Nigel Seeley

Forensic scientist and Head of Conservation at the National Trust

When the National Trust's 17th-century house Uppark, high on the West Sussex downs, was almost destroyed by fire in August 1989, 95 per cent of the contents of the ground floor and 5,000 pieces of woodwork were saved - from whole doors to fragments of wallpaper trim - and the controversial decision was taken to restore the house to its previous condition. The trust undertook the largest and most complex single conservation rescue operation ever mounted, Florence and Windsor perhaps excepted, which took four years and cost £20m.

Nigel John Seeley, conservation scientist: born Worcester Park, Surrey 25 April 1942; Senior Scientific Officer, Metropolitan Police Forensic Science Laboratory 1969-73; Head of Department of Archaeological Conservation and Materials Science, Institute of Archaeology, London University (from 1986 University College London) 1974-89; FSA 1980; Surveyor of Conservation, National Trust 1989-99, Head of Conservation 1999-2002; Honorary Research Fellow, University College London 1992-2003; married 1972 Mary-Ann Pullé (three sons); died London 21 June 2004.

When the National Trust's 17th-century house Uppark, high on the West Sussex downs, was almost destroyed by fire in August 1989, 95 per cent of the contents of the ground floor and 5,000 pieces of woodwork were saved - from whole doors to fragments of wallpaper trim - and the controversial decision was taken to restore the house to its previous condition. The trust undertook the largest and most complex single conservation rescue operation ever mounted, Florence and Windsor perhaps excepted, which took four years and cost £20m.

The trust's Surveyor of Conservation responsible was Nigel Seeley, a former police scientist. "Seeking out information from incomplete evidence," he insisted, "applies to works of art just as it does to forensic science; precisely the same analytical techniques apply."

Scientific research applied to the problems involved in the preservation of what has survived from the past is a relatively recent phenomenon. True, those whose task is to treat material, whether individual objects or the environment in which they survive, have long been aware of the need to understand the physical, chemical or biological facts involved in decay and any intervention to prevent it. But the realisation that research not directly connected with any specific material problem is the key to successful intervention is still new. Such research as a career is hardly even now established in the academic curriculum.

If one person can be credited with showing how it could be done, it was Seeley. His too early death is the greater blow, as his career had just opened out on a new phase that might have had a still greater impact on the science of conservation.

The whole subject was, in a sense, in the blood. His father, Jack Seeley, was an engineer by profession, who became chairman of the Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors. Nigel Seeley was born in 1942 in Worcester Park, on London's south-west outskirts, and grew up in New Malden. His regular birthday present from an early age was a constantly augmented chemistry set.

Chemistry, equally, was an important part of a successful but broadly based education at King's College School, Wimbledon, whence he went briefly to Queen Mary College. For a time he worked by day at London University Library, continuing his academic study by night at Birkbeck College. This soon became full-time, and he took a joint BSc in Physics and Chemistry in 1966, following it with a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry in 1970.

But then, as later, his was not a mind restricted to anything so limited as one branch of science. He read anything and everything, and any room, office or house that he lived or worked in always began to overflow with books. Books, to read and as physical structures, always fascinated him, and any library or bookshop (particularly second-hand bookshops) was an irresistible lure. He became increasingly interested in the survival of books from the past and the factors that enabled some to survive for centuries, while others, more recent, decayed more rapidly.

This, coupled with his wide knowledge of the chemistry of materials, well qualified him for his first job as a Senior Scientific Officer in the Home Office Forensic Department. His work involved all sorts of problems, from analysing the forgery of wills, commercial bonds or credit cards to bloodstains on blunt instruments (usually inorganic). Occasionally, this took him into the world of books and manuscripts, and in 1972 he planned the forensic tests that exposed Frederic Prokosch's forged first editions of modern authors. It was a collaboration between the Scotland Yard and the British Library at his behest that produced the Video Spectral Comparator (VSC), using the combination of ultra-violet and infra-red light to reveal obliterated or erased writing.

