Battle to save Cocteau's hidden legacy from vandals and decay

Restorers are working in a little-known French church in central London to save works of art by the celebrated filmmaker Jean Cocteau which are threatened by pollution and "vandalism".

Cocteau, who died in 1963, was well known in the UK as a director during the 1950s for works including Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus. He also wrote poetry, novels and plays. But his paintings are little known in Britain.

The murals in Notre Dame de France, a Roman Catholic chaplaincy close to Leicester Square, are part of a series of five sets of works carried out by the director, and the only ones in the UK.

The church was rebuilt after the Second World War, and Cocteau agreed to paint the murals in 1960 following a request from the French ambassador.

They had begun to deteriorate and the team which carried out work on his pieces in the chapel of Villefranche-sur-Mer, near Nice in southern France, arrived in the UK last month.

One of the two specialist restorers, Marie-Odile Hubert, said the state of the works "was very unsatisfying".

"The pictures were polluted and darkened. They had also been the victim of water damage and some graffiti," she added.

Several years ago the works were "vandalised by an anonymous so-called artist", said Ms Hubert.

A golden circle was added to Cocteau's depiction of the crucifixion along with metallic paint. The artist put his initials in black marker pen under Cocteau's signature.

"It is these acts of vandalism, as well as the pronounced grime that principally made the restoration necessary," Ms Hubert said.

She added that without intervention the damage from the additional layers of paint would have become "more and more difficult to remove without damaging the original painting underneath. The added paint would have become increasingly insoluble with the passing of time".

The two on-site restorers, graduates from France's restoration school, l'Institut National du Patrimoine, have worked for a month on the project.

They used oils and lotions to clean the works and protect the paint, after scientific analysis of Cocteau's techniques and historical research on the works. Then they fixed the paint and filled in the cracks and splits.

The church estimated the costs of the work at about £24,000 and still has several thousand pounds to raise to complete the project.

Ms Hubert said that Cocteau "is very recognised in France, was a member of the Académie Française, however his literary and cinema works were more studied and recognised than his paintings".

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