Repairing Public Monuments and Sculpture

Lucy Branch


  White marble monument in classical style with fingers broken off the left hand and metal pins protruding from the major knuckles  
  Statue of William Huskisson in Pimlico Gardens, London, which was repeatedly targeted by vandals  

The vandalism and theft of monuments has never been more topical. In July this year the BBC reported nine news stories on the vandalism of heritage compared to none in the whole of 2008. The launch of initiatives such as the Alliance to Reduce Crime Against Heritage, the Heritage Crime Programme and the Association of Chief Police Officers’ Metal Theft Working Group, suggests that the conservation community is concerned that the stories that hit the headlines are just the tip of the iceberg. There is a strong sense that this is a critical time and that steps must be taken to prevent the problem escalating further.

Because so few acts of vandalism or theft result in prosecution, few firm statistics exist and it is hard to track annual changes in the nature and frequency of this type of crime. However, press coverage over the last decade indicates that the most high profile statues have regularly attracted abuse while theft within this group has also risen. According to the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA), although the theft of public sculpture has certainly become more appealing to criminals since the price of copper alloys increased, it is by no means clear that scrap value is the only reason for this worrying trend.

There is a common assumption that the motivation for all the theft and vandalism associated with our heritage can be summed up in two words: money and ignorance. Taking the trouble to consider carefully why an object has been vandalised makes for better conservation decisions, and sometimes reveals a slightly less bleak picture of the human race, which must be good for any conservator’s soul.

Iconoclasm The destruction of cultural property for political or religious ideals. This type of vandalism is probably as old as art itself. A current exhibition at Tate Britain, ‘Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm’, explores such attacks on art in Britain since the 16th century. The objects on display demonstrate that this type of vandalism is not a modern phenomenon.

In March 2011, anti-cuts protests took place following a TUC rally which left Trafalgar Square and other parts of central London in a mess. The damage cost tens of thousands of pounds to repair according to a council official. Protesters daubed red and black paint on monuments and on the Olympic countdown clock in Trafalgar Square.

Celebration Sometimes out of sheer exuberance, people feel the need to ‘decorate’ a sculpture or climb to its highest point. This may take the form of applying lipstick or placing a jaunty traffic cone on a monument’s head. Particularly during sporting events and even elections, the desire to climb sculptures seems to be overwhelming for some.

Riots may be hard to predict but we can anticipate many of the sporting events that will excite the nation and often have advance warning about demonstrations and protests. Temporary hoarding of monuments that have a history of being targeted can help to prevent further serious abuse. Although not particularly aesthetically pleasing, there are examples of innovation in this area such as protecting London’s Shaftesbury Memorial from New Year’s Eve revellers by enclosing it in a protective plastic dome which was styled to imitate a snow globe.

  Large pink graffiti tag across historic terracotta facade
  The swift removal of graffiti tags undermines the tagger’s objective of self-advertisement while also reducing the likelihood of damage being caused by the paint remaining in contact with the surface over a period of time. (Photo: Restorative Techniques)

Tagging The addition of a unique signature or ‘tag’ to an object is about being seen. Some types of tagging reportedly relate to gangs marking territory.

In the case of repeated attacks, encouraging the client towards a programme of swift tag-removal quickly undermines those people who have chosen to target a particular monument. The purpose of being seen is futile if the tag is removed within hours of its creation. Swift removal also reduces the likelihood of damage being caused by the paint remaining in contact with the surface over a period of time.

Attention seeking This kind of vandalism can often result in breakages. Commonly, sculptures are climbed and the weaker points suffer damage. The statue at the top of the Shaftesbury Memorial (popularly known as Eros although it actually depicts his brother Anteros) is a common target for people who want to get noticed. Each year, there is usually at least one ascent resulting in some kind of damage. The delicate bowstring is often snapped and sometimes the bow is bent out of alignment and requires careful manipulation under moderate heat to return it to its intended shape.

Theft It is not just the successful theft of metal statues for scrap that results in the loss of historic fabric. The thieves are often opportunists who lack suitable tools. Sadly their efforts can still cause extensive damage.

