Conservator dusting Rembrandt’s self-portrait at Kenwood

Caring for Our Collections

The work of our conservators, conservation scientists and collections care assistants focuses on identifying, understanding and combating the risks to our collections and interiors.

Find out more here about some of our recent conservation projects, and about the conservation science research that underpins the decisions we make to protect our collections.

Preserving the Richmond Castle Graffiti

Layers of graffiti drawn across the 20th century including what appears to be a First World War battle ship, Second World War planes and possibly an early jet plane.

Layers of graffiti drawn across the 20th century including what appears to be a First World War battle ship, Second World War planes and possibly an early jet plane.

Within the Norman walls of Richmond Castle, an unassuming 19th-century military cell block holds a fascinating secret. Inscribed on its fragile walls are thousands of pieces of graffiti that span several decades and two world wars.

While we know a little about a small number of these inscriptions, the vast majority are yet to be researched. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, a new volunteer led project aims to explore the stories behind the graffiti and to unlock the extraordinary potential of this previously untapped resource.

Although the cell block isn't currently open to the public, find out what we're doing to conserve it for the future.

Find out more about the Richmond Castle cell block project

Paintings Conservation

Paintings conservators Rachel Turnbull and Alice Tate-Harte examining Vermeer’s The Guitar Player with a microscope. They found fingerprints in the dried paint at the edges, which could belong to the painter

Paintings conservators Rachel Turnbull and Alice Tate-Harte examining Vermeer’s The Guitar Player with a microscope. They found fingerprints in the dried paint at the edges, which could belong to the painter

English Heritage is responsible for the care and conservation of 1,300 paintings and their frames and 15 in situ painted decorative schemes on wood, paper or canvas. Most are located in our London properties and include key moments in western art history, such as The Waterseller of Seville by Velázquez at Apsley House, and Rembrandt’s late Self Portrait and Vermeer’s Guitar Player at Kenwood. We undertake technical investigation of our paintings to support their conservation and presentation.

Titian’s Mistress, a painting in the collection at Apsley House, came to the conservation studio for treatment in 2012. The painting underwent a technical examination which revealed a signature and a hidden work underneath. The findings have challenged the current attribution of the painting.

Read more about conserving ‘Titian’s Mistress’

Conservation Science

Dr Naomi Luxford studying the effect of light on the Carlton desk at Kenwood House with Near-Infrared (NIR) spectroscopy

Dr Naomi Luxford studying the effect of light on the Carlton desk at Kenwood House with Near-Infrared (NIR) spectroscopy

Conservation science research underpins the decisions we make to control light, humidity, insects, mould, pollution, temperature, vibration and cleaning methods, all of which cause objects to deteriorate.

Where there is a lack of evidence for conservation methods we carry out our own research, often in collaboration with other institutions. Most of the research takes place in English Heritage properties. Their varied environments provide an enormous real-world laboratory to study object deterioration and the effectiveness of different control methods. The complex nature of art and archaeological objects means that laboratory experiments do not always accurately predict how objects will behave in the outside world. Measuring real deterioration rates of objects in situ is our main research focus.

Several of our current research projects are highlighted below.

See our downloadable conservation advice
Sophie Downes culturing mould samples collected in a comprehensive survey from 20 English Heritage and National Trust sites

Sophie Downes culturing mould samples collected in a comprehensive survey from 20 English Heritage and National Trust sites

Treating and Predicting Mould

Mould is a major problem in historic properties and is predicted to increase at many UK sites with the expected changes in the climate. Previous research has shown that many conservation methods do little to prevent mould regrowth and that several actually encourage it.

Sophie Downes is undertaking a PhD to investigate mould in 20 historic properties, its risk to organic collections, and new treatment methods. The project has produced the first mould population survey of heritage environments in the UK, and includes DNA profiling.

The project is jointly funded by English Heritage and the National Trust at Birkbeck College (supervised by Dr Jane Nicklin).

A test frame for a tent sculpture cover and monitoring equipment at Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire

A test frame for a tent sculpture cover and monitoring equipment in position at Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire

Improving Winter Sculpture Covers

Although little can be done to slow the decay of outdoor marble sculpture, the fact that many of our historic houses close in the colder months allows us to use winter covers. However, we do not know how protective such covers are at particular sites, and which designs work best.

Mel Keeble has begun a PhD project to assess how effective different cover designs are. It uses analytical techniques to establish the rate of surface deterioration of covered and uncovered marble pieces. The findings will be assessed alongside the monitored environmental parameters.

The project is a collaboration between English Heritage and University College London (supervised by Professor Matija Strlic), funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Surface damage to a Roman skeleton from Lullingstone Roman Villa, Kent

Surface damage to a Roman skeleton from Lullingstone Roman Villa, Kent

Conserving Archaeological Copper Alloy and Bone

One of our current areas of research is on the corrosive effects of humidity and gases in showcases on archaeological copper alloys and bone. Existing studies have been inconclusive, so we are undertaking laboratory experiments to fill these gaps in our knowledge and ensure that this important evidence of our past survives. These experiments are based on methods developed during 10 years of research at English Heritage.

Extensive surveys of bone and copper alloy objects on display at English Heritage sites are being done to check that the laboratory results are representative of the real material.

This work has been funded as a Conservation Fellowship by the Clothworkers’ Foundation, London, and is being carried out by Dr David Thickett. You can download more information about the project from the link below (155KB).

Read more about the research

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