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Vast portrait of WWI officers goes on display for the first time in over fifty years
Naval Officers of World War I by Sir Arthur Stockdale Cope, 1921. ©National Portrait Gallery, London.

LONDON.- An impressive, recently conserved portrait of First World War Naval Officers has gone on display at the National Portrait Gallery for the first time since the 1960s. Through a successful public appeal in 2013, £20,000 was raised for essential conservation work on the large-scale painting, allowing it to go on rare public display this Saturday 10 May 2014 as part of the Gallery’s programme commemorating the First World War centenary.

Measuring over five metres in length, Sir Arthur Stockdale Cope’s grand group portrait Naval Officers of World War I (1921) is set in the Admiralty Boardroom, Whitehall, and comprises twenty-two portraits of the navy’s most senior figures. It has been in storage for over fifty years due to its delicate condition which had made it unfit for public display.

Following the success of the public fundraising appeal to restore the portrait, conservation work has taken place on the painting, and its huge original frame, over a five-month period. Such is its size, a narrow entrance had to be created in the wall of the National Portrait Gallery’s framing studio to allow the enormous frame to be passed into the studio in four separate parts. The vast canvas has been carefully rolled into a cylinder so that it can be transported into the Gallery before being stretched and assembled onsite.

The careful removal of discoloured varnish and surface dirt that had built up on the canvas over many years has transformed the painting’s appearance, revealing once more the tones in colour and subtle details that were previously masked from view. After being painstakingly cleaned, parts of the frame were re-built in areas, and its gilded surface has been restored using historically faithful techniques and materials.

Shortly after the First World War, the leading financier and public servant Sir Abraham Bailey decided to commission three group portraits to commemorate the role of the army, the navy and the politicians in bringing the war to a close. Sir James Guthrie’s Statesmen of World War I and John Singer Sargent’s General Officers of World War I are on continuous display in Room 30 where they form the centrepiece of the Gallery’s Great War holdings. In contrast, the Naval Officers of World War I has not been seen for several decades.

Funds to restore the portrait were raised with the kind support of charitable trusts including The Cayzer Trust Company Limited, Sir John Fisher Foundation and The Gosling Foundation who donated nearly half of the funds required. Nearly £10,000 was received from members of the public, including direct descendents of the sitters in the portrait, mainly via donation boxes within the National Portrait Gallery, postal donations and online gifts. Text donations and other gifts making use of mobile giving options, supported by DONATE from the National Funding Scheme, were also received.

Paul Moorhouse, 20th Century Curator, National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘With its companion paintings, General Officers of World War I and Statesmen of World War I, Naval Officers of World War I forms one of the Gallery’s most important commissions ever. However, Naval Officers of World War I has not been seen in decades. Marking the important role of the navy during the Great War, its return to public display on the centenary of the War’s outbreak is hugely significant.’

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