Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery is home to the world's largest collection of art and design by the Pre-Raphaelites and their associates. Edward Burne-Jones' The Star of Bethlehem is the world's largest watercolour. A project is underway to replace its fragile glazing, as well as carefully assessing and conserving the painting.
The Star of Bethlehem has been in its present position in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s Gallery 14 for as long as anyone can remember. Taking it down so that it can be reglazed was a voyage into the unknown. Thankfully, Wessex Pictures, the picture framing and glazing firm working with Birmingham Museums Trust, is very experienced. They built an A-frame to hold the painting so that when it was removed from the wall it only had to be lowered a very short distance.
Removing the painting from the wall involved the erection of two scaffolding towers. Blocks and pulleys were used to support chains that held the painting as the screw fixings were removed and enabled the painting to be swung forward off the brackets that hold the bottom of the frame. It was then positioned on the A-frame. The back-board was then removed and the painting was taken out of the frame. The old, Victorian plate glass was then taped on the inside, having already been taped on the front. The glass was then safe to remove – the tape meant that if the glass broke, there would be no shards that could injure anyone or damage the painting.
Watch this short video showing the painting being removed from the wall:
The painting and frame have been inspected by specialist conservators and they found that there was some minor damage to the frame and two small areas of detached paper in the painting. We will have these repaired before the new glazing is installed. We will also make a build-up, a strip of wood inserted around inside the frame to create a gap between the painting and the glazing. If they are too close, the glazing could touch the painted surface and damage it.
We think that this is the first time that the painting has been out of the frame since it was moved into Gallery 14, sometime around 1912 when the Art Gallery extension was completed. We found that the painting is in a close-fitting inner frame, shaped like an open-fronted box. This means that we still can’t see the back of the painting as we would need to dismantle this inner frame to remove it and to do so risks damaging the painting. This means some of its secrets will remain secret! We have been able to see all the details of the painting, however, and Edward Burne-Jones’ signature was revealed in the bottom right corner. It was thrilling to see these details after so long.
The glazing is currently en route from the USA. It has to come by sea as it is too large for air transit. Once it arrives we will install it into the frame and re-fit the painting. We look forward to sharing an update with you once the work is complete.
Unfortunately, we won’t be able to share the reglazed Star of Bethlehem with our visitors ‘in-person’ for a little while as much of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery remains closed until 2024 for essential electrical works. But seeing it again will be worth the wait!
by Jane Thompson-Webb, Conservation Team Leader.
This important conservation work of the Star of Bethlehem has been made possible with generous donations from the public, The Pilgrim Trust, The Friends of Birmingham Museums, and an in-kind donation of Optium Museum Acrylic by Tru Vue, Inc.
Thank you to everyone who donated to our Conservation Appeal.
Sadly, we have not raised enough funding to proceed with the conservation of the Holy Grail Tapestries. We will continue to seek further funds from conservation funders and hope to undertake this work in the future.