During the summer of 2013 I was very fortunate to have a placement in the Conservation Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I was involved with many activities, like cleaning tapestries and upholstery in the British Galleries, repairing and mounting memorabilia for the Afro Supa Hero Exhibition and training in Integrated Pest Management. However one of my favourite assignments was working with other students on the stabilisation for access of 215 working drawings by one of Britain’s most prolific theatre architects, Frank Matcham (1854-1920).
Francis ‘Frank’ Matcham originally apprenticed to a local architect but had no formal qualifications. This did not hinder his career and by 1875 he had joined the prominent practice of Jethro Thomas Robinson. In 1877 he married Jethro’s youngest daughter ‘Effie’ Hannah Maria and within a year, in a twist of fate, took over the practice on the death of his father-in-law. He was just 24: embarking on an illustrious career spanning forty years.
Functionality and opulent interiors led to a legacy of over 150 theatres in London and across Britain including the London Coliseum, the Gaiety Theatre and the Victoria Palace Theatre. Especially noted was Matcham’s use of patented steel cantilevers which removed the need for supporting pillars that obstructed sightlines to the stage, as well as improved safety features like emergency lighting, fireproof construction and ready exits and increased seating capacity.
Bombing during the London Blitz is believed to have destroyed many of Matcham’s professional records. 7000+ of the surviving collection were purchased in 1995 by the then Theatre Museum and is considered the best example of his body of work. They are now housed in the Theatre and Performance Collections of the V&A. Prior to acquisition many of the works on paper were water damaged and stored poorly, contributing to their vulnerable and unstable nature. Access had to be restricted to ensure their survival, thus the stabilisation that was conducted meant that this part of the collection is now accessible to researchers.
Balancing the needs of public access with what is best for these drawings can be difficult. Vulnerable works often hold crucial information but restrictions mean they cannot be freely handled.
In August an in-situ temporary paper conservation area at Blythe House was created. Itself a building of great historical interest with many a film crew using it as a backdrop, Blythe House is the storage site for the V&A, the Science Museum and the British Museum. It is also the new home of the Clothworker’s Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion, part of the V&A’s FuturePlan.
For 10 days the team opened rolls of working drawings and survey plans, blueprints, negatives and tracings which were then carefully assessed, treated and appropriately stored. Documentation, dry cleaning, tear repair, humidification and flattening were conducted for many of the works. Specific care was taken with this collection as the historical and documentary evidence had to be maintained. As working drawings and blueprints these works often display scales that had to remain dimensionally true so as to not compromise their accuracy.
Plans for the Bristol Hippodrome, Sadlers Wells Theatre, Stratford Empire, Grand Theatre Douglas, Victoria Theatre Ilfracombe, Marlborough Theatre, Victoria Palace London, Ardwick Empire/New Manchester Hippodrome, London Pavilion and the Palace Theatre London were all stabilised and stored in flat and acid-free archival storage conditions. Many of these buildings are no longer standing.
As a volunteer project for us students this exercise proved to be an excellent teaching tool. Under the supervision of Senior Paper Conservator Sue Catcher, we were encouraged to devise our own methodologies and treatment proposals where ethics, stakeholder expectations, available infrastructure and risk management were all balanced in this real-world context. We all come from diverse backgrounds: Cardiff University MSc. Conservation Practice, MA Conservation (Art on Paper and Books and Archival Materials) at Camberwell College of Art, and the Brussels based École Nationale Supérieure des Visuals La Cambre (ENSAV) MA in Conservation and Restoration of Books. Karen Jensen, the 2013-14 Heritage Lottery Funded (HLF) Preventive Conservation intern, who is also an alumni of the BSc. Conservation of Archaeological and Museum Objects at Cardiff University, was a team member as well.
Thanks to the team and contributors that helped to produce this entry: Susan Catcher, Ramona Riedzewski, Andrew Kirk, Puneeta Sharma, Emilie Cloos, Mito Matsumaru, Vivian Yip, Angelina Bakalarou, Nola Dahl, Samantha Cawson, Corinne Henderson, Jessica Page, Karen Jensen and Gwendoline Lemée