The new Being Brunel Museum, which will open on the starboard side of the ship on 23 March 2018, will tell the story of Isambard Kingdom Brunel using the amazing Collections we hold here at SS Great Britain, as well as some important objects borrowed from other museums across the country. In preparation for this a number of objects will undergo conservation work ahead of their display, partly to make them look better but also to help preserve them for the future. One of those objects has just returned after having been worked on by conservators offsite and will be available for visitors to view in the Brunel Institute, ahead of its installation in the ‘Shakespeare Room’ of the new museum.
‘Jacques and the Stag’ was painted by the artist Frederick Richard Lee, a member of the Royal Academy of Art and a very well known artist in the Victorian period. It was commissioned by Brunel as part of a set of paintings depicting scenes from the plays of Shakespeare (whom we know IKB loved). This particular painting depicts a scene from ‘As You Like It’, and shows Jacques (a melancholy character in the play) watching a wounded stag, and sadly reflecting on its ultimate fate.
The painting is huge, framed it measures almost 1.5 meters wide, and originally hung in Brunel’s dining room in his house at Duke Street in London. The set of paintings were designed to not only show the Brunel family love of Shakespeare, but also their patronage of contemporary artists. Other paintings in the set were painted by Charles West Cope, Augustus Leopold Egg and Edwards Landseer – all extremely famous artists at the time. This room will be recreated in the new museum, with loans from other institutions, and fortunately we have some of Brunel’s original drawings showing how he wanted the paintings to be displayed.
The painting came to us in 2015, and although it was in generally good condition, its age (it was painted in 1850) and previous treatments with varnish had caused the painting to darken and made it difficult to pick out the finer details. Conservators have been working to clean the accumulated dirt and old varnish off the surface of the painting, and have reapplied a new, fresher layer (which shouldn’t go so dark). Visitors to the SS Great Britain can view the painting closer to the condition it was in when Brunel owned it, and which he, his family and their guests would have enjoyed and admired in his dining room in the 1840’s and 1850’s. A special UV glass panel has now also been added to the front of the picture, which will help reduce light damage to the painting, and also provides some security – accidents happen and the last thing we want is a visitor to fall and poke a hole in the canvas.
Author: Nick Booth, Head of Collections