24 Aug 2021

Conserving 'Ancilla with an Orange' by Dod Procter

The painting is arguably the most important of several portraits of children produced by the artist in Jamaica


Ancilla with an Orange was painted in Jamaica in 1956 by English artist Dod Procter. It was purchased by the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) in 1956 and it is part of the permanent collection. Conservator Rachel Howells ACR conserved, fitted out and glazed the work in preparation for the exhibition Challenging Conventions at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, and thereafter for display at the RWA.

Ancilla with an Orange


Dod Procter (1890-1972)

Trained at the Forbes School of painting in Newlyn, Dod Procter (nee Doris Shaw) used her childhood nickname as a gender-neutral epithet at a time when women artists struggled to gain recognition. Procter went on to be only the second woman ever to be elected to the Royal Academy.

In her day, Procter was a household name, having risen to fame with the enormous success of her painting Morning, selected as picture of the year at the 1927 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and bought for the nation after a public campaign led by the Daily Mail.

In the 1950s, Procter travelled repeatedly to Jamaica, and Ancilla with an Orange is arguably the most important of several portraits of children produced on those trips. It was purchased by the RWA from the 1956 Annual Open Exhibition. The Royal Academy purchased another Jamaican painting, The Sunday Shirt, the following year.

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Conservation work

Conservator Rachel Howells ACR carried out the conservation work on the painting, which was in its original, hand-painted frame, with no space for glazing or back-boarding. It was nailed into the frame within a series of wooden blocks glued to the back of the frame; there was no frame rebate and the canvas was only just large enough to fill the frame aperture.

Ancilla with an Orange Whole view in raking light lit from the left
Whole view in raking light lit from the left


The biggest issue encountered was in carrying out conservation framing. The frame was almost too large for the painting, not square, and had a tiny, uneven rebate of between 3 – 5mm. This created a problem with fitting the 4.4 mm laminated TruVue glass and painting in the frame securely, so that minimal edges showed, and so that the painting was symmetrically fitted in the frame as much as possible.

Whole back framed


In the past, eight blocks had been glued around the sight edge to create a space for the painting and glass to sit in. Unfortunately, it was not possible to remove these blocks because of the weakness of the frame and the strength of the glue that attached them. A compromise was achieved whereby the blocks were kept and the black painted balsa spacers that separated the painting from the glass were allowed to protrude into the image area. The gummed paper tape securing these spacers into the frame also slightly showed. Fitting the painting securely into the warped, non-symmetrical space took some time and tweaking but the final result was acceptable.

Whole back framed and backed with polycarbonate sheet


The conservation treatment of the painting was relatively straightforward. However, ethical decisions had to be made regarding restoration of what may or may not have been intentional damages. As none of the losses could clearly be said to be not intentional, and the scratches/loss that were present were not distracting, no retouching was carried out.


Project Outcomes

The painting retained the aesthetic the artist intended – including the original frame.

The conservation work and glazing enabled the work to be included in the Challenging Conventions exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery, which ran from 17 May to 21 August 2021. The show has been really well received and covered by local media. Visitor feedback has been excellent, and the proportion of returning visitors has doubled in comparison to the previous charged-for exhibition pre-Covid in 2019.

On reopening the RWA building in 2022, the painting will be included in displays in the new, free-to-view galleries as part of reopening celebrations (currently scheduled for spring 2022). 

RWA also intends to display Ancilla with an Orange regularly in the future, celebrating a positive aspect of the historic links between Bristol and Jamaica

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This project was funded by the Tru Vue Conservation & Exhibition Grant Scheme, which covered the conservation of Ancilla with an Orange as well as Flowers on a Chair, another painting by Dod Procter. To read the full case study detailing the conservation work of both paintings, head out to the Conservation Grants Gallery on the Conservation Register

Generously supported by TruVue, the Tru Vue Conservation & Exhibition Grant Scheme offered small heritage institutions the chance to work with an Icon accredited conservator to support the conservation of objects in their collection. You can find all Icon-Accredited conservators on the Conservation Register - a free online tool that will help you identify an Icon-Accredited conservator by object, specialism or material type. Many professional profiles also provide a detailed look at past examples of project work to give you a strong indication of the skills on offer.

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