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Hamilton Kerr Institute

Fitzwilliam Museum

The Archive

Jim Murrell was a conservator of miniatures at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The archive comprises files of reports and slides and provides a historical record of conservation treatments undertaken by Jim Murrell. The Archive of Jim Murrell was donated by his wife, Ann Murrell Ballantyne in June 1999. 

Obituary - Conservation News, November, 1994 

Vernon James Murrell, known to almost all his friends as Jim, died on June 15th of cancer. All who knew him will realise what a very special person he was, most conservators will know that they have also lost a colleague of quite outstanding talent and a most generous and exceptional source of knowledge and wisdom. There are so many people who will miss his friendship, quiet kindness and so many who will have relied on him as a source of advice that was always utterly reliable. Above all many will miss his huge sense of humour and fun, and that sparkling sometimes satirical wit, always tempered by exceptional good manners.

Jim was born on February 26th 1934 in Kent, the son of Kenneth (a surveyor) and Mabel Murrell. He was educated at Sutton Valance School from 1945–51. From 1951–53 he did Military Service, becoming a non-commissioned instructor. His intended career as an artist then began. He became a student at Maidstone College of Art from 1955-60, studying anatomy, drawing, painting, sculpture, and printing techniques including wood engraving; all became abiding interests. Having obtained the National Diploma in Design) he went on to the University of London, Institute of Education and in 1961 obtained an Art Teacher’s Diploma. Jim joined the V&A Museum in 1961 as a restorer and worked there until he retired in January this year. In 1963 he married Maureen Worlock “Mo”. They had a son, Rufus. After some years of separation they divorced. In 1974 he married Anne Balantyn (restorer of medieval wallpaintings) they have two children, Charlotte and Oliver.

Amazingly, Jim became a conservator almost by accident. During college vacations he had found temporary jobs, including work as a butcher’s assistant in Illford. Having just completed his ATD he answered an advertisement for temporary work in the V&A Circulation Department. The switchboard misunderstood, thought he meant Conservation and instead put him in touch with Norman Brommelle, then Keeper of the V&A Conservation Department. Somehow the conversation got round to books on artist’s techniques which both had read, the upshot was that Jim was persuaded to apply for a vacancy in the Conservation Department. So in 1961 Jim joined the V&A Conservation staff, working as assistant to Nobby Clarke. Together they formed part of a team which, in those days worked on both paper objects and easel painting. However Mr Clarke was also responsible for the conservation of a wide variety of other objects including the National Collections of both portrait miniatures and wax models. As Mr Clarke’s assistant Jim worked on the conservation of paintings, water–colours, drawings, Oriental and European Lacquer, painted furniture, wax sculpture, pictorial enamels and portrait miniatures.

During the next years Jim received a very thorough training, not only in practical conservation but aided by the wide facilities afforded by the Department and his own diligent reading and research, in the theoretical, scientific and historical knowledge necessary to a conservator. He began to read widely on technique and technical history. Because they often worked on unusual objects both Mr Clarke and Jim had perforce to developed their own techniques. Jim taught himself to model and cast in wax and began to show exceptional skill especially in the conservation of wax sculptures and miniatures.

Jim also became involved in certain administrative work, including setting up the Conservation Department and Miniature Section slide libraries, cataloguing and cross referencing the slides so that the are easily retrieved. The Miniature Section’s, library of slides is now vast and without doubt an extremely valuable reference archive. The variety and amount of work Mr Clarke and Jim covered is extraordinary. In the 1960’s they worked with Harry Rogers and others carrying out major conservation and reframing of the Raphael Cartoons. They also helped with the cleaning and conservation of the multi panelled “Spanish Altarpiece”. Amongst their most notable achievements was the conservation of an exceptionally fine box, on loan to the museum. The box had six facets in which were set exquisite miniatures, gouache on vellum, depicting views of Versaille. In 1969 a snow fall followed by a sudden thaw during the night caused a leak in the Jewellery Gallery roof, by the time it was discovered on Feb. 20th the box was waterlogged and the miniatures almost obliterated.

