Pioneering picture conservator at the National Maritime Museum
Saturday 26 February 2005
Westby William Percival-Prescott, conservator and painter: born Cambridge 22 January 1923; Head of Picture Conservation Department, National Maritime Museum 1961-83, Keeper and Head of Picture Department 1977-83; married 1948 Silvia Haswell Miller (one son); died St Leonards, East Sussex 22 January 2005.
Westby Percival-Prescott was one of the last surviving members of a pioneering group of paintings conservators in the era after the Second World War that took the old empirical craft tradition of picture restoration and made of it an ethical profession.
The most productive part of his career was spent at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and he not only created the department of conservation there, but also gave it an international prominence and influence far greater than might have been expected for a museum of such specialised focus. In particular, he and his colleagues became associated with research into methods of lining paintings - the common practice of backing old canvases with new canvas and adhesive, until then routinely applied whether necessary or not. By questioning the very basis on which we view the surfaces of paintings, he helped to achieve a fundamental shift in attitudes in conservators and curators alike.
Born in Cambridge in 1923, Percival-Prescott came from an artistic family. His mother, Edith, wrote poems and plays, and his father, William, was a Nonconformist minister, whose postings took the family to Plymouth and then to Edinburgh, where young Westby's early talent won him a scholarship to Edinburgh College of Art, studying under William Gilles alongside such fellow students as Alan Davie and Jeffrey Camp. After wartime commissions to draw historic landmarks and bridges of the Borders, his skill and admiration for art drew him - inevitably, it now seems - towards London and a career as a restorer.
In 1945 he was Andrew Grant Scholar at the National Gallery, where he returned a decade later, in 1954-56, to work on Nicolò dell'Abate's great canvas The Death of Eurydice. But his principal occupation in the years leading up to 1960 was a series of huge restoration projects with the Ministry of Works - paintings at Lancaster House and Hampton Court, the Rubens ceiling in the Whitehall Banqueting House (from 1947 to 1951), the House of Lords frescoes (1953, as restorer in charge) and, largest of all, Thornhill's Painted Hall at Greenwich, where he directed the work between 1957 and 1960.
During this period he also found his voice as an advocate for the emerging profession, becoming active in the unions, speaking out against dubious practices in the Ministry of Works and striving to get higher standards recognised for restorers - or conservators as they were beginning to be called.
After completion of work on the Painted Hall, Percival-Prescott remained in Greenwich. He joined the National Maritime Museum in 1961, establishing the picture conservation department in the abandoned Old Royal Observatory - and his use of the South Building for the conservation studio saved it from almost certain demolition.
His career at the museum was highly distinguished. He continued to direct paintings conservation until his retirement in 1983, but also became Keeper and Head of the Picture Department in 1977. He organised a number of pioneering exhibitions: "Idea and Illusion" (1960), about the art and symbolism of Thornhill's work; "Four Steps to Longitude" (1963), about John Harrison and the marine chronometer; "The Siege of Malta" (1970), researched and organised with his wife, Silvia Haswell Miller (daughter of A.E. Haswell Miller, the painter and former Keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery), whom he had married in 1948; "Captain Cook and Mr Hodges" (1979); and "The Art of the Van de Veldes" (1982).
Alongside these formal, public aspects of his work in the museum, Percival-Prescott was developing a remarkable team of conservators up in their studio on the hill in Greenwich Park. Energised by his intense interest in the materials of old master paintings and his passionate views on ethical methods of conservation, his department built an international reputation.
With a few others working at the Courtauld Institute in London, in the Netherlands and in Denmark, they identified the lining of canvas paintings as a neglected area of research and it all culminated in one of the most significant art conservation events of the modern era - the 1974 conference on "Comparative Lining Techniques" in Greenwich. Colleagues flew in from all over the world to discuss a single topic - how to line, indeed whether to line paintings. To the world at large it might have seemed an obscure concern, but it was important both in the narrow sense of considering processes that could irretrievably alter the textures of pictures - and in the wider sense of when it is ethical for conservators to intervene at all.
As a result, we suddenly saw works of art in a different way: we were prepared to tolerate imperfections in untouched paintings that hitherto would have been routinely eliminated. We spoke with new conviction of the integrity of untreated canvases, of paint surfaces that had remained unaltered since they left the artist's hand, of treatment methods that would leave the material essence of a work undisturbed.
Percival-Prescott's contribution to this change of attitude was immense. His celebrated keynote lecture to the conference, entitled "The Lining Cycle", vividly sketched the spiral of repeated treatment and deterioration that inevitably followed the first major structural intervention. He called for an international moratorium on lining - which, although it did not materialise, did have the effect of concentrating minds on the sea change flowing through the world of ethical conservation.
He was an inspiring figure, brimming with enthusiasm and new ideas - a natural communicator and teacher, at ease with museum directors and students alike. His disarming assumption that everyone would share his latest interest was enormously appealing: encountering him by chance in an art gallery or ancient church, one would be rushed to a painting to have some particular phenomenon lovingly pointed out and explained. The sight of him expounding on the technique of the beautiful Bellini Baptism of Christ in Santa Corona, Vicenza, blissfully unaware of evening Mass going on all around him remains fresh in the memory.
His whole professional life was devoted to examining, researching and disseminating all he could deduce from pictures in public galleries and private collections all over Europe, from old treatises and documents, and from the innumerable experimental samples he made himself. His various studios were crammed with a profusion of paintings, paint tests, copies of old masters, frames, rocks, pigments, oils, resins, waxes, gums, varnishes, solvents, easels, palettes, brushes, costumes and lay figures. In his seventies, he applied for and was awarded a Leverhulme research fellowship to bring all this material together and to document and record it for others to use, and he continued with this work - and with his painting and writing - right up until his death on his 82nd birthday.
Percival-Prescott was a man of great charm - unfailingly courteous, softly spoken with a faint but unmistakable Scottish inflection, and always impeccably turned out. His diplomatic skills served him well on several key international bodies, most notably the International Council of Museums Conservation Committee on which he was active from 1975 to 1984. He was also involved with professional bodies such as the Association of British Picture Restorers, continually demonstrating his deep commitment to the training of young conservators and the raising of standards of practice.
Unexpectedly, he also had a sense of humour that bordered on the subversive. His reminiscences of good and bad times up the scaffolding for the Ministry of Works could be wickedly funny. However, the occasion that nobody who saw it will ever forget was his performance at an International Institute for Conservation conference on the cleaning of paintings in Brussels in 1990.
His published paper was entitled "Eastlake Revisited: some milestones on the road to ruin" - and a sober lecture on the technical failings of 19th-century artists and restorers was anticipated. But he arrived complete with props and costume changes - and, roaming about the stage, he proceeded to enact, with shouts and cries and melodramatic dying falls, the withering away by time, neglect and foul mistreatment of a family portrait.
It brought the house down, but the serious points it was making were not lost on his wildly applauding audience. It remains a much-loved memory of an unforgettable, deeply thoughtful and altogether delightful man.
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