Old Royal Naval College

Case Studies

Conservation Grant
Old Royal Naval College
Photo: Paine & Stewart

A grant was awarded in May 2022 towards the conservation of Benjamin West’s ‘St Paul and the Viper’, the last of West’s major works to remain in-situ. The Chapel’s altarpiece dominates the central aspect of the Chapel. Set within an elaborately carved and gilded wooden frame it was painted in oils on canvas. Square at the bottom but raising to a hemispherical crown, the painting responds to the surrounding architecture, as well as the history of the site. The painting is one of the artist’s most important works, demonstrating the range of West’s talents and shows the episode in the Acts of the Apostles where Saint Paul is shipwrecked on his way to Rome where he will be prosecuted, subject matter appropriate for a congregation of mariners.

Benjamin West, a major figure in 18th century art, was Surveyor to the King’s Pictures and succeeded Joshua Reynolds as the second president of the Royal Academy. During his lifetime West was recognized as the foremost painter in the UK and a leading Neo-Classicist. One of West’s most ambitious paintings and the last major work by the artist to remain in its intended location, the painting sits in a frame by Richard Lawrence which is also of significant artistic importance.

Since the last treatment over 60 years ago, dust residue and surface debris had severely compromised the painting’s aesthetic qualities. There was pronounced diminution of the original luminosity of the pigments as well as flattening of the 3-dimensionality of the figures. The frame is also damaged along its lower edge. Without treatment now dust and grime will continue to build up and compromise the visual quality and future integrity of the work, placing it at risk of permanent deterioration.

The conservation works took place in-situ fully accessible to the public throughout, and the painting will remain on full public view and accessible to the 800,000 visitors a year to our site. We hope to use the project to encourage interest in conservation from the public and students.

The conservation was led by Paine & Stewart. Sophie Stewart and Stephen Paine hold diplomas from the Courtauld Institute of Art/Getty Conservation Institute in the conservation of wall paintings. Their clients include English Heritage, CADW, Church Buildings Council, Historic Royal Palaces, Churches Conservation Trust, National Trust, cathedrals diocesan advisory councils and parish church councils, local authorities. Both are accredited members of ICON and full members of IIC.

The installation of a new energy efficient lighting scheme, appropriate for the safety and enjoyment of such an important painting, allows for highly modulated qualities of illumination which in combination with conservation cleaning has the capacity to re-present a painting to its very great aesthetic advantage.

£5,000 in May 2022
Having toured a number of guests around our site, the reaction to the picture when entering the chapel is always wonderful to see as they take in the grandeur and details of the masterpiece". Matthew Mees, Chief Executive.