Restoring casts

Words by Jane Wilkinson, Head of Conservation


The Drawing Office is hung with over 250 objects, mostly plaster casts. Because the room has never been on the visitor route and the walls are very inaccessible, these works have had little attention over the last fifty years. With this project, we had a fantastic opportunity to finally assess and treat them.

Conservators hard at work on cleaning casts. Photo: Lewis Bush

Before work started, painstaking preliminary research had helped suggest the best methods for treating them. Intriguing information gathered from nineteenth century bills and curators’ diaries revealed how and when the objects had been painted, washed or repaired. Scientific analysis further confirmed our belief that the casts – and the frames of those that had them – had originally been cream coloured. Because we wanted them to look as they would have done in Soane’s lifetime, this was extremely useful information.

A cast halfway through being cleaned. Photo: Jane Wilkinson

Several treatment options were considered. All the casts had at least four layers of paint, so we considered removing later layers to reveal an earlier scheme. Physical tests, however, convinced us that the best approach was to preserve the latest paint layer on each object. Earlier layers, containing lead white, which had caused the paint to darken and discolour, would not have had the appropriate appearance.

After fifty years accumulating London dirt, the casts were very grimy. Loose dirt was first removed with brushes and sponges, and the painted surfaces were further cleaned with saliva and swabs. For many objects this was sufficient and completely transformed their appearance; other casts needed more attention. Where there was damage, or flaky unstable paint, we consolidated, repaired and retouched. In a few cases more radical repairs were required.

Having carefully preserved the casts’ original fixings, these were used (whenever possible) to rehang them. Finally, before installation, each object had its museum number discreetly painted onto it, for future reference!