Tony Werner

British Museum conservator


Alfred Emil Anthony Werner, chemist and museum conservator: born Dublin 18 June 1911; Lecturer in Chemistry, Trinity College, Dublin 1937-45, Reader in Organic Chemistry 1945-46; research chemist, National Gallery, London 1946-54; Principal Scientific Officer, British Museum 1954-59, Keeper of the Research Laboratory 1959-75; FSA 1958; President, International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works 1971-74; Chairman, Pacific Regional Conservation Center, Honolulu 1975-82; married 1939 Marion Jane Davies (died 1973; two daughters); died Hobart, Tasmania 21 January 2006.

Tony Werner was Keeper of the British Museum Research Laboratory from 1959 until 1975. As an organic chemist, he was most interested in the application of modern synthetic polymers to the conservation of antiquities and works of art. The Second World War had seen the development of many synthetic adhesives for use in armament production, especially for the construction of aeroplanes, and in the post-war period Werner sought uses for these to mend and consolidate decaying museum objects.

His successful work on synthetic varnishes for easel paintings and his development of a still widely used wax polish for use on wood, stone and metalwork have been tempered by the less successful promotion of soluble nylon for consolidating fragile surfaces; a treatment that has not endured due to the increasing insolubility of the nylon with the passage of time and the resulting difficulty in removing it thereafter.

These treatments must, however, be seen in the context of their time. The 1950s and 1960s saw the emergence of the conservation profession from an era of pre-war craftsmanship to one of post-war professionalism when conservators began to take their place as equals alongside curators. In pursuit of this aim, conservators sought to apply the latest relevant scientific discoveries to the objects entrusted to them, which occasionally resulted, by modern standards, in too much cleaning and restoration.

Two of Werner's more important projects at the British Museum were the recognition (with David Baynes-Cope) that the Vinland map was a fake and his involvement in the opening of the coffin of Archbishop Walter de Gray (died 1255) in York Minster on 3 May 1968.

This operation was carried out at night in great secrecy as the tomb was undergoing restoration to make it safe and, as a consequence, a coffin lid painted with a full-length portrait of de Gray had been discovered. This was the one and only time that Werner got his hands dirty on an excavation. It was he who removed the episcopal ring from the right hand and arranged for that and the other finds - chalice, paten and crozier - to be conserved at the British Museum.

He was born Alfred Emil Anthony Werner in 1911 in Dublin, the only son of Professor Emil Werner, who was himself the third son of Louis Werner, a portrait painter who had emigrated from Alsace to Dublin, via London, as a result of the Franco-Prussian War. In Ireland, Louis Werner had found plenty of commissions from the gentry, but spent too much time chatting to his subjects, so his wife started a photography business to provide mute subjects for the brush of her husband. Her youngest son, Emil, became so interested in the science of photography that he taught himself chemistry and was subsequently to become Professor of Chemistry at Trinity College.

Tony Werner was educated at St Gerard's School, Bray, and at Trinity College Dublin, where he went in 1929 as a Junior Exhibitioner, and received a BA degree with first class honours in the moderatorship examination in experimental science in 1933, an MSc in 1934. That year the German government awarded him an Alexander von Humboldt scholarship and he thus taught himself to speak German in order to read for a DPhil at the University of Freiburg, which he completed in 1937 with a dissertation on the viscosity of cyclic compounds. He was immediately appointed to a lectureship at Trinity College Dublin, becoming a reader in organic chemistry in 1945.

Disillusioned with the progress of his career in Dublin, Werner applied for a post as a research chemist in the Scientific Department of the National Gallery, London, in 1948. He and Ian Rawlins, the Scientific Advisor to the Trustees, decided that they needed to expand the experimental capacity of the two-man scientific department and thus, in the absence of money to finance permanent posts, the National Gallery applied for two Nuffield Scholarships. These were filled by John Mills, subsequently to become the head of department, and Ian Graham, who later pursued a career of archaeological exploration in Central America, becoming a world expert on the Maya.

Under Rawlins's supervision, Graham, a physicist by training, studied the penetration of solvents into dried oil films, while Mills, a chemist, nominally supervised by Werner, applied the new technique of paper chromatography in the characterisation of dammar resin. Subsequently, with Joyce Plesters, Werner developed microscopic methods for the scientific study of easel paintings and investigated new materials for their conservation. At this time, Plesters and Werner were involved in the unmasking of the Piltdown hoax by showing that the staining on the teeth was not natural.

In 1954 Werner took up an appointment at the Research Laboratory of the British Museum as a Principal Scientific Officer, filling a vacancy resulting from staff redeployment following a serious personality clash between the then Keeper of the laboratory and his deputy, who was transferred to another museum. Werner was the best possible person to fill this vacuum and, with his easy-going manner, the troubles of the past were quickly forgotten. It was thus a foregone conclusion that he would become Keeper on the retirement of Harold Plenderleith in 1959. He also filled the part-time chair of chemistry at the Royal Academy from 1962 to 1975.

Werner was much in demand as a lecturer and adviser, carrying out many overseas missions (usually on behalf of Unesco or the British Council) to countries including Pakistan (1961), Yugoslavia (1962), Syria (1966), Australia (1970), South Africa (1971), Egypt (1972), Romania (1973), and Bangladesh (1974). In the early 1970s, he was a member of the team of curators who negotiated the loan of a magnificent exhibition of Chinese archaeology to the Royal Academy. These foreign assignments were manna to Werner, who revelled in foreign travel, but his frequent absence from his duties at the British Museum did not go unnoticed.

Outside the British Museum, Werner was closely involved with the affairs of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, being elected a Fellow in 1952, and serving as President from 1971 to 1974, and Vice-President 1974-96. He was awarded the Forbes Prize of the institute in 1992 and Honorary Fellowship in 2001. He was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1958 and a member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1963.

Werner was also very active in the Museums Association, becoming a Fellow in 1959 and President in 1967. The latter term of office coincided with the appointment of Sir John Wolfenden as Director of the British Museum. The museum world was understandably disappointed that its top job should have gone to an "outsider" and Werner was in the unenviable position of being president of an organisation that issued a press release condemning the appointment of his own boss.

In 1974, Werner was invited to advise on the conservation needs of the countries of the Pacific. He recommended that a regional conservation centre be established in Hawaii, wrote a job description for its director, applied for the position, and was appointed. He thus retired from the British Museum in 1975 and spent the next seven years in Honolulu, a job that turned out to be not all to his liking as he was expected to raise funding for the centre.

Tony Werner published many papers and articles on his chemical research at Trinity College Dublin and on his work at the National Gallery and the British Museum, culminating in writing a Royal Institute of Chemistry monograph, The Scientific Examination of Paintings (1952), and collaboration with H.J. Plenderleith on a revised second edition of the latter's The Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art (1971). In 1997 the British Museum dedicated to him the proceedings of a conference, aptly titled The Interface between Science and Conservation (edited by Susan Bradley).

Outside his chosen profession, Werner was a convivial and entertaining companion. He liked fine wines, good food, the Times crossword, playing chess and bridge and, in retirement, croquet. His advice to me on my first official trip abroad in 1968 (only to Paris!) was never to trust the local water and therefore to buy a bottle of whisky at Heathrow and drink a generous measure every night to disinfect the stomach and induce sleep.

In 1939 he married an opera singer, Marion Jane Davies, by whom he had two daughters. His wife died in 1973. He spent his retirement living half the year with one daughter in Tasmania and the other half with his elder daughter in England; a life of perpetual summer.

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