A massive Victorian Gothic Revival church screen goes on permanent public display this month at the V&A museum in London. The Hereford Screen, a masterpiece of Victorian metalwork, has been off public view for over three decades. It has now been cleaned and re-assembled at a cost of £750,000 in one of the largest conservation projects undertaken by the museum.
The cathedral screen was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, whose other work includes the Albert Memorial and St Pancras station, both in London. The screen consists of a cast-iron framework, wrought-iron base panels with elaborate foliage, and brass columns. It supports near life-size figures of Christ and angels made by electro-forming, a technique much used in the mid-19th century. It was originally covered in brilliant polychrome paint and 30,000 pieces of mosaic.
The screen was placed in Hereford Cathedral in 1862 where it divided the choir from the nave.
A little over a century later in 1967 the Dean and Chapter of the cathedral decided to remove the screen to create a more open area for worship. It was given to the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry, the town where the screen had originally been made, by Francis Skidmore.
But the gallery never found the space to display the screen or the money to conserve it and in 1983 when many still found Victorian art deeply unfashionable, Coventry Council considered selling it to an American museum. The V&A stepped in to prevent it going abroad and accepted the screen as a donation in 1984. It spent the next 10 years in a warehouse as the museum faced the more pressing challenge of raising £31 million for its new British Galleries which open this November.
A change in the screen’s fortunes came in 1994 when the V&A opened a new ironwork gallery and curator Marian Campbell proposed putting the screen at the heart of the display. An outline of the screen, 11 metres long and 10.5 metres high, was stencilled on the wall and a few sculptures put in position. Then began a massive fund-raising campaign to finance the screen’s cleaning and re-assembly.
Enter James Joll, then chairman of the Museums and Galleries Commission (now Resource), who spearheaded the campaign. Half the funding (£375,000) was secured from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and the remaining raised from private individuals, trusts and institutions over four years.
With the money in place, conservation began in 1999. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Eric Turner, assistant curator in the metalwork department said, “The original paintwork had deteriorated to such an extent that it wasn’t possible for us to conserve it. We wanted to convey the richness and the depth of colour of the original Victorian scheme.” So the museum opted for a total restoration.
A team of 20 conservators specialising in different materials from London firm Plowden & Smith set to work. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Richard Rogers, project director at Plowden & Smith, says, “The screen was in huge components, so our first task was to dismantle it completely. We then cleaned each part. The sections that had originally been painted were covered with an isolating layer, so that they remain intact, and then repainted. The hardest task was reassembling the screen from over 14,000 components. Luckily we did not have any bits left over!”
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The V&A’s greatest hidden treasure'