The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is to launch an appeal to fund restoration work on its greatest hidden treasure, the Hereford Screen. The massive Gothic Revival screen, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, is a masterpiece of Victorian metalwork.
Half of the £750,000 restoration cost is being met by the National Heritage Memorial Fund, with the V&A having to raise the remainder. James Joll, Chairman of the Museums & Galleries Commission, is making the project a personal crusade and masterminding the appeal, which will be launched at the time of the unveiling of one of Scott’s other great works, the nearby Albert Memorial. After being hidden behind scaffolding for eight years, the memorial is to be unveiled by English Heritage on 21 October, following completion of an £11 million restoration project.
The Hereford Screen, which divided the cathedral choir from the nave, was removed in 1967 to create a more open area for worship. The massive screen, thirty six feet long and thirty four feet high, was also badly in need of conservation. It was then given to the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry, the town where it had originally been made by Francis Skidmore. The gallery never found the space to display the screen, and in 1983 Coventry Council considered selling it to an American museum. The V&A stepped in to prevent it going abroad, accepting it as a donation, but there was no money for the necessary conservation work. Since then the dismantled screen has been stored in a Battersea warehouse.
The composition of the screen is complex, consisting of a cast-iron framework, wrought-iron base panels, brass columns, copper decoration, electroformed copper figures, and marble and crystal bosses. It was covered in polychrome paint and 30,000 pieces of mosaic. After a century in the damp atmosphere of the cathedral, rust and corrosion had become a major problem and it has deteriorated further since it went into store.
Metalwork curator Marian Campbell says that conservation of the front will have to be radical. “The rust is so pervasive that we will have to strip off most of the paint”. The front will then be repainted and gilded. “We want to recreate the glitz of the polychromy,” Ms Campbell explained. Conservation of the back of the screen will be “conservative”, leaving as much as possible of the damaged original paint. The screen will have to be dismantled into several hundred component parts and conservation work will take up to three years. The V&A then intends to display the Hereford Screen in the centre of the upper floor Ironwork Gallery.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Restoring the Hereford Screen'