Obituaries: TONY WERNER ; British Museum Conservator

By Oddy, Andrew | The Independent (London, England), March 2, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Obituaries: TONY WERNER ; British Museum Conservator


Oddy, Andrew, The Independent (London, England)


Tony Werner was Keeper of the British Museum Research Laboratory from 1959 until 1975. As an organic chemist, he was most interested in the application of modern synthetic polymers to the conservation of antiquities and works of art. The Second World War had seen the development of many synthetic adhesives for use in armament production, especially for the construction of aeroplanes, and in the post-war period Werner sought uses for these to mend and consolidate decaying museum objects. His successful work on synthetic varnishes for easel paintings and his development of a still widely used wax polish for use on wood, stone and metalwork have been tempered by the less successful promotion of soluble nylon for consolidating fragile surfaces' a treatment that has not endured due to the increasing insolubility of the nylon with the passage of time and the resulting difficulty in removing it thereafter.

These treatments must, however, be seen in the context of their time. The 1950s and 1960s saw the emergence of the conservation profession from an era of pre-war craftsmanship to one of postwar professionalism when conservators began to take their place as equals alongside curators. In pursuit of this aim, conservators sought to apply the latest relevant scientific discoveries to the objects entrusted to them, which occasionally resulted, by modern standards, in too much cleaning and restoration.

Two of Werner's more important projects at the British Museum were the recognition (with David Baynes-Cope) that the Vinland map was a fake and his involvement in the opening of the coffin of Archbishop Walter de Gray (died 1255) in YorkMinsteron3May 1968.

This operation was carried out at night in great secrecy as the tomb was undergoing restoration to make it safe and, as a consequence, a coffin lid painted with a full-length portrait of de Gray had been discovered. This was the one and only time that Werner got his hands dirty on an excavation. It was he who removed the episcopal ring from the right hand and arranged for that and the other finds - chalice, paten and crozier - to be conserved at the British Museum.

He was born Alfred Emil Anthony Werner in 1911 in Dublin, the only son of Professor Emil Werner, who was himself the third son of Louis Werner, a portrait painter who had emigrated from Alsace to Dublin, via London, as a result of the Franco-Prussian War. In Ireland, Louis Werner had found plenty of commissions from the gentry, but spent too much time chatting to his subjects, so his wife started a photography business to provide mute subjects for the brush of her husband. Her youngest son, Emil, became so interested in the science of photography that he taught himself chemistry and was subsequently to become Professor of Chemistry at Trinity College.

Tony Werner was educated at St Gerard's School, Bray, and at Trinity College Dublin, where he went in 1929 as a Junior Exhibitioner, and received a BA degree with first class honours in the moderatorship examination in experimental science in 1933, an MSc in 1934. That year the German government awarded him an Alexander von Humboldt scholarship and he thus taught himself to speak German in order to read for a DPhil at the University of Freiburg, which he completed in 1937 with a dissertation on the viscosity of cyclic compounds. He was immediately appointed to a lectureship at Trinity College Dublin, becoming a reader in organic chemistry in 1945.

Disillusioned with the progress of his career in Dublin, Werner applied for a post as a research chemist in the Scientific Department of the National Gallery, London, in 1948. He and Ian Rawlins, the Scientific Advisor to the Trustees, decided that they needed to expand the experimental capacity of the two-man scientific department and thus, in the absence of money to finance permanent posts, the National Gallery applied for two Nuffield Scholarships.

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