The Royal College of Physicians: Protecting Physicianly Portraits

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Grant Scheme

Collections Care Stimulus Fund

Award Year


Grant Sum Awarded


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Annie Ablett ACR


A Collections Care Stimulus grant was awarded to the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) Museum to commission 2 days of preventive conservation of its fine art paintings. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns essential to protect people, had halted the annual monitoring and dusting programme usually commissioned by the RCP. Without funding from The Radcliffe Trust and Icon, the RCP Museum would not have been able to undertake this project.

The fine art collection is an integral part of the Museum’s interpretation strategy and is used to address both medical history and contemporary issues such as women, power, and representation in medicine, as well as showing changing trends in portraiture.

Example of conservator’s reporting, highlighting risk to painting due to location above electronic equipment, the artwork has subsequently been removed

The funding has supported the long-term preservation of a nationally significant collection of artwork. This collection represents the history of medicine since 1518, depicting physicians from throughout the RCP’s 500-year history and featuring works by prominent artists such as Thomas Lawrence, Johann Zoffany, and Mary Beale.

The artworks are a major attraction for visitors to museum exhibitions and tours, the medical professionals who use the building, and venue hire clients. Ensuring that the artworks are preserved will benefit future visitor experience, help maintain the collection for the future and increase the resilience of the RCP Museum via attracting a broad range of visitors and clients to the building.

The grant-funded project enabled a conservator to assess 107 of the RCP’s paintings and frames on display. The paintings were monitored for any signs of deterioration, damage, and any accumulation of corrosive, urban pollution, and their condition recorded. Of these, 86 paintings warranted dusting by the conservator, which was also carried out as part of this work.

The project supported some unexpected benefits also, such as informal on-site training where the collections officer was able to shadow the conservator during her preliminary inspection around the building. By sharing some of her conservation expertise, the collections officer will have a greater understanding of what to look for during future collections checks of the artwork which will benefit their long-term care.

The project also highlighted the unexpected conservation concern of unusually high levels of dust having settled on paintings while the Museum has been closed. Without this thorough inspection, where the dust was infiltrating the galleries would not have been flagged to our buildings maintenance team.

Example of reporting photography by conservator, X57 Clerk, new scuff to painting surface







A summary of outcomes, achievements and benefits are as follows:

• 107 paintings and frames were monitored by the conservator (exceeding the anticipated 97 paintings) with their assessments recorded in condition records. Of these, 86 paintings received dusting by the conservator.

• The conservator highlighted an extraordinary level of dust in two locations in particular: the Dorchester Library Gallery and Osler Room. The accumulation of urban pollution was found on the face of the frames.

• The conservator highlighted a change in condition of 8 frames: 3 paintings and 6 paintings at a high risk of future mechanical disruption due to their location.

• A summary table and report was submitted to the collections officer on completion of the two-day session. This report contained photography of any damage to paintings or frames noted and will inform the priorities for future conservation work, as resources permit. The information provided within these condition assessments will also be added to individual object records.

• Information provided by the conservator will be utilised by the museum team to implement and maintain preventive measures in the building. For instance, crowd circulation, proximity to paintings and ant barriers that have come loose will be prioritised during the collections checks and building walkarounds. Since the report, the team has liaised with the Property Services team to investigate the reasons for and ways of preventing the unusually high build-up of pollution. Immediately after the conservator’s assessment, a painting that had had office equipment installed underneath it, was moved to a safer location in storage (Figure 3).

• The conservator provided a Risks to paintings document after completion of the work, which highlighted potential risks to paintings hung around the building. This document was submitted to the collections officer and will be a useful resource for the Museum team. This document will inform training provided to other teams within the RCP such as Meetings and Events.

• The removal of unsightly dust was carried out in time for reopening of the RCP building to its clients.

• The project will ensure the long-term display of the fine art collection enjoyed by our Museum audiences during exhibition visits and tours. It will also ensure that the collection is looking its best and free from dust when it does reopen to the general public.

• A further outcome of the commission was enabling the conservator and collections officer to meet for the first time and was therefore an opportunity for training. The conservator and a colleague have worked with the RCP collections for many years. As such, the conservator provided an overview of the history of the conservation work that the frames and painting conservators had undertaken in previous years. The conservator also highlighted any risks to the painting collection to the collections officer around the building. This included where dust levels were unusually high (compared with previous years), checking for any deterioration of the UV film on the window causing higher than usual light levels and solar heat.

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