Killer conservation irons
June 4 2015
I came across these old lining irons in a conservation studio recently. They are, or rather were, used when bonding a new canvas lining onto the back of an old one. The technique was to heat the irons, which are seriously heavy, on cookers. The weight and heat of these irons would then melt the glue or wax lining material and force it into the original canvas, bonding it to the new lining, and at the same time providing a new adhesive for any flaking paint. Sadly, the irons also used to flatten any impasto, melding the paint layers into each other, and sometimes caused a chemical change in the paint surface.
Happily, they're not often used these days - vacuum tables can be used instead. But when I occasionally say that no single group of people has done more damage to paintings in art history than conservators, these are the sort techniques I have in mind.
Optical Coherence Tomography
April 21 2015
Pictures: Optics Info Base
This sounds interesting - a whizzy new camera (seen above, in front of a copy of a Raphael at the National Gallery) can digitally take cross-sections of a painting. Normally, to find out the exact build up of layers in a painting (from ground layer to the tpyes of pigments used), you need to physically take a sample of paint, flip it on its side, and then look at the cross-section under a microscope (as in the colour photo below). But this new camera - developed at Nottingham Trent University - allows a virtual cross-section to be taken, and the results look as they do in the top image, the black and white one.
The process is called Optical Coherence Tomography.
You can read more about the new research here.
Finland's first Monet
March 30 2015
Pictures: via BBC News
BBC News reports that technical analysis of a disputed Monet in Finland's Serlachus Fine Arts Foundation has revealed an overpainted signature, below. The discovery apparently means that Finland has its first Monet.
Van Gogh paintings: 'turning white'
March 11 2015
Public Radio International reports that Van Goghs paintings are slowly becoming whiter. The reason why, scientists in Belgium have deduced, is the 'red lead' he used, also called plumbonacrite:
plumbonacrite is suspected to be one of the first synthetically-made paints known to man, and van Gogh was a particular fan of the stuff. In many of his paintings he used bold colors — including the red hue — which apparently degrades like a Gobstopper candy when exposed to light.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, art vandal?
March 9 2015
Picture: Berlin Gemäldegalerie
The Berliner Morgenpost reports that conservators at Berlin's Gemäldegalerie have found evidence - in X-rays - of substantial over-painting on Rembrandt's Susanna and the Elders (above). The lead culprit is Sir Joshua Reynolds, who owned the work in the 18th Century.
Van Dyck's c.1628 self-portrait re-discovered
March 5 2015
The Art Newspaper seems to have scooped a story I've been dying to tell you about for some time; the re-discovery of an important self-portrait by Van Dyck. The picture was one of the last important portraits I worked on with Philip Mould in London. Martin Bailey writes:
A self-portrait by Van Dyck that was dismissed a decade ago as a copy is now hanging in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota, as an original work. The painting, which has been authenticated by experts, was quietly put on display in February, having been lent by a US collector based on the West Coast.
An unpublished paper on the self-portrait, prepared for the owner, dates the work to around 1629 and states that the attribution is accepted by four key experts: Susan Barnes, a co-author of the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonné, Christopher Brown, the former director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, David Jaffé, a former senior curator at the National Gallery in London, and Malcolm Rogers, the outgoing director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The attribution is also accepted by Patrick Noon, the head of paintings at the Minneapolis museum.
The work is particularly important because it is the self-portrait by which Van Dyck wanted to be remembered. The artist produced an etching of the image in 1630 for the frontispiece of his book Iconography.
The late Oliver Millar, another co-author of the 2004 catalogue raisonné, dismissed the work as “possibly a very early copy”. He assumed that the original painting was missing.
When the self-portrait was put up for sale at Lempertz in Cologne on 12 May 2012, it was described as a “copy after Van Dyck”. The auction house estimated its value at €30,000 to €40,000. The painting fetched €512,000, showing that at least two bidders were reasonably confident that it was by Van Dyck.
For a Van Dyck anorak like me, finding this picture was as good as it gets. Working on it was like being in art historical heaven.
The unpublished paper referred to above was written by me, and I'll share further details with you soon. There's a great deal to discuss. I think the picture was probably painted in late 1628. A few quick additional points:
The Art Newspaper mentions that the late Sir Oliver Millar 'dismissed the work' - but in fact when he saw it at an Agnews exhibition in 1968 he pretty much accepted it. Indeed, although the picture was little known and only exhibited once, it was continously published as 'a Van Dyck' right up until 1999, and it was only in the 2004 Catalogue Raisonné co-written by Sir Oliver Millar that the picture was first doubted.
I'm not sure why Sir Oliver changed his mind, but it was probaby due its pre-conservation condition; it had been substantially over-painted, and was also really quite dirty under old varnish. I believe Sir Oliver was perhaps also misled by the gold chain, thinking that chain was that given to Van Dyck by King Charles I, and that the portrait must therefore be an English-period work (that is, in the section of the catalogue that he was responsible for), dating to after 1632 - when Van Dyck's technique was rather different. In fact, I linked hte portrait to a a gold chain Van Dyck was given earlier, in 1628 by the Archduchess Isabella in Brussels, when she appointed him her court painter. This was Van Dyck's first such official position, and in the picture he is proudly removing his cloak to show off the gold chain. Before the picture was cleaned, it was hard to discern the implicit downward movement in the hand and the drapery.
Other interesting things to note include a prominent pentiment around the hand, which showed that Van Dyck had originally gripped the cloak in a very different manner, and a distinctive application of two layers of ground for the head, which helps give the picture part of its force. It's an incredible portrait to look at in the flesh, and has great presence. What a pleasure it was to work with Philip Mould in his gallery with it - sometimes we would treat ourselves and hang it next to the later Van Dyck self-portrait we also had in the gallery (the one which was bought by the National Portrait Gallery last year).
