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How the Harris Museum’s ancient Greek figures were cleaned

Posted on - 19th August, 2023 - 7:00am | Author - | Posted in - History, Politics, Preston Council, Preston News, Redevelopment
Harris statues after being cleaned Pic: Conlon Construction/BBC LDRS

Take more than a dozen intricately-crafted statues, place them at the most inaccessible point atop one of Preston’s most famous buildings – and what have you got?

For one thing, a monumental challenge – literally and figuratively – to clean them every few decades.

That was the Herculean task that the founders of the Harris Museum set for future custodians of the building when they decided to decorate its prominent triangular roof feature with figures from Ancient Greece.

Read more: Inside the Harris Museum and Art Gallery ahead of re-opening

The limestone statues have sat within the “pediment”, as it is known, of the landmark structure since it was built 130 years ago – a lofty position in which to portray giants from Greek history in deep discussion about equally lofty matters.

As the sculptures have looked out over the Flag Market and beyond, passers by below – if they have noticed them at all – will not have been able to appreciate the craftsmanship involved in their creation, which requires much closer inspection.

On the plus side, it also means that the public have been largely unaware of their increasingly grotty state, which has resulted from exposure to the Preston elements – and its pigeons

The statues and how they were looking before the clean up Pic: Conlon Construction/BBC LDRS

To that end, the first task for the specialists involved in giving the statues a rare sprucing up, during the broader facelift the Harris is undergoing, was to remove the bird dirt that blighted the figures – all 48 kilograms, or seven-and-a-half-stone, of it.

Read moreExplore more about Preston’s history

David Ragan, site manager for principle Harris contractors Conlon Construction, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that netting previously put in place to protect the statues had proved no match for Preston’s pigeon population. The birds even tried to see off the team sent in to undo the damage and install new defences.

“As we [arrived], the pigeons were wanting to get in – and we were basically fighting with [them] to stop them,” David explained.

“But they’ve gone now and found somewhere else – and we’ve got the statues cleaned and re-netted them.”

The cleaning of statues means a lot of the detail can be seen again Pic: Conlon Construction/BBC LDRS

That cleaning process revealed the intricacies that sculptor Edwin Roscoe Mullins had captured in his creation of a work based on the famed “School of Athens” mural in the Vatican, which depicts the most notable mathematicians, scientists and philosophers from Ancient Greece. David says it is testament to Mullins’ talent and work ethic.

“The detail in them is amazing given the fact that most people never get as close to them as I have been – and they never will. They’ve got eyebrows, wrinkles, crow’s feet – and you think, why would you bother going to all that effort for something that nobody can see from the ground?”

David says it was back in the 1980s the last time scaffolding as extensive as that required for the statue clean-up job that has just been completed was erected at The Harris.

He also told the LDRS that Prestonians will soon be able to see the outside of the much-loved building once again as the sheet-covered scaffolds that have cloaked the landmark since its £16m revamp began last year are gradually removed.

Read more: Chance for heritage workshops on the Flag Market

First to re-emerge will be the Harris Street side of the Grade I-listed structure, while the main Flag Market-facing aspect should be back on show before the city’s Christmas tree goes up.

When the building does reappear, David has some advice for anyone who has never paid its pinnacle – and the now gleaming statues that sit there – much attention: “Look up,” he implores.

Up on the scaffolding where the figures are being restored and cleaned Pic: Conlon Construction/BBC LDRS

Making 19th-century whites be white again

Carried out by Manchester-based masonry experts Bullen Construction, the work to restore the statues to their late 1800s glory required a degree of delicacy.

“We’ve cleaned the rest of the building basically with hot steam. But with the statues being made of limestone, that would have damaged them,” Conlon Construction site manager David Ragan explained.

“So we have done something called a nebular clean, which basically saturates them with a spray which brings the whiteness back out.

“We’ve not [used] any chemicals at all, but just [enabled] the natural lime within the stone to seep [through] again.”

Read more: Heritage Open Days in Preston 2023 – what’s on and when

Who’s who in the Harris statue family?

The statues that top off The Harris were sculpted by Edwin Roscoe Mullins, as part of the vision of the building’s Preston-born architect James Hibbert.

A representation of the “School of Athens” fresco that was painted on the walls of The Vatican almost 400 years earlier, the figures were delivered over a two-year period from 1886 at a total cost of £2,700 – or just under £300,000 in today’s money.

In a letter of thanks to the sculptor, The Harris’ building committee said that his work deserved to be “specially admired for the boldness and characteristic expression of the figures and the dramatic interest of the composition”.

Elsewhere, a number of griffins guard the “lamp of learning” at the apex, with these having been modelled and carved by Roland Rhodes.

Beneath the pediment are the inscriptions: ‘The dead but sceptred Sovrans, who still rule Our spirits from their urns’ – adapted by the poet Byron from Pericles’ funeral oration – and ‘To Literature, Arts and Science’, a nod to the purpose for which the building was established.

The figures across the Harris entrance Pic: Karl Davison

Central to the display is Pericles, ruler of Athens in the fifth century BC, and surrounding him are figures from the Hellenistic era of Ancient Greece, from 323 BC to 32 BC.

In the centre section:

Pericles (commander, statesman and orator) – in the middle.

Anaxagoras (philosopher), with scroll, to his right

Ictinus (chief architect of the Parthenon), with a plan of the temple

Pheidias (renowned Greek sculptor) leaning forward supporting a shield

Pindar, lyrically celebrating a victor in the Olympic games.

This group is designed as if they were discussing the subject of the erection of the Parthenon.

To the right of the centre group:

Parmenides, Zeno and Socrates (young, but traditionally ugly) discuss philosophy.

Thucydides reclines at the angle of the pediment, meditating upon history yet to be written.

Left of the centre group:

Aeschylus, brooding over the future of Athens.

Sophocles and Euripides, in conversation about foreign arts.

Herodotus (“the father of history”), staff in hand, his finished books before him, reclines in the angle

A youth also poses as a victor in the Hellenic games, while horses are an indication of a chariot race.

Read more: See the latest Preston news and headlines

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