Reviving the Muses: The Warburg Institute's Coade Frieze Restoration

Written by Mark Amies |
The frieze of the nine muses at the Taylor Pearce studio. Photo by Mark Amies.

Since the Warburg Institute's move to its home in Bloomsbury, the frieze of the nine muses has silently greeted every visitor at the Warburg's entrance foyer. Now, thanks to the Warburg Renaissance project, this emblematic frieze is poised for a thoughtful relocation. This move has provided a unique chance to disassemble the artwork into its nine pieces, setting the stage for a comprehensive restoration.

In this blog, historian and Warburg Library Scanner Operator, Mark Amies, traces the frieze's past from its origins in the 19th Century to its current conservation efforts, sharing insights into its enduring legacy and the meticulous process of its renewal.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog article, ‘Around and About the Warburg Institute’, and within it I mentioned the Coade Stone frieze of the nine muses which had been displayed in the entrance of the Warburg Institute from its opening, since 1958. Prior to this it had been fixed to the exterior of the building that once stood on the site of the Institute, since the 1830s. I am now writing about the frieze once again and making it the focus of attention. With the ongoing Warburg Renaissance project, the frieze has been removed and is undergoing a full restoration.

As soon as I became aware of the frieze and its history, I was fascinated by it. It is a survivor that begins its journey in a very different age and went on to find a new position both physically and spiritually at the Warburg Institute. The building that predated the Institute, Number One Gordon Square, would have been built for wealthy middle-class residents, in the ever-fashionable Bloomsbury district of London. It sat on the corner of a block next to Woburn Square, and one could imagine how the Coade stone frieze would have satisfied the pretensions of this civilised neighbourhood, no doubt amplified by the nearby British Museum with its collections of classical sculpture. From what I have read the buildings that made up the block were built by Thomas Cubitt who was responsible for large swathes of Bloomsbury, Belgravia and Pimlico.

The frieze of the nine muses prior to restoration alongside storage crates. Photo by Mark Amies

It is very likely that the frieze would have been in its natural creamy finish, however over the years the increasingly polluted air of London would have dulled it. The arrival of the railways was key to this, Euston station opened in 1837, followed by Kings Cross in 1852, and finally St Pancras in 1868. The constant movement of steam locomotive trains pushing out thick sooty smoke, combined with the smoke from domestic and commercial premises would have coated the surfaces of buildings and they became ingrained with carbon and sulphur. As the Nineteenth century gave way to the Twentieth, the internal combustion engine added more particulate pollution into the atmosphere. Over the years this dulling of the frieze meant that successive residents decided to paint over it, supposedly to make it look smart.

frieze of the nine muses
No 1 Gordon Square 1942 - Source: Historic England Archive

The final years of the frieze can be seen in a photograph taken in 1942 where it is mounted onto a wall to the side of what was quite possibly a service entrance. The figures are light coloured against a dark background. With the Second World War over, the post war years eventually lead to the site being allotted to the next stage of the University of London’s development, and the new home of the Warburg Institute and Courtauld Gallery. By the time builders, J Jarvis and Co re-sited the frieze into the entrance of the new building, it was looking decidedly weathered. A consequence of placing the Coade stone into the warmth of its new home, was a drying out process. It had been exposed to extremes of temperature and humidity, throughout London’s changeable seasons for one hundred and twenty years. Inevitably, this meant some natural exfoliation began to take place. It was this rather rough but characterful frieze that visitors over recent years to the Institute would recognise, probably without any knowledge of its real history. 

The frieze of the nine muses prior to restoration alongside packing crates. Photo by Mark Amies

This brings us to the summer of 2023, and the ongoing Warburg Renaissance project. Much thought had been put into how the frieze would be placed in the new ground floor layout, but it was clear that it should be removed for safekeeping, and to be restored.

It was in this period before the removal that I had suggested that it might be a good idea to digitally capture the frieze in three dimensions. The inspiration for this came from a taster session at the Digital Humanities ‘MakerSpace’ at Senate House, where we had an opportunity to see how objects could be photographed from many angles, in a process called photogrammetry. Once this is done, the data can be used within 3D modelling software and the production of objects using 3D printers. I had some discussions with Dr Gabriel Bodard who is the Director of Studies for the Digital Humanities Research Hub (as well as the Director of Research Studies at the Institute of Classical Studies), and in July a first run was attempted. Gabriel and Frederica Cuccato, a photographer and archaeology student at Birkbeck, visited the Warburg Institute and undertook the photography that would enable the photogrammetry process. The resultant photogrammetry can be viewed here. You can move the image around in all angles and zoom in by using the cursor.  Dr Bodard has stated that this first effort was not quite up to his desired standard, due to time and space constraints. The hope is that when the restored frieze is returned, that a high standard ‘pass’ can be made.

Images of the frieze of the nine muses taken in order for it to be 3D modelled. Photo by Mark Amies

The story continues to the end of August and the moment when the frieze was extracted from its position after sixty-six years. The specialist stone restoration experts Taylor Pearce undertook the process in two days. Having been relocated to Senate House, I missed this occasion, but turned up hours after the frieze, in its nine separate pieces, had left the Warburg Institute. As I entered the building I was taken aback by the large gap in the wall where the frieze once had been, leaving bare 1950s utility brickwork, with random areas of concrete and plaster blobs, as well as areas of bright orange paint. Curiously there was also fragments of brown paper with markings on, attached to some of the plaster. After getting permission I carefully removed some of the paper and on taking it back to my office I found that these were fragments of bags that had clearly contained gypsum plaster.  I was able to make out not only the manufacturer, The Gypsum Mines Limited, of Kingston on Soar, Derbyshire, but also the date of its packing, 16th September 1957.

Finally on 19 October 2023, together with colleagues, I visited the workshops of Taylor Pearce in South London to see the restoration of the frieze. The results of the company’s efforts are plain to see. The frieze was originally assembled from nine separate sections of Coade stone, and that is how they have been treated during their cleaning. With all the years of paint and dirt removed, the figures are revealed in all their detailed glory. The delicate forms of fingers and feet, together with the folds of fabric are truly astonishing. The faces of the muses that had watched out over Woburn Square for over a century could be seen again, after the years of coatings had been taken away, and I really felt quite privileged to observe them. The opportunity to see the frieze up close is something that one could only have done with the aid of a ladder in the past, and so areas that had been indistinct blobs are now pin sharp. As my photos show, the reverse of the stone is covered in a very unclassical orange finish. No one, as yet, has been able to ascertain what this is, but the consensus is that it was some kind of 1950s sealant coating. You will also note the hand painted numbers on the back.

With all the years of paint and dirt removed, the figures are revealed in all their detailed glory.

Given what the frieze has been through, in terms of pollution, two World Wars, removal, re-siting and removal again, it is not surprising that damage has occurred. It is clear to see the darkened and pitted surfaces that will almost certainly be attributed to pollution, and the professionals at Taylor Pearce will do as much as they can to clean and repair, without damaging the aesthetic quality of the frieze. Once the work has been completed the nine sections will be stored in safekeeping until it is time to bring them back to the Warburg Institute, sometime in the Spring of 2024. Woburn Square will once again be able to see the nine muses as they would have been nearly two hundred years ago.

Positioning of the frieze in the updated layout

The frieze will be relocated within the reconfigured entrance foyer, on the wall of a new seating area, with views out onto the new courtyard extension containing the Lecture Theatre and Wohl Reading Room. It will also sit adjacent to the repositioned Mnemosyne sign, retaining the important relationship between the two from the previous layout.


> Find out more about the Warburg Renaissance