How do you deal with an artwork that has a missing piece? This is one of the questions I've been discussing with Rebecca Hellen, paintings conservator here at Tate.

Rebecca works on conserving and restoring paintings for display and at the moment she is working on a painting that has thrown up a bit of a conundrum. Donald Rodney’s How the West was Won was painted in 1982 while Rodney was only 21 and studying at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham (now Nottingham Trent University).

Donald Rodney, 'How the West was Won' 1982
Donald Rodney
How the West was Won 1982
© The estate of Donald Rodney

How the West was Won is an important work in the history of contemporary British art – it dates from a time when Rodney was working with a group of young black artists who become known as the Pan-Afrikan Connection, and later the Blk Art Group. As an influential collective (which included Eddie Chambers, Keith Piper, Marlene Smith and Claudette Johnson) they were producing and exhibiting works that engaged directly with social and political issues, particularly black political struggles, in the UK and globally. As it looks currently, you see a stereotypical ‘Cowboy and Indian’ in a desert scene. The grinning Cowboy is pointing at the Indian, while a line of text runs up the Cowboy’s back, reading ‘The only good injun is a dead injun’. On a closer look, you can see however, that there is something missing from the Cowboy’s hand.

How the West was Won, detail. Installed c.1982
How the West was Won, detail
Installed c.1982

How the West was Won was exhibited in a Pan-Afrikan Connection show around this time, and photographed at that show, so we do know how it used to look and what is missing. In the image from 1982, you can clearly see the Cowboy is holding a red gun, and from the glue now left on the painting, you can also tell that this was not a flat, painted gun, but a toy gun fixed directly to the canvas.

Donald Rodney, How the West Was Won, Close up detail of the gun
Close up detail of the gun

The work was presented to Tate by the Donald Rodney Estate in 2007, and Rebecca is preparing the work for display in the forthcoming Migrations exhibition at Tate Britain. The gun has been lost for some time and as the work is nearly 30 years old, it has become a detective job for Rebecca to try to find out what sort of gun Rodney might have used and whether it is possible to find a toy gun that would be historically correct to restore the painting’s original form (and with it, some of its communicative power). Alongside working with Rodney’s Estate and contemporaries to recall the work as it was at the time it was first displayed, she has started by analysing the trace the gun has left on the canvas – its shape, size and texture.

Donald Rodney, How the West Was Won, Diagram of the glue traces left on the painting
Diagram of the glue traces left on the painting

Talking about this, we have begun to wonder if there might be someone out there who would know specifically about the sort of toy guns produced before 1982, and therefore what gun it might have been that Donald Rodney used.

Donald Rodney, How the West Was Won, Likely size and shape of the toy gun
Likely size and shape of the toy gun

Looking at these images, can you help us? Do you know if there were red short-nosed plastic or metal guns in production in the early eighties that looked like this? Or maybe Rodney painted the gun – do you know what guns might fit these dimensions – with a textured handle inset like that? Rebecca (and I) would love to hear from you if you think you can shed some light on this mystery.



try the local pound shop. Bye a crappy gun And make a Paper Mache mould out of it. Or maybe bye a cheep gun and spray it. Some sprays really aren't good on plastic it looks like its been worked to the plastics detriment? it may even be the clear plastic moulding from the packaging the gun came in and painted from the underneath. From that image you've provided it can't be an untouched off the shelf item. All being said I bet some one in his collage was making them as flyers or something and he just picked it up. Could have been embossed card.

Maybe you should return to Nottingham Trent University with the painting and get all the art students making guns.

Jan Tozer

Plastic guns although lighter - They did not have a barrel which opened - which the cap guns did!

Kirstie Beaven

Thanks everyone so far. We don't know if it was plastic or metal at this stage, but as you say plastic is much lighter to attach.

@dublonothing on Twitter says it looks like a real gun "I meant Colt Police Positive. Was confusing it with the S&W Detective Special. Both very similar."

Perhaps there were toy guns made to look specifically like these models?


This doesn't appear to have been a cap gun, as in the image it seems like the chamber is a solid mould to the main body of the gun. So I stand by the elastic-band clicker gun factor.



i remember red metal potato guns with a rubber inserts in the late eighties i dont know if they still sell/produce them now but they do look quite similar


Posted pic of framed plastic guns, on TATE Facebook page check out the one at very bottom x


I found a picture of plastic water gun which I pasted on facebook page, it's the gun at bottom of frame. It looks exactly the right style.

Rebecca Hellen

Thanks for such a great variety of ideas & suggestions. Some of them we have been considering already and others are completely new searches, ideas and images! We look forwards to hearing more opinions in the New Year... Season's Greetings, Kirstie & Becca


It seems wrong to replace it. Why not be frank enough to say it no longer exists and reconstruct an image to sit alongside the work to suggest how it may have looked?

I'm not a fan of interfering with the work to this extent.

Jan Tozer

Cap guns and heavy metal - silver - black - Good luck!


I remember the pop guns around that time being metallic looking like real guns but my brothers and I also had coloured guns like in the painting which were water pistols and made of plastic which would have been a better choice to apply to picture as much lighter. Hope that helps.


That toy gun just looks like a cheap plastic elastic-band clicker "snub-nose revolver". Which were made in Hong Kong and usually found in black, blue, red and orange plastic; with black internal workings / hammer and white, yellow or black grips.

They are similar in size to some modern cap guns too:

I have a similar black one from about 1979 but I could scour eBay whilst I look for the Japanese and Empire Made 1970's & 80's plastic ray guns I like to collect:

So I'll keep my eyes peeled!