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Hidden in plain view: How the Royal Opera House keeps historic artworks alive

Covent Garden is home to precious art works by David Hockney, Maurice Lambert and Elisabeth Frink, but ensuring their survival requires extreme patience, skill and attention to detail.

By Laura Brown (Former Archivist, ROH Collections)

7 October 2016 at 12.03pm | Comment on this article

If you keep your eyes peeled on a visit to the Royal Opera House, you’ll see many pieces of art, sculpture and historic furniture dotted around the building. These items tell the story of the theatre, of staff and artists who have made particularly special contributions to the ROH and the art forms performed here. Many of the pieces are by world-renowned artists, including David Hockney, Maurice Lambert and Elisabeth Frink. One of the jobs of ROH Collections, the archive of the Royal Opera House, is to care for and maintain these objects, so they can be enjoyed by future generations.

Every summer the Royal Opera House closes to audiences. During this quiet period ROH Collections selects a group of items to undergo conservation work. In summer 2016 work focussed on several bronze busts in the pit lobby (of such figures as Ninette de Valois, Alicia Markova, Georg Solti, Frederick Ashton, Constant Lambert and Colin Davis) and the marble busts of Nellie Melba, Adelina Patti and conductor Alfred Mellon. The large marble statue of Frederick Gye, manager of the second and current theatre on our Covent Garden site, received a much-needed clean, and the movements of our precious 18th- and 19th-century clocks were also attended to.

Mid-19th-century French Louis XVI-style marble clock in the Royal Retiring Room, the Royal Opera House © ROH 2016

Many of the sculptures have very textured surfaces, creating hundreds of nooks that trap dust. Although it may seem harmless, dust is very abrasive, and if left over time will cause significant harm. Conservators Plowden and Smith removed embedded dirt and dust from each piece and then applied a protective coat of wax. The statue of Frederick Gye had to be cleaned twice in order to fully remove the dirt – no doubt because of its position in the opening foyer, opposite the main doors on to Bow Street. The marble of the Gye statue is naturally yellow in tone, whereas Patti and Melba are now gleaming white.

The beautiful and elaborate clocks that usually live in the Crush Room and the Royal Retiring Room are precious antiques, and need regular specialist maintenance. Both of the clocks had their movements removed and taken away for a full service.

Find out more about the work of ROH Collections, and the Front of House Collections.

By Laura Brown (Former Archivist, ROH Collections)

7 October 2016 at 12.03pm

This article has been categorised Off stage and tagged cleaning, conservation, dust, Plowden and Smith, preservation, protection, ROH Collections, statue

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