Last week I went to visit Rupert McBain in his studio with Alison Nicholson, the Project Fundraiser, and Rosie Bradford to see how the work is going on the conservation of the Flemish altarpiece. Rupert and his team are working on the carved figures at the centre of the altarpiece and are making a new frame and stand for the work to be placed upon.
Rupert gave us a tour of the studio and talked us through what they are doing, how they are doing it and what stage they are currently at. Rupert has been working closely with the Museum Conservation Manager, Jon Old, and has carried out extensive research himself, visiting Belgium to examine another altarpiece with paintings attributed to the Master of the View of Saint Gudule and carvings which closely match those in our altarpiece. When we arrived at the studio we were all struck by how different the altarpiece looks out of the gallery setting and in the studio. Raised up far higher than its previous display position, the figures were more visible and as such the skill of the carving could be better appreciated.
In its original formation the altarpiece would have had six pillars separating the carved scenes and so Alan, a member of Rupert’s studio, is in the process of carving them anew.
The two outer examples will rest on top of the base, whilst the four inner will be inserted into the bottom of the base. Once refined, they will be coated with a layer of gesso and gilding. Many other examples of 15th century carved Northern European altarpieces are known to have had coloured and heavily gilded carvings; however, there is no trace of colouring on our work. Therefore, the original carvings will not be changed, and gilding will only be applied to the new pillars. The gilding will be aged accordingly so as not to appear too bright and this process will begin in April. The figures will also be placed against a new gilded back panel. Alan will also be carving a free-standing replica figure to be newly displayed alongside the altarpiece for visitors to touch. He is using green oak that has been cut so that the grain runs in the same direction as that of the altarpiece’s figures and he will also carve out the back of the figure in the same style to try and prevent the oak splitting. Interestingly Alan is using similar tools, and methods of carving that would have been originally used to carve the altarpiece in the fifteenth century.
We then went through into the other workshop to meet Andy who has been making the new oak frame for the altarpiece. Without the carvings the frame looked vast and is a beautiful example of exquisite craftsmanship. The frame will be dyed black using layers of pigments and varnishes to create a beautifully rich colour that parallels that of the one Rupert saw in Belgium. It will then also be aged accordingly. Mouldings will be attached to the front and these will also be gilded. New robust drop hinges will enable the panels to be opened and closed each day at the Museum and will also allow the panels to be easily lifted from the altarpiece if they require any work in the future. They are also in the process of making a new altar table which will raise the altarpiece up to about 1200mm.
The altarpiece will be reassembled in the Museum, and will be ready for unveiling at the end of April. The new redisplay of this object is a very delicate process combining historical accuracy, technical skill and the requirements of the gallery and it was fascinating to see this process in action. It was particularly interesting to see the altarpiece in the workshop environment, as this collaborative style parallels exactly the way in which the altarpiece would have been originally created. The level of skill, craftsmanship and research that has gone into the project is outstanding and it was fantastic to see the progress that Rupert and his team are making. The altarpiece is going to look fantastic and will transform the early picture gallery.
By Becky Knott, Student Intern