Soane himself conserved his collections. He had pictures cleaned and frames re-gilded (in one year he bought 654 books of gold leaf for the purpose!) and had blinds installed in all his interiors to regulate light. He may even (judging from the imaginary drapes shown in a fantasy watercolour by J.M. Gandy – detail left) have considered having drapes over delicate watercolours to protect them from light –although there is no evidence that he had any actually installed in his house.
After his death Curators of the Museum during the 19th and 20th century had conservation work done and there are many bills in the Soane archive for re-painting plaster casts, mending frames, repairing sculptures and cleaning oil paintings as well as for regular annual cleaning and dusting of the collections. Some of the work carried out, such as ‘washing’ casts, may have unwittingly caused damage as water tends to drive dirt into a plaster surface and fix it there permanently. Our conservation staff regularly observe that plaster casts hung at high level, well out of the way of damp cloths being used to wipe exhibits, can be cleaned easily and often retain their original almost white surfaces.
It was not until Peter Thornton was appointed Curator (the post that is now titled ‘Director’) in 1984 that any permanent conservation staff were retained by the Museum: he allocated the back room on the 2nd floor of No. 12 to serve as a conservation studio. This room had to double up as staff kitchen (in which cat food was prepared until the banishment of the last Soane Museum cat a few months into Peter’s curatorship), photocopier and fax room. Peter Thornton brought in two conservators still working for the Museum today, Jane Wilkinson (works of art/surfaces) and Margaret Schuelein (paper). Both were self-employed and part-time. He also applied for money from the Henry Moore Foundation for a programme of sculpture conservation over three years during the 1990s. For the first time, Conservation became a permanent daily concern of the Museum, overseen by the Deputy Director.
Following the appointment of Tim Knox in 2005, the advent of the OUTS project and the commitment from the Sir John Soane’s Museum Foundation in America to support Conservation work here, Jane Wilkinson became a full-time employee and is now Head of Conservation and in 2011 Lucy Swettenham was appointed as an additional part-time conservator. Since that time, Conservation has expanded and professionalised in many respects. All the warding staff are now trained in Conservation Housekeeping and we have regular training sessions run by Jane with assistance from the National Trust Head Housekeeper, Helen Lloyd. There is an on-going programme of deep cleaning around the house, an Integrated Pest Management system, environmental monitoring in all rooms, UV film and blinds have been installed and book and bookcase cleaning is carried out regularly by the warding staff.
In 2011-12 as part of Phase One of Opening up the Soane, the entire second floor of No. 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields was restored as purpose-designed Conservation studios. Visits were undertaken to many other conservation facilities to inform the planning of the two rooms and they are now a fully equipped up-to-date professional conservation studio funded by the Foundation and named The John A and Cynthia Fry Gunn Conservation Centre after the principal donors. Conservation now has its own presence on the museum’s web-site and during 2012, for the first time in the Museum’s history it was possible to welcome members of the public to visit the studios to see conservation-in-action and for sessions to be run for the blind and partially sighted on a conservation theme. Colleagues from much larger institutions, such as the Tate, and from leading conservation schools (UCL and City and Guilds) are now forming partnerships with the Museum and bringing their students to us to learn from our very specific and nuanced approach to the conservation of Soane’s collection in the context of our unique historic interiors and Soane’s stipulation that they be maintained as they were at the time of his death in January 1837.