As one of the most recognisable works from the Lady Lever Art Gallery's collection and among William Holman Hunt's most famous paintings The Scapegoat often attracts a lot of attention. In art gallery circles this results in frequent requests to loan the painting for exhibitions across the world. It is our role at National Museums Liverpool to ensure above all that artworks are accessible to as many people as possible, and that they are preserved for generations to come to enjoy as we do today.
Here we give an insight into how we care for such famous and well loved works of art from the perspective of Roy Irlam our frames conservator.
When deciding whether or not a painting is stable enough to go on loan it has to be considered as a whole. Paintings conservators need to examine it to ensure its layers of paint are stable and not flaking or cracking excessively and in the case of The Scapegoat its frame, which is so integral to the finished work also needed to be safe to travel. Having been completed in 1855 at the time of the loan request The Scapegoat was more than 100 years old, while in excellent condition it was decided that its original gilded frame, which was commissioned by Holman Hunt and made by London frame maker Joseph Green, was too fragile to travel. This provided an opportunity for Roy Irlam, National Museums Liverpool's highly skilled and experienced conservator to create a replica frame for the painting and to conserve the original frame's water gilding during the period of the loan.
Firstly Roy built the replica frame from timber, marked out and carved the delicate text and illustration from the original frame and sealed the timber with glue to prevent the timber from drawing any elements from the surface gilding materials into its core. In turn 15 coats of gesso, a chalk based substance which act as base for the gilding were layered on top of the glue. Finally before the gilding could be applied the dried gesso layers were sanded down using a series of coarse, medium and fine sandpapers and sealed with a chalk pigment called bole to ensure any impurities that could show through the gilding are removed and a smooth surface created for the gilding.
Only when all the intricate preparatory work was complete could Roy start the traditional process of water gilding the frame using 23.5 carat loose gold leaf. In order to make the frame look solid Roy chose to double gild the replica frame using 15 books of gold leaf! To add to the authenticity of the surface the new gilding was toned down to match the aged surface patina of the original frame and the original text inscriptions hand painted onto the new gilt surface. In all a remarkable project which enabled Roy to showcase his skills and enabled a well loved painting to gather a new audience overseas when it travelled on loan to Japan in 2015.
We're pleased to say fans of William Holman Hunt and The Scapegoat can see the original frame, conserved by Roy, in situ at its permanent home The Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight. To find out more about this striking work of art visit our website.