Conservation began immediately. Mr Clarke and Jim shared the work which entailed dismantling the steel riveted box, relaying the vellum and retouching. Of the three miniatures Jim restored he had effectively to repaint two. The work had to be done to a standard that would satisfy the owner and all concerned, The conservation and reassembly was Technical Examination card on which to record his completed by April (in just over two months). A work of outstanding restoration skill.

In 1969 Mr Clarke retired leaving Jim undoubtedly the world expert in the conservation of both portrait miniatures and wax objects. At that time V&A Conservators from all sections who had unique were encouraged to help conserve objects from other collections of National importance. Some times this was on a fully official basis and done in V&A time. Sometimes the arrangements were less formal and conservators worked in their own time on a paid or unpaid basis. Over the years Jim worked for almost every UK and many International collections of any importance, both of wax sculptures and more particularly of miniatures; by doing so he built up a rapport with owners, curators and collectors which has subsequently enabled the Museum to borrow many marvellous miniatures from exhibitions.

In 1970 Jim completed the major conservation of the wax tableau “Time and Death”, by Gaetano Zumbo. It was one of the earliest occasions when technical examination and analysis was fully used for a wax object. In 1971 Jim’s article “Some aspects of the Conservation of Wax Objects” was published in lIC Studies. It is still the definitive article, it also marked the real beginning of Jim’s work as a writer. Since then he has published extensively on a wide range of topics, most recently in the Conservator, Number 18, 1994.

He was a wonderful instructor, was immensely patient, immensely knowledgeable on every aspect of conservation with outstanding practical skills, utterly thorough and with the soundest judgement of any conservator I have ever met. He was also huge fun to work with and unstintingly generous with his knowledge. In 1972 Jim gave a paper at the TIC Lisbon Congress, “The Restoration of Portrait Miniatures”. At roughly the same time he really began working on what may well become considered his major contribution to conservation. To quote him:

With training as an artist and experience as a conservator I became aware of the lack of understanding resulting from over specialisation. I observed conservation scientists with valuable knowledge they could not relate to the history of art and historians with no concept of the way in which art was made. A work could be attributed to a master anatomist when it was patently created by someone who did not know his coccyx from his humorous.

He began to research and lecture on the history of artist’s techniques, styles and objective criteria for the attribution of works. This quote gives little idea of the huge input of work involved. In the miniature field Jim read all the available related literature when necessary transcribing complete technical treatise. He aimed to understand each artists historical and technical background and following detailed examination of their miniatures to record precisely their techniques. The examination methods were thought out and developed by Jim and he designed a Condition and findings. For comparative purposes it was essential to be able to examine the known authentic works of each artist before trying to attribute works of less certain authorship. The trust and friendship Jim had built up with so many collection bore fruit and many miniatures were borrowed for this purpose. This was invaluable when Sir Roy Strong and John Murdoch aided by Jim embarked on the cataloguing of the 16th and 17th century. Quite literally hundreds of miniatures passed through hands. At one point all the available Holbien miniatures were borrowed from collections world-wide. In return, often vast collections, would be examined conserved and receive reports.

When Norman Brommelle retired Jim became acting Keeper of the Conservation Department for some months but he did not wish for the purely administrative work the Keepership entailed and did not apply for the post. In 1980 he was made Deputy Keeper, reverting 1985 to Senior Conservator, following a spell of illness. He retired in January 1994. Jim trained a number of conservators both in the conservation of miniatures and of wax objects as well as a research student specialising in the techniques of miniature painters. Over the years he has suffered considerable ill health at times but he had incredible courage continuing even throughout the last year of treatment for cancer and until he died, to work read and write, always with the same extraordinary dedication and thoroughness.

He always appeared cheerful open and factual about his illness, his wonderful sense of humour unimpaired. I will always regard him as a shining example of how to face both life and death and with many others I will mourn the loss of “the best of friends”.

Jim’s published works are too many to enumerate here, as well as those mentioned above the most significant are his contributions to the exhibition catalogues, “The English Miniature” 1981, and the “Artists of the Tudor Court” and his own book “The Way Howe to Lymne” both 1983. His edition of Edward’s Treatise will appear posthumously. Jim was a fellow of IIC and an honorary member of the Royal Society of Miniaturists.

Quite apart from being a superlative conservator Jim continued work as a creative artist; to draw, paint, make wood engravings and to sculpt, especially in wax.