Seeley and I had first met in 1965 when his eye was caught by an article in The Book Collector on the use of X- radiography in reproducing watermarks in paper, and one of his earliest publications was on the use of beta-radiography for the same purpose. Characteristically, it was the combination of physics and biology, as well as the chemical consequences, involved in the process that attracted him.

In 1972 he married Mary-Ann Pullé, who then worked in the British Museum Research Laboratory and shared his interests; her support and a close-knit family life underpinned his career thereafter. Next year he left the Home Office to become Head of the Department of Archaeological Conservation and Materials Science at the Institute of Archaeology in London University (from 1986 part of University College London). This was a huge task, involving teaching a large number of postgraduate students as well as continuing research. It also provided a base for wider research for Seeley himself.

A flow of important papers, mostly involved with minerals in an archaeological context, began. They dealt with X-ray diffraction and spectroscopy as a means of analysing decay in different kinds of stone, the identity of compounds in ancient bronze and iron artefacts, the chemical analysis of old papers, and many other topics. They appeared in a wide range of journals and conference proceedings, two of them, "Identification of Ancient Heat Treatment in Flint Artefacts by ESR Spectroscopy" and "Trapped Methyl Radicals in Chert", in Nature.

Every year, there was an open day on which the work of the department and the students was on display, all of it original, some of it strikingly so. Originally a reward for the students, it became a first-class advertisement for the institute as well. Seeley was rightly proud of the quality and diversity of this work, and his students rewarded the sympathy and insight that he poured into their work with affection and loyalty.

He also found time for work outside the institute. In 1976 he undertook a wide-ranging survey of the huge conservation needs facing the newly formed British Library, and took part in a research project on the consolidation of degraded paper (whose completion still awaits funding). He was on the Mary Rose Trust conservation panel, and was Consultant to the Unesco-Sri Lanka "Cultural Triangle" Project.

After 15 years, however, a new and greater challenge emerged. The National Trust, with a range of conservation responsibilities from artefacts of every size and shape to the landscape itself, saw the need for coordination of effort on this vast front, and created a post to supervise it. Seeley was the ideal person for the task. First as Surveyor, then (when in 1999 trust posts were renamed) Head of Conservation, he was responsible for all the work undertaken both locally and nationally by the several advisers on specific fields of conservation.

Creating a common policy, welding together the work of many who had hitherto worked without direct supervision, called for a clear head, firm management and unrelenting powers of persuasion. Seeley's natural if never over-emphatic warmth and encouragement induced a sense of common purpose, as well as high standards of individual treatment. Many new projects, such as the conversion of the great battery house at Petworth in Sussex as a workshop for the treatment of large objects (from carriages to ironwork) and the specialist Textile Conservation Centre at Blickling in Norfolk, were due to his initiative.

He also became interested in the special problem of the preservation of artefacts in situ and even in use, as well as the impact of visitors on historic buildings, and published pioneering studies on both. These preparations came into their own for the restoration of Uppark, completed in 1994.

The National Trust's "Putting to Bed" days, meanwhile, made transparent to the public the annual behind-the-scenes business of cleaning and conservation as individual houses were closed for the winter. "We are running what are, in effect, museums without glass cases," said Seeley. "But visitors understandably prefer the great houses to have a 'lived-in' feeling. This gives us extra conservation problems which purpose-built museums do not have."

He took a leading part in planning the trust's computer-based catalogue of objects, and again found time for outside work, on the Council of the Society of Antiquaries, for the Horniman Museum, the Science and Engineering Research Council Science Based Archaeology Committee, the Indian National Trust and (perhaps closest to his heart) the Rochester Cathedral Fabric Advisory Committee.

Seeley left the National Trust in 2002, and next year became Visiting Professor, UCL Centre for Sustainable Heritage, at the Bartlett School of Graduate Studies, where he was planning a new range of work on materials science in relation to historic artefacts and buildings and the environmental interactions between them. He was looking forward to a host of other projects, to which his catholic vision and always enquiring mind would have brought new ideas and new achievements.

Nicolas Barker



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