Take a look behind the scenes as a new exhibition goes up

Ana, the museum service’s picture conservator, is making the last cleaning touches to a painting for the new exhibition of pictures from the Laing’s collection. She’s using moistened cotton wool wound around a special cleaning stick – a painstaking job. The picture was painted by Lake District artist Delmar Banner, and shows a spectacular sunburst over Scafell and surrounding peaks. The picture is now on display in Sun, Wind and Weather, which opened very recently. The sunny scenes on display are an antidote to winter conditions outside at the moment. However, it’s not just all summer sun – the exhibition shows how artists have been interested in painting all kinds of light and weather, from mist and cloud to morning and evening light. This blog shows photos from the installation of the exhibition.

This was one of the trickier pictures to hang so that it looks straight, as the picture sides are just not at right-angles. Some of the pictures are really heavy, yet very delicate at the same time, so they need great care in handling to make sure that we do it safely for both installers and the painting. The staff are wearing gloves to avoid marking the frames.

Gemma keeps a steadying hand on the frame as the fixings are put in place on the other side. But she doesn’t have to hold all the weight of the picture herself – it’s supported by a pair of sturdy brackets.

This picture portrays French farm women in the second half of the 19th century. It shows that some Realist artists were interested in capturing the visual effect of full sun in outdoor scenes just as much as the Impressionists, though they took a different artistic route.

In contrast,  it’s all about pleasant sunshine and a fresh breeze in this picture. The artist Charles Napier Hemy (born in Newcastle) loved sailing, and made studies in his floating studio on a converted boat. He painted this picture, entitled Through Sea and Air, in Cornwall, and it was tremendously popular with art lovers at the time.

Hemy’s picture is now in position on the wall. On the left of the photo, we can see a beautiful sunny scene in the ‘British Impressionist’ style of the early 20th century, in which the artist has created the impression of brilliant light using separate small brushmarks of colour. Sunlight shining through leaves and sparkling on water featured in many pictures by artists influenced by Impressionist art.

In his picture of Durham Cathedral at the top of the steep bank above the river, Albert Goodwin depicts the building emerging from a golden haze as mist rises from the river.

Goodwin was a dedicated follower of JMW Turner, admiring the way Turner created poetic evocations of scenes, transformed by sun and weather.

Scarborough on a bright sunny day features in this picture being carefully installed on the wall. However, those scudding clouds suggest the brisk breezes and bracing air for which the North Yorkshire coast is famous!

The wide golden sands made Scarborough a popular Yorkshire resort in the late-19th century, when this picture was painted.

Once the paintings are up, the lighting needs to be set. It involves a good head for heights! You may have noticed an improvement in the lighting in our exhibition galleries – special grants for energy-saving LED lights in 2011 allowed us to replace the worn-out old lighting at last, so everything is as bright as it should be.


But before we finish the exhibition lighting, we need to make sure the levels are not too high for safety for the oil paintings. Garry is checking the levels for this picture with a lux meter.

There’re some lovely pictures in the exhibition, and we hope you’ll come along and enjoy the show. You can read more about the exhibition here.




4 Responses to Take a look behind the scenes as a new exhibition goes up

  1. Christopher Robinson says:

    I have to say the environment and artificial lighting now used in the Laing Art Gallery work against and contradict all the objectives of natural outdoors painting.
    The colours can never have same vibration and the optical range is reduced.
    One has the uncomfortable impression of being behind some Victorian curtains or in a cellar or bunker.
    I have never understood this complete blackout of natural light from the Laing. It is not done with other large museum in the UK.
    It has spoilt my visits there for years now, and I rarely go there now.


      Dear Mr Robinson,

      Thank you for your comment about gallery lighting. Tate and some other big galleries are able to use managed natural light in their upper rooms by employing sensor-controlled shutters that automatically close over roof glazing when light levels for oil paintings go over 200 lux – a widely accepted conservation standard. That system would be ideal for the Laing, but it is just beyond our means. Very many galleries in Britain rely on artificial light, and it’s necessary on virtually all exhibition spaces without roof lighting – the exception would be the Burrell Art Gallery in Glasgow where they have some areas with curtains controlling light and artworks displayed in the middle of the space.

