Care Of Collections Archive

Conservator Jane Wilkinson looks back on the first year of the Museum's dedicated Conservation Studio

On September 19th the conservation team marked the first anniversary of the opening of their refurbished studios. Thanks to the generosity of the Sir John Soane’s Museum Foundation, which funded the new John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Conservation Centre, the conservators have been enjoying the benefits of beautifully designed furniture, great lighting and up-to-date equipment, and all this within almost double the space they had before!

Group visit to the Conservation Studio, looking at materials laid out on the workbenches

Open day in the John A. and Cynthia Gunn Conservation Centre

During this first year in the new studios the conservators have been busy working to tight deadlines, initially for the first phase, and now the second, of the Opening Up The Soane project. The conservation remit for this major restoration project is wide and includes cleaning and treating many museum objects, as well as liaising with a wide range of contractors. Through-out the project the conservators are also responsible for managing the impact on the museum collection from the on-going building works. In addition to these tasks they have also been busy working to fulfil a commitment to make the work they do more accessible to visitors and the public in general. This has included writing regular articles for the museum website, supporting the Education department, particularly Outreach, building research links with M.A. students, and whenever possible, showing off the new centre by opening it for public visits. Of course, all the permanent collections, arranged in the rooms of the house, continue to need attention and so the conservators are also busy carrying out day-to-day collections care alongside these other tasks

The varied and hectic timetable in the conservation department is often very demanding for its small team of conservators, however they have thoroughly enjoyed the last year, and have loved working in the fantastic new facilities which have definitely helped them meet the many daily challenges.

You can find more details on the work of our conservators in the dedicated Conservation section of our site.  They will also be posting regularly to this blog.


A Conservation Puzzle

The work we carry out in Conservation is not always to do with cleaning or treating objects. Moving and storing objects is also a key part of our jobs, and in recent weeks we have been doing a lot of this. In comparison to most other museums, there are relatively few objects in store at Sir John Soane’s Museum. As stipulated in the 1833 Act of Parliament, the unique arrangements in the Museum must be kept ‘as nearly as possible’ as they were at Soane’s death, and so we therefore do not normally acquire works of art (as most Museums do all the time) and we try to have all works of art from Soane’s collection out on display in their original positions.  Although there are some objects in store which were not acquired by Soane, the majority of objects in store do have a place in the Museum. These objects are in store for a variety of reasons, the most common one being that they were originally displayed in an area of the house which has either been altered or, for necessity’s sake, has been used for a different function, over the years.

The next (second) phase of our Opening up the Soane project (OUTS) is the restoration of the rooms on the second floor of No. 13, including Soane’s Model Room, Bath Room, Oratory and Bed Room. For the last three years these rooms have been used for the storage of all Soane’s models and many other items displaced from No 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where they were on display prior to Phase 1 of OUTS.  For the Conservation team, the first job in Phase 2 has been to empty these rooms of hundreds of stored objects. This was no small task!

This is a photograph of the West Chamber, our only official store. New shelving units were introduced to make use of all of the available space.

The West Chamber, our only official store. New shelving units were introduced to make use of all of the available space.
Photograph: Lewis Bush

As we do not allow works of art to be stored off-site for security reasons, it was necessary to be find spaces throughout the Museum in which to store the displaced objects. There is only one official store within the Museum and this was already quite full. We therefore had to think of some ingenious places around the Museum for storage.  The atmospheric environment any object would be moved into was of critical significance: its new home needed to be as similar in terms of temperature and relative humidity as possible to the environment it came from. Much warmer and drier and organic materials such as wood, paper and leather might crack and become brittle; much more humid and damp and these materials might expand and develop mould. For this reason, each proposed storage space had its temperature and relative humidity monitored before it received any objects. Some environments were more stable than others, so we made sure only objects made of more inert materials, such as stone and plaster, were stored in these less ideal spaces.

All storage shelves were lined with foil backed paper to act as a barrier layer protecting objects from potentially harmful gasses the wooden shelves might give-off. Their width and depth and the space between them was measured carefully to help us decide which objects should go where. Some of the Soane cupboards were adapted to provide more space. This was done by our carpenter, Toby McNichol, who added shelves in various ways, always ensuring any shelving was temporary and had no impact on the original components (e.g. was not screwed into the original timber of any cupboard). All objects were wrapped in a soft, breathable tissue to protect them from dust. Before they were moved, the works of art were checked against their entries in our inventory to confirm they were numbered correctly.

This is a photograph of a Soane cupboard being utilised to provide new storage space within the Museum.





















