Behind the scenes: Re-opening Limnerslease: Artists’ Home

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Posted 25th February 2022

Here at Watts Gallery - Artists' Village we have recently re-opened Limnerslease, the home and studio of our founders, Mary and G F Watts. Our Collections Assistant, Rebecca Smith, offers a behind the scenes look at how the space was re-imagined by the Collections and Exhibitions team, and the work that went into getting the space ready for visitors after a long period of closure.

In September 2020, a localised electrical fire broke out in the lobby of Limnerslease. Fire crews were alerted, and luckily there was no major damage to the house. However, smoke particles covered artworks and walls, threatening the delicate objects. The space needed to be cleaned, and numerous books, paintings and pottery were in need of conservation.

Skip forward to October 2021, and after months of preparation, the Collections and Exhibitions team were ready to begin the major re-hang of Limnerslease. A great deal of work goes on behind the scenes to ensure that spaces like Limnerslease are ready for visitors. Any re-hang is a huge undertaking, but this was a particular challenge. Three rooms on the Studio side, including the totally re-imagined Mary Watts Gallery and the historic home meant working on two different kinds of spaces. The scope of Limnerslease, and the number of objects returning, meant that this would be a particularly busy re-hang.

The first day saw numerous objects that had been kept in store after conservation returning to site. Paintings, like Chaos (1875–82), are kept in crates, surrounded by foam that not only protects the object from movement when travelling, but also acts as an environmental buffer, keeping the artwork at a fairly constant temperature, minimising the risk of surface damage. Once the works were un-crated, it was time to begin the re-hang in earnest.

The G F Watts Studio is a recreation of George’s studio as it was when he was working and living at Limnerslease. The display visitors see when they enter the space has been carefully recreated from photographs and written accounts. Getting the studio to look as it does took hours of careful work. There are four high level paintings in the space, including Love Steering the Boat of Humanity (1899–1901). Hanging high level works is a strenuous task, but luckily the team did not have to face such challenges alone. Gander and White, an art handling company, were on site during the rehang, returning the objects and re-displaying them.

While re-hangs are very much about getting paintings on walls, there is also the documentation aspect to consider. Keeping track of a collection is no mean feat, whenever an object moves, records need to be updated. Location tracking during a re-hang is an important task, not only for documenting what objects have been returned, but also for compiling lists of objects within specific spaces. These lists then play major roles during gallery checks and for salvage purposes.

Aside from documenting the collection and handling objects, the team were also working on writing interpretations, labels and wall text, sorting out display cases, and doing a lot of dusting! The re-hang was, at times, stressful, but it was also rewarding. Seeing the initially empty Limnerslease transform over the two month rehang was a great experience, because ultimately, a space like that is nothing without its objects, or the visitors who come to see it.

If you're interested in our work at Limnerslease after the electrical fire in 2020, come along to our free online conference on 11 March. The event will share details of the fire, the impact and the opportunities of this collections emergency incident.