National Gallery Manuscript Catalogue
Archive reference number
The Manuscript Catalogue is a series of volumes which contain information about the condition of works of art in the Gallery's collection and details of conservation work.
Conservation has been central to the National Gallery's activities from its foundation in 1824. Cleaning and repair of the Collection was carried out by contracted restorers until the establishment of the Conservation Department in 1946.
The first Keeper of the National Gallery, William Seguier, was a restorer who washed and varnished many of the pictures during his term of office, 1824-1843. Cleaning and restoration activities were continued over the next few years using contracted restorers, including William Seguier's brother, John. In 1852, a public outcry arose after John Seguier cleaned nine major pictures. This, and other criticisms of the Gallery's administrative structure, acquisition policies and accommodation, led to the appointment of a Royal Commission of Enquiry in 1853. The Royal Commission gathered extensive evidence about conservation practices at the National Gallery and in foreign institutions, and the Report's recommendations led to improvements in conservation activities and their documentation.
The new Director was charged with maintaining a history of each picture 'including its repairs and describing accurately its current condition.' Consequently, the Manuscript Catalogue was compiled. Details of cleaning and repair work were also published in the Director's Annual Reports from 1855 (archive ref: NG17).
The in-house Conservation Department was established in 1946, consisting of a Consultant Restorer [Helmut Ruhemann], a Restorer and a Craftsman. Helmut Ruhemann continued to work three days a week at the Courtauld, so was employed by the National Gallery half-time. In 1947 an exhibition was mounted of all the pictures cleaned since 1936. The accompanying exhibition catalogue addressed many of the controversial issues surrounding conservation. However, the exhibition did not allay public criticism, and consequently, a Standing Committee of Enquiry (the Weaver Committee) was appointed to investigate the Gallery's conservation work. The Weaver Committee report stressed the importance of a scientific approach to conservation, and led to the establishment of a Chemical Laboratory, staffed by a Chemist and a Scientific Assistant. The report also recommended that air-conditioning should be introduced in the Gallery, and suggested that the Conservation Department should be expanded. In response, the Director and Scientific Adviser submitted to the Trustees a 'Report on the Condition of the Collection', which included an estimate of personnel and accommodation necessary for the Conservation Department. In January 1949 R.D. Buck, Conservator at the Fogg Museum of Art, was seconded to the Gallery to advise on the organisation of conservation work. Also in 1949, authority was obtained to employ a larger compliment of Conservation staff: a Chief Restorer, two Restorers, three Assistant Restorers and Craftsmen. However, the full complement of staff could not be employed due to manpower restrictions, and from 1949-1952 the Conservation Department was under the direction of a Deputy Keeper.
In 1953 a special committee of Trustees submitted a report on the functions and organisation of the Conservation Department, which led to the full-time employment of a Chief Restorer, who was to report directly to the Director. From 1946 the conservation records were organised into a dossier for each painting in the Collection, to which all new records would be added. In c1953-1954 the Manuscript Catalogue was abandoned and the conservation dossiers became the primary record of conservation work on the paintings.
The Manuscript Catalogue was created by the National Gallery and is now held in the Gallery's Archive.
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