Left: A Soane cupboard being utilised to provide new storage space within the Museum.
Right: A Soane cupboard in which shelves have been added to make the best use of the space.

Photographs: Lewis Bush

Over 400 framed works and objects were moved from two rooms to seven separate locations around the Museum. This movement took four people three weeks to complete and required a great deal of planning beforehand. It was undertaken slowly and with great care, so as to keep an accurate track of where objects were being moved to, and, most importantly, to minimise the risk any handling and movement could potentially pose to the objects.

By the end of Phase 2 at the end of 2014, about 150 more objects in store will have returned to their original positions on the first and second floor of the Museum. By the time OUTS Phase 3 is completed in 2016 we hope to have very few works of art in store!

Lucy Sims, June 2013


Frame Conservation at the Soane

Click on the video to watch a film about the restoration of the frame for Soane's drawings of Triumphal Bridges.  The text of the video is attached here (Word Document)


Re-opening Soane's Breakfast Parlour

July 2012

Sketch by Gandy of the Soane family in the Breakfast Parlour of Number 12 Lincoln's Inn Fields

The Soane family having breakfast in the
Breakfast Parlour in No.12, watercolour
by J M Gandy, November 1798 (14_6_1)

In recent weeks, No.12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Soane’s first house in Lincoln’s Inn, has been a frenzy of activity as staff busily prepare for its opening following over a year of building work. To find out more about this work, follow this link to the OUTS section of the website.

One of the most significant interiors within this house is Soane’s Breakfast Parlour which was beautifully restored in 1993-1994 under Peter Thornton, Director from 1984 - 1995. As part of this restoration the intricate painted ceiling was cleaned and restored and many of the original objects were reinstated and others reproduced such as the set of bamboo chairs.  During the building works this room was fully protected with the walls boxed in to create a temporary working space in the centre. Inevitably some parts of the protection had to be taken down for short periods to enable work to be done to doors, shutters etc. and so, inevitably, despite all precautions there was a significant ingress of dust. Lucy Sims, the assistant conservator worked with a few specially trained warders to carry out a ‘deep clean’ of the room to prepare it for the reinstatement of its objects and for re-opening in July 2012.

Conservators cleaning the ceiling of number 12's Breakfast Parlour with hoovers

Assistant conservator Lucy Sims and warder
John Carrol on the scaffold tower carefully
dusting the painted ceiling
Photograph: Lewis Bush

A deep clean involves dusting all the objects and every surface within a room, including the windows, ceiling, walls, skirting and the floor. To clean the upper parts of the walls and the ceiling, a scaffold tower was erected. Soft pony hair brushes were used to brush dust from the ceiling and walls into a vacuum nozzle. We use this technique to remove the dust immediately from the atmosphere rather than letting it settle on the area below. We always start a deep clean at the highest point in the room for the same reason as inevitably some dust will escape the vacuum cleaner and settle on objects below the level of work. The walls and shelves were also brushed and dusted. We use brushes rather than cloths to reduce the risk of damage to objects; the action of brushing will abrade the painted surfaces far less than wiping and brushes can also get into much smaller and intricate spaces, allowing the user to really see what they are dusting and control the pressure used. Picture and mirror glass was cleaned with cotton wool using a mixture of alcohol and water.
As part of the deep clean, we also dusted all the books in the room (this took four full days and we are very grateful to Anna Zigic who spent part of her work experience week helping us). We then dusted and reinstated all the objects and framed works which had been carefully stored before the building work.

The finished room can now be enjoyed once again and enables visitors to catch a glimpse of Soane’s early family life. Prior to the recent building works this room was the only interior in No. 12 which had been restored to its Soane period colour scheme. Now it may be seen alongside the original 1792 colour schemes for the whole ground and first floor, enabling visitors to appreciate the elegance and sophistication of Soane’s first home.


Conservation Housekeeping Trail

Find out more about the challenges of conserving this fragile house museum and its collections with our new Housekeeping trail.  How do we protect fragile items against damage by light and heat?  How do we mitigate the wear and tear caused by visitors to the Museum's floorboards and stone pavings? Follow our houskeeping trail and view the house through and conservator's eyes.