      When we installed the new grant-funded lighting in 2011, we were able to change the angle of the lighting as well as changing to LED lamps, and the lighting experience now feels brighter and is fully in line with the new guidelines for environmental control and lighting approved by the Arts Council. The system is used by galleries all over the country. The lamps we use are true to natural daylight in Britain. By focussing lighting on the paintings themselves we maximise the light effect for the pictures. We have had good feedback from the public after the installation of new LED lighting.

      We and all galleries have a duty of care to the works that are in our care, set out through our acreditation, which includes minimising the damaging visible and ultra violet light which is given off by natural daylight and some indoor lighting – too much light fades oil paintings and the various colours react in different ways so that the colour balance as well as the brightness of pictures is affected in the long term. The strength of the paint itself can also be damaged.

      Natural daylight has been incorporated into the Laing where possible, but it is necessarily limited. The comparatively recent first-floor exhibition space next to the lift, opened in 1994, incorporates narrow floor-to-ceiling windows (with shutters) which we can use when displaying non-sensitive exhibits. Also, the original window on the main staircase of the Gallery was restored in 2004, allowing natural light onto the stair area. However, we can’t control the light level there, and so we don’t hang paintings on the staircase.

      I hope you’ll find displays to enjoy if you are able to visit in the future.

      Regards, Sarah

      • Christopher Robinson says:

        Dear Sarah Richardson,
        Many thanks for your detailed reply to my post . I accept the difficult compromise you have to reach between preserving the works from damage by natural light. I am an artist and am familiar with these constraints on artworks. I looked up other studies on this issue and came upon this interesting study.

        Vital Signs Project: A Lighting Study of Three Museums
        Lighting and Visual Comfort in Three
        San Francisco Bay Area Museums


        “To some extent, each of these three museums uses daylight to illuminate exhibits, possibly because natural light generally creates a more positive effect on a space than electric light. This is important because the light quality can affect an individual’s emotional state which in turn may affect his or her perception of the artwork. While uniform light levels throughout a space can create comfortable viewing conditions, it can potentially cause a viewer to lose interest. Some strategic variations in light levels, even though they may cause discomfort, might be an amenity because they can make a space more visually interesting. Herein lies the challenge to the lighting designer: to achieve a delicate balance between consideration of visual comfort and creating interesting and desirable spaces.”
        This line explained my feelings exactly .
        “This is important because the light quality can affect an individual’s emotional state which in turn may affect his or her perception of the artwork.”
        I am a person who is perhaps more acutely sensitive to the nuances of light on pigment colour and the optical effects due to my practice as an artist. This artificial lighting could be said to be similar to a musician who has to listen to music by record rather than the actual musician playing live . Not a good comparison but this is what artificial light does to my experience. I never feel totally connected to the artwork in an artificial lighting situation.
        “We have had good feedback from the public after the installation of new LED lighting.”
        I have to say were the the general public more aware of the change in experience and had the chance to experience both natural light and the artificial then many would I am sure agree with me.
        I do appreciate lighting that dramatises museum spaces .
        The need for conservation is a limitation I must accept. I will visit again and remember all the wonderful opportunities the gallery had given me to see great art especially the Victorian and early paintings. I miss the works that were on display lining the stairs.
        The public liking for traditional figurative art is not always shared with the current trend in curatorial interests which favours experimental and avant guard works.
        However I thank you again for considering my points and replying to me in such careful detail. Chris Robinson

  2. Sarah Richardson says:

    Dear Chris,

    Thanks very much for your reply and the link to the lighting study in American museums – I’ll certainly take a look at that. As you are interested in early art, I hope you will enjoy one of our major exhibitions for 2013 -‘Divine Bodies’. Information will be going up in the near future on the Laing exhibitions page, but here is some preliminary information in the meantime.

    ‘Divine Bodies’, 8 June – 8 September, Laing Art Gallery
    Old Master paintings are alive with vivacious, seductive and curious figures, engaged in strange and wonderful narratives. Divine Bodies brings together a selection of key European Old Master paintings from the Hatton, Shipley and Laing collections as well as loans form other galleries in the UK including London’s National Gallery, Tate and White Cube galleries. Filled with intriguing figures, this exhibition will display the works alongside a dynamic selection of contemporary art, celebrating a dialogue between the divine bodies of Old Master paintings and figurative modern art.

    Regards, Sarah

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