Centenary of the sinking of Falaba

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men with lifting equipment hanging a large painting on a wall The huge painting of Falaba was installed by our specialist handling team ready for the opening of the 'Lusitania: life, loss, legacy' exhibition

This Saturday, 28 March, marks the centenary of the sinking of the Falaba - a passenger ship of Liverpool’s Elder Dempster Line. She left Liverpool on 27 March 1915 and sighted the German submarine U-28 off the southern coast of Ireland the following day.

U-28 surfaced, sent two warnings and Falaba’s crew were ordered to abandon ship. As the final lifeboat was being lowered, a torpedo hit. The ship sank in under 10 minutes. Germany claimed that U-28 had allowed 23 minutes for evacuation. Britain said it was only 5 minutes.

104 people died, including Leon Thrasher – the first US citizen to be killed the by actions of a U-boat. Thrasher’s body was only recovered in the aftermath of Lusitania’s sinking six weeks later, and was initially thought to be a Lusitania victim.

Many of Falaba’s crew were from Liverpool and the city was still reeling from the loss when Lusitania was sunk.

We were keen to include a large painting  of Falaba from our collection in the new exhibition Lusitania: life, loss, legacy. However this presented quite a challenge to our Senior Paintings Conservator, David Crombie, as he explains:

painting of a large ship The painting 'Falaba' by Gerald M Burn on storage racks, looking very dark indeed before it was conserved

"The painting 'Falaba' by Gerald M Burn, painted in 1908, had suffered water damage in the 1970s, and this had caused some flaking and loss of the paint. At that time a protective tissue facing was applied with wax-resin adhesive to prevent any more paint coming off. The painting was then left in storage for some years.

I was asked to assess whether the work could be treated, and when I first saw the painting, it was in a very sorry state indeed – the protective facing had done its job and held the paint in place, but there were other serious problems. The picture looked like it had a very discoloured varnish and dirt layers, as it was a dull brownish green colour overall. However, I did some cleaning tests and found that there wasn’t a varnish layer after all, just very heavy accumulated dirt, which was quite difficult to remove.

Detail of painting, mostly dirty with a patch of blue sky A cleaning test in the sky reveals the proper colour of the paint underneath all the dirt

I also found that the canvas edges were weak and coming off the tacks, and that the water damage had badly affected the ground preparation on the canvas under the paint, making it very powdery. In addition, the picture was very big, measuring 1.52m high by 2.74m long, (5 ft by 9 ft), which was going to be a practical challenge! However, despite the practical difficulties, I knew that if we could secure the paint, clean the surface and then carry out the structural repairs it would be possible to include it in the new display."

David has worked very hard to restore the painting and it is fitting that it has gone on display in time for the centenary of the sinking of Falaba. Come to the exhibition Lusitania life, loss legacy to see how good it looks after conservation.