Close up view of brass work in the MuseumShot of Yorkstone paving, showing the pitted surface caused by years of wear and tear

Front image of the Conservation Housekeeping Trail
Download our Housekeeping trail to see the museum through a Conervator's eyes


Reinstating the Staircase Recess

February 2012

After months of planning and conservation work the curatorial and conservation teams have successfully reinstated Soane’s 1837 arrangement of framed artworks in the No.13 staircase recess between the 1st and 2nd floors. Although the 1833 Soane Museum Act stipulated that his house and collection should be kept ‘as nearly as circumstances will admit’, over the years different curators have made alterations and in 1918, the original arrangement of framed artworks in the recess was dismantled and replaced in part with different pictures. This was linked to the conversion of Soane’s first floor drawing rooms into a Research Library by the then Curator Arthur Bolton – his new bookcases meant less space for paintings and he moved George Jones’ oil painting of the ‘Opening of London Bridge’ to the staircase where it remained until this re-hang.

The ‘Opening of London Bridge’ by George Jones has now been replaced by a collage of drawings of a design for a ‘Triumphal Bridge’ by Soane, for which he won the gold medal for architecture in 1776 as a student at the Royal Academy. Three etchings depicting King George IV, Thomas Lawrence and John Flaxman have been reinstated below this. Five engravings of Shakespearean characters by John Mortimer and two circular plaster portraits of John Flaxman and his wife – close friends of Soane - have been moved into their 1837 positions.

            Computer generated image of recess                         Computer generated image of recess
            before rehang                                                               after rehang

            Images: John Bridges

The most significant conservation work carried out for this re-hanging project was to the ornate gilded frame which houses Soane’s ‘Triumphal Bridge’ drawings at the heart of the arrangement. The work was carried out by frame conservator Clare Kooy-Lister, with the help of the museum’s conservator Jane Wilkinson. The frame was discovered empty, in store, with no glass and only its inscription to identify it. It was black with filth and much of its decorative moulding had come away from the main body of the frame and was lost.

The entire frame was painstakingly cleaned, revealing relatively intact gold leaf below the thick, black layer of dirt. Luckily, the missing inner corner ornaments were discovered unmarked amongst frame fragments in a drawer and have been replaced. New outer corners of an appropriate design were supplied by Joseph McCarthy of McCarthy frames, Tunbridge Wells, who made them using historic boxwood moulds from the Binnings Collection.

  Conservator Jane Wilkinson
  cleaning the frame (P220) to
  reveal original gold leaf
  beneath the dirt

  Photograph: Lewis Bush

Gary Lyons, of Wiggins Limited, created moulds to replace missing elements – a specialist job requiring a great deal of freehand carving. The replacement sections were then pressed from composition (a mixture of linseed oil, rosin, hide glue and whiting). Once the entire frame had been cleaned and repaired, sections of the frame which were missing their gold-leaf were re-gilded and toned to match the original gilding.

   Photographs showing the processes of conserving the frame for the central artwork,
   Soane’s drawing of a design for a ‘Triumphal Bridge’ (P220)

   Photographs: Lewis Bush

The collage of drawings originally in this frame was removed from it many years ago, probably in 1918-19 when George Jones’ ‘Opening of London Bridge’ displaced this work from the staircase.  The drawings were removed from the backing paper and added to the drawings collection.  The originals were found to be in a very poor a condition, having had too much exposure the light, air born pollution and acid from the wooden backboard, giving them a burnt, orange appearance.  They were too fragile to be put back in the frame, so a facsimile was made and put into the newly restored frame in January 2012. Creating the facsimiles involved many processes.

  Original drawings of Soane’s design                 Facsimile of Soane’s design for a
  for a ‘Triumphal Bridge’ (P220) as                   ‘Triumphal Bridge’ (P220)
  they appear today.

  Images: John Bridges

The original drawings were photographed digitally, at very high resolution by a specialist photographer. Since the background to the original drawings and the surviving fragments of the backing sheet were so discoloured, it was decided after much discussion that in making a facsimile the background would be adjusted in colour/tone to its probable original appearance. Small areas of the surviving backing paper, which had been protected from light in the back of the frame, seemed to retain their original light off-white colour and could be used as a guide:  these areas match very closely the colour of the paper in Soane’s surviving sketchbooks which have never been exposed to the light.

The digital print of the drawings was carefully cut up in the same way as the originals had been, so that the original ‘collage’ could be reproduced. Even the slight irregularities in the cutting out were replicated. The drawings were then mounted on the print of the backing sheet and then placed in the restored frame. The original glass was lost, so a new piece of picture glass was commissioned from the London Crown Glass company. Although this piece of glass is modern, it has been manufactured in a traditional way to replicate the slight imperfections and characteristic irregularities of an original piece of 19th century cylinder blown glass, as used by Soane’s framers.

The five engravings depicting Shakespearean characters by John Mortimer were in much better condition than the Triumphal Bridge drawings. However, they were quite dirty and required attention from the museum’s paper conservator, Margret Schuelein. The engravings were unframed, and the paper was dusted and carefully washed in a water bath containing detergents and other additives to draw out the dirt: this treatment has resulted in a much cleaner, fresher appearance. 


