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Tate conservator Susan Breen talks about the conservation of Millais’s The North-West Passage

The North-West Passage by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt is one of the original 65 works gifted to the nation by Sir Henry Tate to establish the Gallery in 1897. It explores the theme of the unnavigable sea route round North America, which was thought to provide a passage to the East.

The painting has now been identified for inclusion in Artist and Empire, a major exhibition of art associated with the British Empire from the 16th century to the present day, which opens at Tate Britain, 25 November 2015.

Please donate today to ensure this magnificent work can be displayed in the best possible condition from November.

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt, 'The North-West Passage' 1874

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt
The North-West Passage 1874
Oil on canvas
support: 1765 x 2222 mm frame: 2155 x 2620 x 145 mm
Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894

View the main page for this artwork

Crucial conservation treatments needed

Throughout its history, this important painting has been displayed frequently and loaned extensively and the varnish is now discoloured and patchy, causing deadening of the colours and loss of the illusion of depth.

Following a thorough examination in late 2014, the following treatments were identified as necessary:

  • Examining the work under ultra-violet light and x-ray
  • Improving corner distortions
  • Investigating possible repair of lining canvas
  • Mending tear in the canvas
  • Surface cleaning
  • Testing for varnish removal, and thereafter possible removal of varnish
  • Brush varnishing
  • Filling and retouching small losses to the paint surface
  • Frame restoration (an additional 26 day project)

This crucial conservation work has been generously funded in part by Tate Patrons but vital funding is still needed to ensure that the necessary treatments can be completed in time for this important artwork to be included in the Artist and Empire exhibition later this year.

Donate today

Vibrant colours revealed

Conservation work to date has helped to remove the varnish layers in test areas, revealing vibrant colours and depth in the painting. See for yourself how the colours and depth have been revealed:

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  • Tate conservator Susan Breen examining Millais’s The North-West Passage

    Tate conservator Susan Breen examining Millais’s The North-West Passage

    © Tate

  • Full view of Millais’s 'The North-West Passage' with the areas where it has been treated clearly visible

    Full view of Millais’s The North-West Passage with the areas where it has been treated clearly visible

    © Tate Photography

  • Close up view of girl in Millais’s 'The North-West Passage' showing where it has been treated

    © Tate Photograph

  • Close up view of dress in Millais’s 'The North-West Passage' showing where it has been treated

    © Tate Photograph

  • Close up view of seamans head in Millais’s 'The North-West Passage' showing where it has been treated

    © Tate Photograph

  • Close up view out the window in Millais’s 'The North-West Passage' showing where it has been treated

    © Tate Photography