Arthur Lucas: Obituary

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The Independent Online
Arthur Lucas was the first Chief Restorer of the National Gallery, London.

He was appointed in 1956, an exciting moment to take charge of conservation and restoration in one of the world's great picture collections. 1947 had seen an exhibition of some 90 National Gallery paintings cleaned during the Second World War and, while it was greeted with enthusiasm by many, other influential voices were raised in outrage at what was perceived to be overcleaning. This was an almost exact re-run of the great Eastlake cleaning controversy of a hundred years before - even to the extent of the appointment of an impartial commission to look into the matter which, on both occasions, found that no damage had been done.

It was against this background that Lucas brought together a team of restorers and craftsmen to work on paintings. At first they operated in unsatisfactory conditions in Room 9, partly underneath a sort of glass verandah to protect them from constantly falling dust, loosened by wartime bombs. Later, in 1960, the department moved into purpose-built studios high above the exhibition galleries and into workshops equipped for the structural treatment of canvases and panels below street level.

It was probably in this latter area that Lucas set in motion systems that were to have the most profound long-term benefits: the Gallery's subsequent expertise in structural conservation owed much to his foresight in appointing and encouraging people with the unique skills necessary for this highly specialised work.

Born in 1916, Arthur Lucas grew up in Camberwell, South London. As a child he enjoyed poor health (one of those phrases loaded with unintended irony that so amused him in later life) and, in long periods of convalescence, became interested in painting. Encouraged by his father he attended Camberwell and St Martin's Schools of Art. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he was unable to enlist and worked instead for his father's laundry and cleaning business, driving a van around war-torn London.

The head of his old art school, William Johnstone, was determined that his protege should pursue a career in art and arranged for him to be taken on by Fritz Pollak, the London picture framer. At Pollak's workshop in Blue Ball Yard, St James's, he rapidly acquired skills in carving, gessoing and gilding that were to be the basis of his subsequent expertise. Decades later, he was never happier than when demonstrating to students or assistants how early Italian panels were prepared and gilded, and he never lost his touch for these most satisfying of processes.

His work on frames brought him into contact with the National Gallery in the period when it was returning to London from its wartime exile in Wales and beginning to reconstruct buildings badly damaged by bombing. Its new director, Philip Hendy, took an instant liking to this skilful young framer and, at Johnstone's suggestion, asked him if he would do minor repairs on paintings which, Lucas later recalled, he carried out on a table in Hendy's office.

He was employed as Technical Assistant in the newly formed Department of Conservation in 1946 and trained by Helmut Ruhemann, the former restorer to the Berlin Museums whom Kenneth Clark had brought over from Germany in the 1930s to restore National Gallery paintings. Ruhemann was never formally on the staff of the Gallery and it was Lucas who was appointed its first Chief Restorer in 1956.

To list the paintings that passed through the department during his career at the National Gallery is to read a roll-call of all the greatest names in European painting and many of their greatest works. Those projects he would have been proudest of are, I suspect, the ones in which he had to solve the most complex structural problems.

The treatment of Sebastiano del Piombo's Raising of Lazarus was probably the most difficult of all. Measuring nearly 4mx3m, it had been transferred in the past from panel to canvas and later reinforced several times with extra layers of canvas on the back; having stripped away these extra layers, Lucas realised to his dismay that what he had taken to be the main structural layer was, in fact, just a layer of rotten paper. He was confronted by 4mx3m of paint one hundredth of an inch thick, held together only by a modern tissue facing on one side and rotten paper on the other. The three- year treatment that followed was notable for its innovation and ingenuity and the painting was saved and successfully consolidated.

The final project of his career was a tragic rescue operation. Poussin's Adoration of the Golden Calf was badly vandalised and Lucas spent his last six months at the Gallery in 1978 piecing it together in a much admired restoration.

Arthur Lucas was a striking figure on the London art scene. Usually dressed in checked tweed suits, he was umistakable with his nautical air and beard to match. He was always interested in sailing and kept a boat at Bosham near his Sussex home for many years. He lived the part to the full and always addressed his male assistants as "mister". One of legends about him (which was absolutely true) was that he built an entire small boat in his spare time in the basement of the National Gallery.

During his career, he did a great deal to champion the newly emerging conservation profession. He was active in promoting the interests of restorers through his work in the Institute of Professional Civil Servants and in the Association of British Picture Restorers. He was also a much loved teacher of contemporary painters, for many years giving a characteristically unforgettable class at the Slade School of Fine Art. In his retirement he tended his splendid Sussex garden and grew increasingly exotic orchids.

Arthur Walter Lucas, picture restorer: born London 27 June 1916; Chief Restorer, National Gallery, London 1956-78; married Pamela Spice 1944 (two daughters and one daughter deceased); OBE 1970; died 11 October 1996.

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