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Victorian theatre project sets the scene for award success

Published: 9 May 2005

Rare theatre scenery dating from the 19th century is once again providing a backdrop to a Victorian theatre stage, thanks to the painstaking work of conservation experts from the Textile Conservation Centre (TCC), at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton.

The project, which was undertaken by experts in the Conservation Services section, has now been shortlisted for a prestigious Conservation Award.

The project involved conserving a unique set of painted linen scenery from the Normansfield Theatre in Teddington in Middlesex. There are over 100 items of scenery, including large rolled painted cloths up to 35 metres square and scenic flats - painted canvases on tall wooden strainers - many of which are double-sided. It is the largest single project ever undertaken by the TCC.

The theatre is part of Normansfield Hospital which was founded in 1868 by Dr John Langdon Down to pioneer approaches to the care of people with learning disabilities caused by what he identified as Down's Syndrome. Theatre and music formed a key part of his patients' educational programme and the theatre was built in 1877 for use by both patients and staff. It is now widely recognised as one of the most important private theatres in Britain, is Grade II* listed and is rated by the Theatres' Trust as being of outstanding importance, with the finest collection of old stock scenery in the country. The theatre wing of the hospital is now owned by the Langdon Down Centre Trust and is the national headquarters of the Downs Syndrome Association.

Karen Thompson, project manager, explains: "The beautifully crafted scenery was in very poor condition, after years of use and having been stacked behind the stage for many years without any sort of protection. The canvases were torn and holed and the wooden scenery was warped. It was also extremely dirty and vulnerable to further damage.

"We used minimal intervention techniques to retain maximum evidence of the items' use in the theatre. For example, we preserved the flexibility of the hanging canvas scenery which is characteristic of use in the theatre," she continues.

Amber Rowe, Head of Conservation Services at the Textile Conservation Centre, adds: "Theatre scenery very rarely survives as it tends to be discarded or repainted, so this has been a unique opportunity to work on a fascinating and seldom-treated class of historical objects. We are obviously delighted to be shortlisted for a Conservation Award."

A team of up to eight specialist conservators worked on the project for over 12 months, collaborating with a range of other professionals including theatre historians and building contractors. University of Southampton MA Textile Conservation and MA Museum Studies students witnessed the developing treatment, as did visitors to the Winchester School of Art campus.

One eye-catching set of the conserved scenery, the Street Scene, has now been installed on the theatre's stage using the original stage mechanisms. The rest of the collection of scenery is housed in an accessible storage system and is therefore available for visitors to the theatre to study.

The Textile Conservation Centre has been shortlisted for the 2005 Conservation Awards with three other projects in the Award for Conservation category. This category is open to projects focused on the conservation of individual items or collections, of the decorative elements or fixtures associated with a historic building (but not the building itself), or of monuments and sculptures. The winners will be announced in November. The judging panel includes architectural historian and broadcaster Dan Cruickshank and author and journalist Simon Jenkins.

Notes for editors

  1. Digital images of the Normansfield Theatre scenery and conservation work are available from Media Relations on request.
  2. The Textile Conservation Centre is a leading international centre for the education of textile conservators and for research into textile conservation. Founded in 1975, the Centre merged with the University of Southampton in August 1998: the Centre is now part of Winchester School of Art within the University's Faculty of Law, Arts and Social Sciences. The Centre is unique in combining conservation consultancy, professional training and research.
  3. The Conservation Awards are the UK's premier awards in the field of heritage conservation. The 2005 Awards are supported by Sir Paul McCartney and managed in partnership by key organisations in conservation and restoration: the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), the UK Institute for Conservation (UKIC), English Heritage, the Institute of Paper Conservation (IPC) and the National Preservation Office. UKIC and IPC are in the process of merging with other organisations during 2005 into a new larger professional body for conservation of the cultural heritage, the Institute of Conservation. The Digital Preservation Coalition and the Anna Plowden Trust also sponsor awards in their names. For more information visit the Awards website which includes links to information about the supporting partners.

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