Works on paper being carefully
 washed in a water bath
Photograph: Margret Schuelein 


The last stage of the process before the rehang could take place was the cleaning of the marbled walls of the recess – the yellow ochre marbling dates from the 1920s and has never been restored. Specialist scaffolding was erected on the staircase so the entire wall could be reached. A team of conservators from Taylor Pearce Restoration carefully cleaned the surface with white spirit and an extremely fine abrasive cream to remove the majority of the staining and dark discolouration, leaving a much fresher, cleaner surface.





  Photograph of Taylor Pearce Restoration carefully
  cleaning the marbling in the recess
  Photograph: Lewis Bush

All this work came to fruition on 20th January when a specialist team of art handlers, JPW, assisted the curatorial and conservation teams, re-hung all the restored works of art. For the first time since 1918, Soane’s original arrangement can now be seen by visitors.
This arrangement places Soane’s own architecture in a position of honour on the stairs, with his architectural drawings for the design which won him his Gold Medal framed in the manner of the grandest oil painting and surrounded by a beautifully orchestrated arrangement of portraits. These are arranged in alternating pairs looking inwards and outwards and their subjects link Soane not just with royalty but with leading artists of his day who were close friends as well as with one of the greatest of all Englishmen, Shakespeare.
As with so many of his arrangements the bringing together of this wide-ranging cast of characters links Architecture with painting, sculpture and poetry, to represent the ‘Union of the Arts’ which Soane wished his Museum to embody.


Photograph of recess as of 20th February
Photograph: John Bridges



November 2011

Dust is one of the conservation team’s greatest enemies. It is all around us in the atmosphere and settles on every surface. If left for long periods, dust bonds to the surface of objects and becomes considerably harder to remove. The amount of the dust in the museum is currently significantly higher than normal due to the extensive building work for the Opening Up the Soane project. Dust levels are also increased by the fact the museum is located in the centre of London; added to this, one of the other components of dust is actually dead skin cells which constantly fall from our bodies, so the more visitors the more dust!

In addition to careful routine cleaning, the conservation team carry out a rolling programme of ‘deep cleans’ on individual areas of the Museum. A ‘deep clean’ is a more thorough and lengthy process in which we clean not only the objects within a room but also the fabric of the room itself; the skylights, windows, ceiling, walls, skirting and the floor.

We recently carried out a deep clean in the Sepulchral Chamber in the heart of the Museum. This area is particularly awkward as the famous sarcophagus of King Seti I and its case take up the majority of the floor space. Therefore we needed to very carefully use an A-frame ladder to access the high objects in niches and hanging on the walls around the Sepulchral Chamber. As the space is very cramped, warders John Caroll and Jeff Banwell assisted by securing the hoover whilst the conservator carried out the work in order to ensure no works of art were damaged. They also helped carry out some of the lower level cleaning and are specially trained to do so. Specially selected soft brushes were used on any vulnerable surfaces. The immediate difference this cleaning made was very evident since visitors are able to look down into the Sepulchral Chamber from the Dome area above and see the tops of all the objects which hang on the four walls or sit on high level shelves.

 Image above: Conservator Lucy
Swettenham carrying out the deep
clean with the assistance of one of
  the warders, John Carroll



 Before and after cleaning; 'print’ of plaster foot shows the dust         Sepulchral Chamber after the
 levels                                                                                                       deep clean

 Photographs: Conservation Department

Soane Museum warder Jeff Banwell cleaning examples of Soane's library collection with a brush Soane's Library Spring Clean

Sir John Soane collected over 7,000 books which are housed throughout Nos. 12-14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Whatever a book’s age or value, it must be periodically dusted and checked for pest infestation. Our dedicated warders carry out essential book care throughout the year and have recently finished dusting all 7,000 of them! This is a great achievement but there is no rest for the wicked; they have already begun the cycle once more, working bookcase by bookcase.

It took two specially trained warders, Jeff Banwell and Craig Donaghy, seven months to complete the task. They each spent on average half a day a week doing this, using methods and tools appropriate for careful conservation cleaning, for example, a soft squirrel hair brush to dust the covers and pages so as not to abrade the delicate leather and paper. Perhaps the next time you visit the museum you will see them hard at work and will be able to watch the process for yourself. As they work, they welcome questions from visitors about how we care for our books.


July 2011

                                            Jeff Banwell conservation cleaning Sir John Soane’s books in the South Drawing Room
Photo: Conservation Department