Harold Plenderleith was Keeper of the British Museum Research Laboratory from 1949 to 1959, and first director of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property in Rome (now known as Iccrom) from 1959 to 1971.
He had been recruited in 1924 by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research to work, under the direction of Alexander Scott FRS, in a small laboratory established five years previously at the British Museum to investigate the causes of the deterioration of certain types of museum objects during wartime storage in underground railway tunnels.
In the 1920s he was involved with Howard Carter on the scientific analysis of finds from the tomb of Tutankhamun and in the 1920s and 1930s with the analysis and conservation of Sir Leonard Woolley's finds from the excavations at Ur of the Chaldees. His first 10 years of museum experience led to the publication of his book The Preservation of Antiquities in 1934. The Conservation of Prints, Drawings and Manuscripts followed in 1937 and The Preservation of Leather Bookbindings in 1946.
Plenderleith's early years were difficult as Scott was rarely present and the laboratory was ruled by a former retainer of his called Ernest Padgham. However, in 1931 the laboratory was transferred from SDIR to the British Museum and Plenderleith became an assistant keeper; he was promoted to deputy keeper in 1938.
In the 1930s international co-operation in the field of museum conservation was gathering pace, with Plenderleith playing an ever-increasing role. The League of Nations established an International Museum Office which organised conferences in Rome (1930), Athens (1931), Paris (1933) and Madrid (1934) to discuss the conservation of works of art, antiquities and monuments. Plenderleith was present at Paris and Madrid and was joint editor of a manual on the conservation of paintings which derived from these meetings. However, this co-operation came to an abrupt end with war in Europe. Even the first specialised journal devoted to this field, to which Plenderleith contributed several papers, Technical Studies in the Field of Fine Arts, published by the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, ceased publication in 1942.
Harold Plenderleith was born in 1898, the eldest of four children of an art teacher at the Harris Academy in Dundee and the daughter of a medical missionary in New Zealand. He was educated at the Harris Academy, where he won the Dux Medal in his final year, and then went up to the University College of St Andrews in 1916 to read science. He left after two terms to go to Officer Training School, hoping then to join a Highland regiment. He found himself, however, gazetted second lieutenant to the Lancashire Fusiliers, who, as Plenderleith himself once said with a grin, "needed stiffening with Scots officers".
He served on the Western Front from 1 August 1917, being wounded in the arm by shrapnel at Ypres, and awarded an MC for a successful night raid across no man's land to knock out a pill-box and take prisoners. He returned to university after convalescence, but this time at University College, Dundee, and graduated BSc in 1920 and PhD in 1923.
Plenderleith was too old for war service in 1939 (although his batman from 1917-18 wrote to say that he would like to be his servant again), but he played a key role in saving the British Museum collections from bombing by working with the Director, Sir John Forsdyke, to get as much as possible away to safety in various country houses and a slate quarry in Wales.
This time round, however, thanks to the work of Harold Plenderleith, much more was known about the optimum storage conditions for antiquities so that the "safe" destinations were not only safe from bombing but safe from the point of view of the environment. Plenderleith was later to record in a lecture delivered at the British Museum in November 1978 to mark his 80th birthday that "all the antiquities came back this time in perfect condition".
With the cessation of hostilities, Plenderleith became involved in the examination and conservation (by Herbert Maryon and Herbert Batten) of the finds from the Anglo- Saxon royal ship burial excavated at Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge, in August 1939 and then quickly "reburied" in the Aldwych tube for the duration. Many of the objects have since been reconserved to better effect, but this does not diminish the contribution made to our understanding of the ship and the king who was buried in it which was made by this trio.
One of their "mistakes" was to restore the pair of silver-mounted drinking horns on the basis of measurements made on the skull of an aurochs, the prehistoric wild cattle of Europe, at the Natural History Museum. They were unaware, however, that the aurochs had undergone a dramatic reduction in size during the last glaciation, so that by Anglo-Saxon times the horns were more modest in size. The drinking horns have since been re- restored and reduced in size from a volume of 12 pints to four, with a consequent reduction in our admiration for the bibulous capacity of our forebears.
In 1947 Plenderleith was invited by the Dutch government to be part of the commission of inquiry into the van Meegeren affair. Henricus van Meegeren had been accused of collaboration with the enemy for selling a painting by "Vermeer" to Hermann Goering, but van Meegeren's defence was that he had sold Goering a fake that he had painted himself. However, he also had to reveal that he had sold fakes to Dutch museums and collectors, so he was charged with fraud instead of collaboration.
Some of those members of the Dutch art world who had been deceived refused to co- operate, and a panel of international experts was invited to inquire into how van Meegeren had managed to create the paintings. Plenderleith felt sorry for van Meegeren, giving him cigarettes during the interrogation, and himself failing to see how anybody could have been fooled by the paintings, which had been made to look old with a false "patina" created using modern synthetic resins.
Plenderleith was appointed Keeper of the British Museum Research Laboratory in 1949 and published The Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art in 1956 (a second edition, prepared with A.E.A. Werner, appeared in 1971). He was one of the founding fathers of the International Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works and its first honorary treasurer (from 1950 to 1958). He became a vice-president in 1958, and President from 1965 to 1968.
Under Plenderleith's vigorous leadership, the British Museum Research Laboratory branched out after the war into Carbon 14 dating and developed the scientific examination of antiquities by acquiring a battery of analytical instruments for the rapid analysis of metals, pigments, ceramics and gemstones.
Plenderleith had, by this time, become an international figure, much in demand as a lecturer and consultant and it was no surprise, therefore, when he was invited by Unesco in 1959 to be the first director of its new International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property in Rome. He spent 12 years there, developing teaching courses and travelling the world on advisory missions, until final retirement, to Dundee, in 1971.
Harold Plenderleith was a big man with a broad Scots accent, of which he was proud. He was universally liked, and regarded as the doyen of museum conservators right up until his death. He gave his services instinctively, being a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the National Gallery for 46 years and its chairman from 1944 to 1958, Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Academy of Arts from 1936 to 1958, and Rhind lecturer at Edinburgh in 1954.
In 1987 he attended the Jubilee Conference of the Institute of Archaeology of London University and its proceedings were dedicated to him, as were those of a British Museum conference in 1988, the year in which his former colleagues around the world celebrated his 90th birthday with a manuscript book of reminiscences. As recently as November 1995 he was in Rome to receive a bronze bust by the sculptor Peter Rockwell, which will stand in the new laboratories at Iccrom which will bear his name, and in September 1996 he travelled to Edinburgh to receive a specially struck silver medal from the Conservation Committee of the International Council of Museums which was holding its triennial conference.
Within the space of half an hour he received three standing ovations from 600 conservators, many of whom were not even born when he retired from the British Museum.Reuse content