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Statues ruined by 'ignorant' care: Heavy-handed cleaning is damaging public sculptures, leading conservators warn

WIRE BRUSHES, acid, Ajax and, worst of all, grit-blasting are being used in ignorant attempts to restore statues, ruining sculptures all over Britain, leading conservation experts said yesterday.

The people responsible for public sculpture often did not know where to obtain advice, a group of conservators said at a meeting at the Museums and Galleries Commission in London. Councils, lay church committees and even national organisations such as English Heritage were abusing statuary because of ignorance and bad management, they added.

English Heritage, which exists to preserve national buildings and monuments, allowed two important statues outside Chiswick House in London to be sand-blasted three years ago. Fine detail in the two statues of Andrea Palladio and Inigo Jones by Michael Rysbrack was destroyed, said John Larson, chief conservator for National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, who assessed the damage.

'It was not deliberate but happened as a result of poor site management,' Mr Larson said. 'The statues were sand-blasted by the workmen who were cleaning the front of the building and thought they might as well do the statues at the same time. The statues should have been boxed before the work began.'

The basic aims of conservation also need to be urgently reassessed, Mr Larson believes.

'In the past, conservators have looked for a marvellous substance that can be used to treat stone and make it last for a hundred years or more,' he said. 'They have looked at resins, silanes, waxes - all have failed within 20 years and often the surface is spoiled. People object to stone sculpture being turned into a block of plastic - and it does change the surface. After a few years it looks dirty.'

David Leigh, head of the Conservation Unit of the Museums and Galleries Commission, believes the answer is to bring the most vulnerable sculpture indoors and to put up virtually identical replicas. Conservators are organising a conference in Liverpool later this month with representatives of local authorities and other bodies to discuss how this can best be done.

(Photographs omitted)