and bristle brushes“.
Fig. 2, above: a carved head at St Paul’s after being cleaned with water and bristle brushes – as shown on the back cover of the programme to a Choral Evensong service in honour of the Donors to the Cathedral’s 300th anniversary appeal on June 1st 2005, after the completion of the cleaning of the cathedral’s interior. (Photography by Peter Smith/Jarrold Publishing.)
Fig. 3, above: a Nimbus conservator spraying Arte Mundit Type V latex paste onto carved decorations at St Paul’s Cathedral, as shown on the BBC’s science programme “Tomorrow’s World” on April 24th 2002. The programme reported that the latex was left was left to “cure” on the stone for “between one and four days”, depending on the thickness and temperature. Notice the thickness of the overhanging latex accumulations. It was later claimed in the 2003 “Arte Mundit Fact File” that spraying was applied to “a maximum thickness of 2mm”.
Fig. 4, above: a (better protected) Nimbus conservator spaying Arte Mundit paste at St Paul’s Cathedral, as shown in the programme to the celebratory June 2005 Choral Evensong.
Fig. 5, above: a photograph of the Arte Mundit spraying system that shows the path of the extraction ducting through a window at St Paul’s Cathedral. Note the fallen polythene sheeting (which is meant to isolate the spraying zones from the rest of the cathedral) to the left of the ducting. In “The Arte Mundit Fact File”, Question 10 (“What precautions are taken to keep the area being sprayed enclosed?”), it said that “Each spraying is encapsulated with polythene sheeting to prevent any possibility of the material getting outside of the scaffold area. A secondary protection is provided by the monarflex sheeting around the scaffold.”
Fig. 6, above: a section of monarflex sheeting descending from a spraying area in the South Transept during 2002.
Fig. 7, above: a section of monarflex sheeting under the Dome.
Fig. 8, above: a section of monaflex sheeting under the Dome.
Fig. 9, above: a section of extraction ducting carrying fumes and fine sprayed latex and chemical particulates outside of the cathedral.
Fig. 10, above: the first page of FTB Restoration’s Material Safety Data Sheet for its Type V Arte Mundit latex paste, as then being applied on the interior of St Paul’s Cathedral. Note, the sheet is dated August 16 2001 and is thus four months into the cleaning campaign. EDTA is shown to be at solutions of up to 10% and ammonia is being used at solutions of up to 0.5%. The product is seen to be “irritating to eyes, respiratory system and skin”; to cause “Sore throat. Cough. Shortness of breath. Redness, pain. Tears”, and, if ingested, “Abdominal pain, nausea.”

The member of St Paul’s staff who asked for the Arte Mundit Material Safety Sheet kept a log on her own ailments until her early retirement on June 12th 2003 because of her declining state of health. Her notes began on October 1st 2002:

01/10/02: Became very hot and itchy. By end of day a red rash covered my arms and chest. The itching was intense and I could not sleep. 03/10/02: Rash extended now to back. Went to GP – also saw nurse. Given anti-histamine pills and steroid cream – went to work for the rest of the day. 04/10/02: After work, went back to GP as rash still spreading fast and felt very ill. Given another type of pill plus different creams and a blood test. 07/10/02: First day of duty. Felt very unwell, cancelled a visit to my mother and went to GP once more. Again, they are very worried and put me onto steroid pills. I could not sleep at all at night due to the constant irritation which was now causing me major distress. 10/10/02: While on my days off duty, I had started to feel better – lot less hot and itchy. However, this is my first day back on rota and start to itch and become very hot and unwell. Went to see […] our personnel manager. She was on her way to a meeting, but promised to get back to me later in the day. This did not happen. 11/10/02: After an unbearable night, went into work despite feeling very unwell. Went to see the registrar, John Milne and asked that he contact Health and Safety, as by now other members of staff had… 14/10/02: Saw doctor at hospital. She was very concerned and asked if it were possible to obtain a detailed list of constituents of the cleaning agent, as the COSSH assessment we were given was of little use. The rash was too active to allow any tests to take place…11/11/02: Went to GP. Actual allergy now seems unlikely. However, it seems I have been rendered extremely sensitive to the cocktail of toxic chemicals used at work, resulting in a severe attack of industrial dermatitis, which has left my skin in a very damaged condition…”

Fig. 11, above: the second page of FTB Restoration’s Material Safety Data Sheet for its Type V Arte Mundit latex paste.
Fig. 12, above: the third page of FTB Restoration’s Material Safety Data Sheet for its Type V Arte Mundit latex paste.
Fig. 13, above: a Health and Safety Executive COSHH (Control of substances harmful to health) Assessment of the Arte Mundit paste being used at St Paul’s Cathedral on August 8th 2002 (fifteen months into the restoration of the interior). Note that, at that date, the main ingredients identified were EDTA, which was being used at solutions of up to 30%, and ammonia, which was being used at up to 0.5%.
Fig. 14, above: an internal St Paul’s Cathedral Report of Hazard or Defect, issued on May 17th 2002 by the cathedral’s Clerk of the Works in request of information on materials being used, and calling for improvements to be made to ventilation.
Fig. 15, above: the sleeve of the author’s jacket as photographed in the South Transept of St Paul’s Cathedral on July 1st 2011.
Fig. 16, above: the sleeve of the author’s jacket after being brushed against stonework seven feet from the ground, in the South Transept on July 1st 2011.

The conservator John Larson (see left) had warned in the March 2002 Conservation News that “Anyone who has worked with care on the conservation of historic stone surfaces will be aware that there are always hidden weaknesses and cracks that will often only be revealed when pressure from cleaning systems such as water, abrasives and steam are applied. To use a technique that subjects a historic surface to unnecessary pressures (as with Arte Mundit) cannot be described as conservation or innovation…With all stone cleaning it is sensible to avoid the introduction of extra chemicals which can cause irreverisble damage.

Mr Larson cited the cautionary example of Glasgow where a rash of chemical cleanings caused a rapid growth of salts which turned the affected buildings green. He added: “The damage was so bad that a moratorium was called on all stone cleaning in Scotland.

Fig. 17, above: a member of the specialist decoration firm Hesp and Jones recreating one of the fictive swags that formed part of the original decorative scheme of the Tambour – the truncated conical band of windows and wall on which Thornhill’s painted Dome rests. This recreation constitutes one of the most successful treatments at St Paul’s. It merits and will receive separate discussion.
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