Help us care for and preserve the national collection

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.

Thank you very much for your generous donations, which have helped enable crucial conservation work to be carried out on this important historical artwork, now on display in the Artist and Empire exhibition at Tate Britain – a major exhibition of art associated with the British Empire from the 16th century to the present day.

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

Crucial conservation treatments needed

Throughout its history, this important painting has been displayed frequently and loaned extensively causing the varnish to become discoloured and patchy, resulting in a deadening of the colours and the 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)

Vibrant colours revealed

Conservation work 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:

1 of 6
  • Tate conservator Susan Breen examining Millais’s The North-West Passage
    Tate conservator Susan Breen examining Millais’s The North-West Passage
  • 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
  • Close up view of girl in Millais’s 'The North-West Passage' showing where it has been treated
  • Close up view of dress in Millais’s 'The North-West Passage' showing where it has been treated
  • Close up view of seamans head in Millais’s 'The North-West Passage' showing where it has been treated
  • Close up view out the window in Millais’s 'The North-West Passage' showing where it has been treated

Our conservation team are responsible for preserving and caring for 70,000 works of art by over 3,000 artists in Tate’s collection, if you would like to support the conservation of other artworks please donate today. Every gift, no matter the size, makes a difference.