Sean’s skilled hands at work on piece of Titanic history

Sean Madden works on the Titanic plan in his Lurgan studio. INLM4712-116gc
Sean Madden works on the Titanic plan in his Lurgan studio. INLM4712-116gc

LURGAN man Sean Madden has been given the task of conserving the most expensive piece of Titanic memorabilia in the world.

Paper conservator Sean has had the 29 and a half foot plan of the historic ship at his studio in the town for the past couple of months as he prepares it for display at the Titanic building in Belfast.

The drawing was used at an inquiry which took place three weeks after the sinking of the vessel and still bears the chalk marks used to indicate where the iceberg made contact with the ship.

Sean (46) said: “It’s the most important Titanic document in the world quite frankly. It’s the holy grail of Titanic artefacts because it documents both the building and sinking of the ship.

“The official line is that it was commissioned for the Board of Trade inquiry after the sinking of the Titanic.

“Given that the inquiry started three weeks after the sinking of the Titanic it would lead you to think that this was something that was around when the Titanic was being built.

“When you see the work that’s gone into this it doesn’t look like something put together in three weeks.”

He added: “It’ll be away from here and up in the Titanic building within 10 days. I’ve had it here about two months. It’s been an honour to work on it.”

He continued: “You can get an idea what it must have been like on the ship from looking at the drawing. It lends perspective to the Titanic story. It brings it to life and adds romance into the whole story.”

Sean is a former pupil of Lismore, where he did art and science at A-Level. After finishing school he did a degree in fine art at art college in Sheffield and a masters in paper conservation at Newcastle-Upon-Tyne University.

After graduating he got a job with the Sheffield Museums and Galleries Trust, where he stayed for five years helping to conserve the collections.

He said: “I’ve been working since 1995 as a paper conservator. I’ve an interest in art and science, and paper conservation allowed me to combine both.

“There’s quite a few paper conservators in Ireland, but I would probably be one of the few in Northern Ireland.

“I work on my own but there are quite a few working with institutions, museums and the like.

“My job is not just a conservator, I would also assist advise museums, galleries and private collectors on how best to preserve works of art.

“I’ve worked on pieces by the Impressionists, the pre-Raphaelites, Turner right through to Picasso. I’ve also worked on items by Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst.”

Sean has been married to Rachel for 16 years after the pair met in her native Sheffield. They have two children - Ruby (12) and Eve (10).

After living in Sheffield for 15 years Sean returned to Lurgan where he has set up a studio at his home. He commented: “I’ve carried out conservation on pretty much all of the Titanic stuff that’s currently in the Titanic building in Belfast.

“Because I work from home it means that there’s probably been more original Titanic material that has been in Lurgan than any other town or city in the world.

“This plan of the Titanic is probably the most important item I’ve ever worked with. It’s about both the building and the sinking of the ship, not just one aspect.

“It’s quite incredible that it exists because after the Titanic sank, as you can imagine, the company would have wanted rid of the artefacts as they would have been bad PR for them.

“A lot of stuff was destroyed so they could move on and forget about it.”

The plan of the ship remained in private hands until earlier this year when it was bought at auction by a private bidder, it sold for £220,000 - the most ever spent on a piece of Titanic memorabilia.

The owner has donated it for display for at Titanic Belfast on the very slipway where Titanic was built by the famous ship-builder Harland and Wolff.

“It’s nice to have been involved with it,” said Sean.

“Not too many people get the opportunity to work on something of this kind of significance.

“You have to respect it, but not so much that you can’t lay a hand on it. Equally if you were too blasé you wouldn’t be doing the item justice.”

He added: “I suppose if I ripped something I was working on, it would be in the best possible hands to repair it. That’s what I’m paid to do, but as a rule I don’t take risks so I haven’t had to repair any damage caused by myself to date.

“Almost everything will benefit from conservation no matter how badly damaged it is. It’s very rare if you can’t improve or preserve an item.”

Sean talked the ‘MAIL’ through what he’s had to do on the most expensive piece of Titanic memorabilia.

He said: “What I’ve had to do with this particular piece is clean all the bits of dirt off it and treat all the metal particles in the paper. I’ve also repaired any structural damage and carefully removed any masking tape and sellotape.

“What I’m doing now is introducing mounting system which will be sewn into the original canvas backing.

“When it’s finished it will be rolled up to the middle, brought to the Titanic building then mounted from the middle outwards. It will be enclosed in a display case so it doesn’t end up covered in hand prints.

“I’ll be glad when it’s out of the house,” he said. “It’s not good having something this expensive and historically significant lying about the place.”