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Page last updated at 12:31 GMT, Monday, 21 June 2010 13:31 UK
Restored Sheffield paintings back on show after floods
By Grace Parnell
BBC Sheffield & South Yorkshire

Sheffield from the South East by William Cowen (1836)
Sheffield from the South East by William Cowen (1836). The picture shows the painting damaged by flood-water (right) and how it looks now, after restoration (left)

Important Sheffield oil paintings have gone on public display after years in darkness, thanks to the floods of June 2007.

The South Yorkshire floods drove people from their homes - but they also caused extensive damage to some of Sheffield's important museum collections.

Water a metre high flooded the museum store at Kelham Island, damaging oil paintings, watercolours, photos, paper ephemera and household objects. Costumes and toys were kept on the upper floor of the store so luckily they weren't damaged, but nearby at Kelham Island Industrial Museum, the water caused £1.5 million of damage and meant the museum was closed for 15 months.

Only now, almost three years after the floods, damaged paintings depicting Sheffield have gone back on display at Weston Park Museum. The 19th century oil paintings offer a glimpse of Sheffield nearly 200 years ago.

Sheffield from the South East (above) by William Cowen (1836) is a panorama of the city as seen from what is now Heeley Bank Road, close to the route of the Halfway tram. It was restored with support from John Jackson and the Wolf Safety Lamp Company.

Two of the paintings are by Henry Perlee Parker, a drawing master at Sheffield's Wesleyan College (now King Edward VII School).

Henry Perlee Parker's Sheffield Milk Boys
Henry Perlee Parker's Sheffield Milk Boys (1843)

Perlee Parker was influenced by another celebrated local artist, Sir Frances Chantrey, who was born in a small Jordanthorpe farmhouse in 1781. Chantrey spent his youth delivering milk, eggs and butter in Sheffield and it is this scene which is depicted in Perlee Parker's well-known painting, The Milk Boys (1843).

Another restored painting by Perlee Parker shows crowds of mourners paying their respects at The Burial of Sir Francis Chantrey in Norton Churchyard (1841). Sir Francis Chantrey became a respected painter and sculptor who was commissioned to produce portraits and busts of notable figures including William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott and King George III. His 1822 marble bust of the king was so successful that it was used as a model for the king's image on coins.

Clara Morgan is curator of social history at Museums Sheffield: "These paintings were so damaged in the floods - it was very traumatic to see them in that state but a positive thing has come out of it. They're back on show and it symbolises how well we're recovering from the floods three years ago."

The total cost of the conservation work for the four restored paintings was £15,000 - including conservation and glazing or reframing where necessary.

The majority of this money came from the insurance payout but a portion came from a donation from John Jackson and the Wolf Safety Lamp Company who contributed towards William Cowen's Sheffield panorama. The Earl Fitzwilliam Charitable Trust also supported a new frame for that painting.

The conservation covered by insurance continues with works on paper - 200 prints, drawings and watercolours have recently been sent for conservation. A batch of 30 works on paper to be washed, pressed and mounted can cost about £1000.

Restoration and conservation

Mark Roberts and an oil painting under restoration
Mark Roberts cleans and restores paintings from private collections and regional museums

The paintings were restored by Mark and Diana Roberts in their North Nottinghamshire workshop. They have been conserving European oil paintings since 1985. Diana studied art history and trained to repair gilded frames, while Mark took an apprenticeship in oil painting restoration.

Mark and Diana were called out to Kelham Island to rescue the paintings in June 2007. "It was all hands to the wheel on the day. We put on the wellies," recalls Diana. "The paintings had to be physically removed, recorded and photographed so we knew exactly what state they were in when they came out of the flood-water."

The conservation involved delicate treatments of flaking paint, careful relining and restoring of the original vivid colours. Now the paintings look even better than before being damaged by flood-water.

"First we had to remove all the mud and gunge," explains Mark who trained as a conservator in Manchester Art Gallery and then worked in Italy in 1968 on artwork that was damaged when the River Arno in Florence flooded.

"When the paint is secure, we remove old brown oxidized varnish. Where paint has flaked off we put it back down again and fill the losses with putty, make it smooth, and re-touch with pigments. We then reline the canvas."

Aside from being destroyed by fire, Mark says flood damage is the worst kind for oil paintings. It causes blisters, requiring large amounts of facing paper to hold the paint together.

William Cowen's panoramic view of Sheffield in 1836 looks stunning in its new place on the wall of the social history gallery at Weston Park, but before being submerged by 50cm of flood water, it was covered in a thick brown varnish, kept in storage for many years.

"It's fascinating for people from Sheffield, like us," says Diana Roberts, who helped restore the painting. "You can see the Botanical Gardens, the building that is now King Edward VII School, St Mary's Church at Bramall Lane and St Paul's which was where the Peace Gardens are now.

"It was terrific - the colours really came out in the restoration - lilacs, pinks, pale blues. Before it was a really muddy brown."

The Burial of Sir Francis Chantrey in Norton Churchyard (1841) by Perlee Parker
The Burial of Sir Francis Chantrey in Norton Churchyard (1841) by Perlee Parker

The Burial of Sir Frances Chantrey (1841) was particularly badly damaged: "It was thoroughly soaked. Water all over the front had started to dissolve the adhesion between paint and canvas, making it milky and opaque. You couldn't see any of the figures - all you could make out was the shapes of the church and tree," says Mike.

'Silver lining'

It took over a year for the paintings to dry before they could be conserved. Now, three years after the floods, the Weston Park paintings have not only been saved but these pictures, which otherwise would not be seen, are back on public view and their value has even been enhanced.

"Ironically it was a sliver lining to the cloud," says Mark. "These paintings have been restored and conserved when otherwise they might not have been."

Clara Morgan of Museums Sheffield
Clara Morgan, Social History Curator at Museums Sheffield, with another of the restored oil paintings

The museum store still has many flood-damaged objects: "We have to prioritise them for conservation," explains Clara Morgan. "We look at how badly damaged they are, their historical value, and the ones that are most likely to be popular on display."

It was not only oil paintings that were submerged - Museums Sheffield's watercolour collection was also flooded, but surprisingly many survived without the colours running. Layers of blotting paper meant that mud was siphoned to the edges so they could be dried out, washed and then pressed by watercolour experts.

Visit Weston Park Museum to see the paintings restored after the floods of June 2007.

In pictures: Restored Sheffield paintings
21 Jun 10 |  Arts & Culture


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