‘Amberley Ferry’ by Alfred Fitzwalter Grace shows the ferryman and passengers on the River Arun in West Sussex looking towards the village of Bury. The picture was painted in 1872, just two years after Brighton Museum had opened at its new home in Church Street, Brighton. Grace, a local artist, had campaigned for many years for the establishment of an art gallery in the town. After the museum opened, Grace was a member of the governing Fine Art Sub Committee seventeen times between 1881 and 1903 (the year he died).
The new art gallery had to build up a collection from nothing and so it is not surprising to find we have nine paintings by Grace in the collection. He gave two large paintings in 1896, another one was acquired at the same time by public subscription. An additional three, including ‘Amberley Ferry’, were given by bequest in 1919.
Apart from one portrait, all of these paintings depict the rural life of Sussex. Grace must have felt he was recording the end of a way of life unchanged for centuries, about to vanish as farming became increasingly mechanised.
In 2006 the opportunity arose for ‘Amberley Ferry’ to be restored. In the 130 years since it was painted, the protective varnish layer had turned completely brown. The painting had also suffered from damp in the past. In addition, it appeared that Grace had changed the colouring in the sky and also applied washes of colour to different parts of the painting. It was impossible to see what the painting was like.
The discoloured and dirty varnish was removed with solvents on cotton wool swabs. Once the varnish was removed it a disfiguring patchy layer was found, probably caused by a type of mould. This layer had to be removed mechanically with scalpels under a stereomicroscope.
Additional cleaning was carried out on the sky, where dirt had settled in the brush strokes of the paint. Finally the painting was varnished, given a new frame and hopefully, a new lease of life. Some of the cost of this restoration work was met by revenue from sales of copies of the East Sussex volume of the Public Catalogue Foundation. The cost of the frame which made it possible to display this painting was met through ‘Renaissance in the Regions’.