The Scientific Department of the National Gallery

Origin of the Scientific Department

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Origin of the Scientific Department

The Scientific Department was established in the National Gallery in 1934 with the appointment of a Scientific Adviser, F. I. G. Rawlins, who was also instructed to act as Supervisor of Publications.

At that time there was renewed interest in the contribution which science could make to art, but we should not forget that this interest had been very much alive in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the National Gallery had had a brief encounter with no less a scientist than Michael Faraday. In 1850 and 1853 two august Select Committees were appointed by the House of Commons to enquire into the management of the Gallery, and Faraday's opinion was sought on a subject very close to our present enquiries: the effects on the paintings of the heavily polluted atmosphere in the neighbourhood. When it was suggested that it might be a good thing if he were to devote himself professionally to such investigations he replied that, whilst he himself could not take on the task, he had 'no doubt that a person of competent chemical knowledge and a little acquainted with paintings in ancient and modern times might be valuably employed in ascertaining such points'. Regrettably Faraday's advice went unheeded for 80 years.
By the 1930s the emphasis had swung from basic enquiries concerning preservation to the scientifically more facile process of looking through paintings with X-rays. But soon science and technology were to become much more closely relevant to preservation. Before the Second World War the first Scientific Adviser had tried unsuccessfully to persuade the National Gallery Trustees of the importance of air conditioning with humidity control. On the outbreak of war and with the evacuation of the National Gallery collection to a slate quarry in North Wales, air-conditioning abruptly changed from what some had thought to be a luxury to a prime necessity: the relative humidity in the slate quarries was close to 100 per cent all the year round. Heating alone brought this down to 58 per cent, and the dramatic reduction in all the troubles caused by detachment of paint gave strong impetus to the introduction of air conditioning in the exhibition rooms after the war.
Of course the combination of scientific work with supervision of publications and of photography could not last as all three activities grew, so that shortly after the War (in 1949) a manager was appointed for publications and photography, and at the same time all routine X-ray, infra-red and ultra-violet photography was passed to the photographers.

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