Encouraging clients to have their statues and monuments checked regularly is one of the best ways of preventing theft. If fixings are loose or broken, or joints are exposed allowing tools to be forced in behind the object, theft is much easier and therefore more likely.

Vendettas Bizarre as it may sound, some statues have their own enemies. Vandalism in such cases is targeted and undertaken repeatedly. This type of vandalism can take the form of graffiti or less superficial damage.

A white marble monument to the Georgian statesman William Huskisson in Pimlico Gardens, London suffered repeat attacks over a number of years during which one of the figure’s hands was smashed repeatedly. This type of vandalism was also suffered by the dolphins on Shakespeare’s Memorial in Leicester Square. One approach to conservation in this context is to delay the proper conservation treatment until the perpetrator is caught or eventually loses interest and to make a temporary repair in the meantime.

In the case of the Huskisson monument, the ultimate goal was to reinstate the fingers in the high-grade marble that the statue was made from. In the shorter term, the aim was to remake the fingers in a medium that was very close in colour and texture to the original but by a means that was easily reproducible if they were smashed again. It was important to make these temporary fingers in a material that was soft enough to break easily when hit so that the existing marble was put under the least possible strain when under attack.

Making a pattern of the fingers and taking a mould served this situation well. Casting the fingers in a marble dust mix meant that the fingers were fragile enough to almost disintegrate when struck and cost very little to replace. Eventually, the fingers were re-carved and reattached to the original stubs with small non-ferrous pins.

Random attacks This type of damage can be the most difficult to deal with. Quite often, the decision to vandalise has been entirely unpremeditated and so a person uses anything they might have on them such as a penknife or key.

Social problems Statues often provide a focal point for people to gather around and in some areas statues seem to be a magnet for people with social problems such as alcoholism, drug abuse or mental health issues. Vandalism in this category is often prolific and may take a variety of forms, from graffiti to arson.

Encouraging custodians of sculpture to understand the importance of good housekeeping in the surrounding area is a good preventive measure. Graffiti and antisocial behaviour very often occur when there is a neglected site, weeds, damaged stones and other graffiti on buildings. If areas look uncared for, an assumption can be made that vandalism in that area is acceptable.

  Very large, dish-shaped sculpture with modern office blocks behind Surface damage to sculpture including loss of surface finish
  ‘Big Blue’ by Ron Arad, Canary Wharf, London and, right, surface damage caused by football fans


Usually, the first method trialled to remove graffiti from stone is steam, soap and a nylon brush. This is often successful, although ghosting can be left behind. This is the result of the intense pigment density of the paint which has penetrated the stone. When this type of ghosting occurs, repetition and patience can yield a positive result in time. However, if the object in question is a famous, high profile monument this adds an extra dimension of pressure to any conservation works, especially if there is intense public and media interest.

Dichloromethane (DCM) worked successfully with ghosting in most cases but DCM was banned from use outside industrial installations under EU REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals) regulations in 2012. Other solvent poultices have since become available but their performance is mixed. In some cases wet abrasion using a low-pressure system such as TORC can be effective against ghosting.

Removal of paint-based graffiti from a bronze statue is relatively simple provided it is done promptly. Steam is usually the first method attempted but there is also an array of solvents which can be tried without fear of affecting the underlying patina. Unlike varnish layers on paintings, it is not necessary to worry about removing one material without dissolving another. However, the aftermath of graffiti left on for months at a time is usually more challenging.

Often, the drying agents or binding agents in paint contain an acidic component and if the graffiti is left on for a period of time, this will etch the patina. This means that although the paint can be removed, the underlying patina is lightened in the exact pattern of the graffiti. In this case, a conservator will try to blend out the damage using re-patination in a very localised way. This is an over-patination technique where the lightened colour is used as a foundation. Increasing the depth of colour without overpowering one area can take as much time as patinating a large area as it involves very marginal increases in tone until the words lose their clarity. The aim is only to be overpatinating where the lightened areas occur rather than touching the undamaged patina.


‘Big Blue’, a Ron Arad statue at Canary Wharf, London is a large fibreglass composite sculpture with a spray painted surface finish located at the centre of Canada Square. Completed in 2000, this sculpture had overzealous football supporters jump up and down on its surface. The flexibility of the domed surface and the rigidity of the paint caused small areas of cracking which the weather soon bombarded. Water seeping into the fine cracks caused enlargement of the damaged patches.

