Conservators Examine Rubens Ceiling At The Banqueting House

By David Prudames | 11 January 2005
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Shows a photograph of a tall, thin scaffold in the middle of a historic room under a painted ceiling.

Conservators have had to erect a huge scaffold to reach the paintings which hang 22 metres (72 feet) from the ground. Photo: Richard Lea-Hair/ HRP.

Armed with Ultra-Violet lights and magnification tools, conservators climbed an 18-metre (57 feet) high scaffold tower to get a close look at the vast paintings that decorate the ceiling of the Banqueting House at Whitehall.

Charles I commissioned Peter Paul Rubens to produce the nine canvasses almost 400 years ago and they have graced the Royal residence in central London ever since.

Conservators had an initial look at the massive works on January 8, before embarking on a week-long inspection in the first major survey of the paintings for 10 years. Staff at Historic Royal Palaces, which takes care of the building, are hoping to determine the exact condition of each painting and draw up a plan for the future preservation of the whole lot.

Shows a photograph of a woman shining a light onto a painted ceiling.

Kate Frame, Head of Conservation and Collections Care at Historic Royal Palaces inspects the paintings on January 8. Photo: Richard Lea-Hair/ HRP.

"These massive paintings are in remarkable condition, considering they have survived 12 major restorations in their 370 year life, along with a major fire, roof leaks and world war," explained Kate Frame, Head of Conservation and Collections Care at Historic Royal Palaces.

"It is fantastic that the public today can enjoy them in their original setting as monarchs and their courtiers have done for nearly 400 years."

The Banqueting House, situated opposite the famous Horse Guards Parade, is the only complete surviving building of Whitehall Palace, the sovereign's principal residence up to the reign of William III (1669-1702).

Built by renowned 17th century architect Inigo Jones, it was once one of the largest palaces in Europe, but the majority of its buildings were lost in a devastating fire in 1698.

Shows a photograph of the view looking up at a painted ceiling. At the bottom of the image there are three people stnding on a balcony and pointing up at the ceiling.

Photo: Richard Lea-Hair/ HRP.

In 1649, the Banqueting House played host to one of the most notorious events in its history, the execution of King Charles I: the only member of Britain's Royal House to be executed. Following Charles’ death, the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell made the palace his official residence.

Some 20 years earlier Charles commissioned Rubens to create decoration for the ceiling of the Banqueting House to celebrate the glorification of his father James I. Installed in 1636, the resulting paintings are the only works by Rubens to remain in their original location.

Described as "the greatest decorative painting ever executed of an English interior" and said to have set a trend for grand Baroque schemes, the works have needed constant care.

In 1635 the painter himself, paid £3,000 (£218,000 today) and a heavy gold chain for his work, had to retouch the paint and mend cracks caused by storage and much cleaning and mending has followed.

Shows a photograph of three people, one of whom is pointing up at a painted ceiling.

Kate Frame examines the paintings alongside two Rubens specialists from Belgium. Photo: Richard Lea-Hair/ HRP.

Problems generally caused by damp in the roof led to repairs in 1686-88 under the instruction of Christopher Wren, with more following in 1729-33 by William Kent who also relined them. A further series was carried out in 1748, 1776-77 and 1830-31.

The paintings survived the 1698 fire that destroyed most of the Whitehall palace, as well as alterations Cromwell made to the Banqueting House.

In 1906, the canvasses were adhered to plywood to prevent sagging and tearing from their frames. During the Second World War, the panels were cut into 20 pieces so they could be taken out through the Banqueting House windows to storage near Beaconsfield.

After the war, Ministry of Works artist-restorers worked on them in the Orangery of Kensington Palace and since then only two surveys and some minor remedial work have been carried out.

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