The conservation treatment involved removing any flaking, blistering or loose sections with hand tools, sanding back the surface and allowing it to dry thoroughly. The cavities were filled using glass fibre reinforced repair paste, re-sanded and refilled. The repairs were shaped to match the contours of the sculpture, then the localised areas were given several coats of polyurethane acrylic primer, sanded off, and then given two coats of prime-filler (applied before the coloured top coat, prime-filler provides strong adhesion for the top coat and fills any tiny scratches and pin holes which have occurred during sanding). These were sanded down with 240 and 400 grit abrasive paper.

Three coats of metallic base coat were used with fade-out thinner to blend out the edges to create seamless repaired areas. Three coats of clear urethane coat lacquer were then applied, cutting back between coats using 1000 grade wet and dry abrasive paper. The entire surface was then polished using machines and medium microfinishing compound. To remove scratches and minor abrasions from the lacquered surface, a white polishing pad was used followed by a black polishing pad. Finally, three coats of protective carnauba-based wax were applied to achieve a high shine.

  Bronze door surround with elaborate foliate decoration  
  Cast bronze ornamental frieze which was bent during a
failed attempt to steal it

As noted above, unsuccessful metal theft can still result in serious damage. This was the case in the attempted theft of a beautiful cast bronze ornamental frieze which surrounded a doorway at the house of the famous 19th-century artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The frieze was badly bent by the would-be thieves, who eventually gave up.

In another incident which took place many years ago, thieves who were attempting to steal a pair of bronze statues called The Wrestlers of Herculaneum dropped them onto the Victoria Embankment during their getaway. One of the statues was hit by a truck and in some places the structure was squashed almost flat.

In both cases, realignment and reshaping was achieved with the use of only modest amounts of heat with very small bouts of pressure to gradually pull the sculpture back into shape. Patience and precision are vital in this type of repair as a strong heat source can significantly change the patina and if heat and force are brought to bear simultaneously, cracking will result.

Graffiti carved into a bronze statue, particularly if it includes offensive words, must be removed by a relatively intensive process of cutting back the area using various grades of diamond tipped pad or abrasive paper. This is continued until the word is obscured or begins to become illegible. It is often unnecessary to remove every remnant of it as surface scratches are reasonably acceptable on a bronze and can be made less obvious with patination.

Re-patination in such cases is very difficult. Small areas are very hard to blend in with the surroundings as there is very little transitional area. Matching patina that is mature and has developed its colour over a century or more is extremely difficult.

Burned patinas, which are produced by heating the bronze with a torch before applying patination compounds, are not suitable in this context because heating the original patina, which cannot be avoided in a small space, can cause damage. In extreme cases, heating can even burn off the patina altogether.

Cold patinas with a sulphide base can be very useful in these contexts. These chemical compounds can be used to achieve a given colour on a bronze without the application of heat but they often have to be mixed on site and modified to achieve a sufficiently close match. Preparing a bespoke cold patina can avoid a new ‘freckle effect’ in the middle of an aged patina. Final tints are often necessary which involve working with an earth pigment component and wax to achieve a seamless finish.


It is perhaps a little simplistic to look at the motives behind vandalism only in terms of the broad categories discussed at the beginning of this article. In reality, the motives overlap – social problems and tagging, for example, often coincide. In Banksy’s words ‘graffiti is one of the few tools you have when you have nothing.’

However, it is useful for a conservator to consider the why of vandalism or theft, because knowing your vandal not only helps with choosing the best conservation treatments, but also makes it easier to help prevent the damage occurring again. When you put a label on the type of vandalism that has occurred then the preventive conservation solutions often become obvious. Then the conservator can work with the client to ensure that the damage goes away and stays away.



The Building Conservation Directory, 2014


LUCY BRANCH MA ACR is a director of Antique Bronze Ltd. After undergraduate studies in Art History and Materials, she entered her family’s conservation business. She undertook a midcareer master’s in conservation and continues to work on well-known monuments such as Nelson’s Column and the Albert Memorial.

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