In fact, although the NPG's picture has now become rather famous, it was this earlier self-portrait that was until relatively recently perhaps the defining image of Van Dyck. It was the portrait he chose to be printed for his series of engraved portraits, which he called the Iconografie. It is best known in the famous unfinished etching below.
The painting was also engraved by Paulus Pontius in a double portrait with Rubens. You can see an image of that engraving here.
The photo below shows me with the painting and the Rev. Dr Susan Barnes, who co-wrote the Van Dyck catalogue raisonneé in 2004. I went to show her the painting in New York a couple of years ago - for me, that was a very special moment.
Finally, the provenance is fascinating; I was able to establish that the picture was almost certainly in the collection of a prominent Flemish collector, Jan-Baptiste Anthoine (d.1691) - it is listed in his 1691 inventory; 'Een contrefeijtsel van Van Dijck met eenen mantel in de handt' ['a portrait of Van Dyck with a cloak in his hand']. We know Anthoine marked his pictures with a wax seal - and although the picture has long since been re-lined, we did find the remains of a red wax seal on the back of the original canvas.
During the research into the provenance, I found that the above painting in the Royal Collection by Jacob Formentrou (fl.1640-59) called simply 'A Cabinet of Pictures', which was thought to be a random assortment of paintings, in fact shows a large number of works from Anthoine's collection. (All of this requires much more time to set out, so I'll have to revisit it for you. I'm afraid this is a rather rushed post.) And if you look closely at the little portrait under the Crucifixion by the doorway, you'll see the Van Dyck self-portrait. You can zoom into the painting on the Royal Collection website here. Anthoine was very interested in Van Dyck it seems, and owned a number of works by him. He also had his family portrait (below) painted by the 'little Van Dyck', Gonzales Coques, [which portrait is also in the Royal Collection] in which he and his family are seen recreating various Van Dyck-ian poses.
The really odd thing is that the Formentrou cabinet painting hangs at Hampton Court Palace, where I used to live (well, I lived in the park at Hampton Court, not the palace itself). And whenever I went round Hampton Court, which was often, I would look at the tiny depiction of the 'missing' Van Dyck self-portrait, and say to myself, 'one day, I'd like to find that picture'. And then one day I saw it in an online auction catalogue, described as 'after Van Dyck'. The chase was afoot. The gods of art history move in mysterious ways...
Update - a reader alerts me to the blog of Darren R. Rousar, a sharp-eyed visitor to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts who wrote about seeing the picture back on 10th February. He took some good-ish snaps of the painting if you want to see some details. I'm afraid I don't have a good photo that I can publish.
Update II - Iconografie, by the way, is the name of my new company. I'll tell you more about it soon.
National Museum of Iraq re-opens
March 2 2015
From Iraq, some slightly better news. The National Museum (above) has been re-opened for the first time in 12 years. But, as the BBC reminds us, many items are still missing, having been looted after the dumbest war of modern times 2003 invasion.
The Iraq Museum estimates that some 15,000 items were taken in the chaos that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Almost one-third have been recovered.
The Battle of the Goya Self-Portraits
February 23 2015
Pictures: Musée Goya and Musée Bonnat-Helleu.
On Hyperallergic, Benjamin Sutton has a neat summary in English of the story of a newly authenticated Goya self-portrait in France, above. The picture belongs to the Musée Bonnat-Helleu in Bayonne, and was authenticated by the central French government service for museum art restoration 'using scientific imaging and analysis'. Yikes.
The trouble is, those who authenticated the above picture have decided that another version (below) which belongs to another French museum in Castres, the Musée Goya, must be a copy. Nonsense, says the rather splendid chief curator of the Musée Goya, Jean-Louis Augé; the Bayonne painting is a study for the Castres picture, which is also genuine. You can see Augé's response in the video here.
It's hard to judge on the images of course, but I'm with Augé. It's perfectly possible for both pictures to be 'right'. The Castres picture is more worked up than the Bayonne one, so the Bayonne picture could be a preparatory study, and the Castres picture a more finished second version.
Beware restorers making attributions.
On a wider point, it's been the case for some time now that Goya connoisseurship is in some disarray.
Re-framing Titian (ctd.)
February 19 2015
Picture: National Gallery
The National Gallery's campaign to buy a new frame for the above picture by Titian has been a success. Hurrah. The £27,000 target was the NG's first online fundraising initiative. Well done to all involved. Now do more.
It's always worth looking at the back...
January 28 2015
Picture: BBC/Scottish Gallery
Here's nice discovery story from my neck of the woods; the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh has discovered a lost work (above) by the Scottish colourist Francis Cadell, which had been painted over by the son of another colourist, Samuel Peploe. Says the BBC:
The lost Cadell work was painted around 1909 from his studio at 112 George Street, Edinburgh, and looks across the street to Charlotte Square. When the artist died in 1937, his sister Jean Percival Clark, well-known as the actress Jean Cadell, came up to Edinburgh to sort out his affairs.
She was helped by Denis Peploe, son of Samuel, who was a student at Edinburgh College of Art. She gifted him some of her brother's art material and included among the canvases, probably including "George Street and Charlotte Square", taken off its stretcher, turned and re-stretched ready to be used again.
It is not known why Cadell abandoned the painting, which is finished and bears a strong signature.
Years later, Denis Peploe painted his own picture, Begonias, a still life on a trestle table and whitewashed over the Cadell exposed on the other side.
The Scottish Gallery acquired the Denis Peploe and in the process of conservation discovered the Cadell on the reverse.
And in a final twist, the director of the Scottish Gallery is Guy Peploe, Denis Peploe's son.
A lost Wright of Derby?
January 14 2015
Picture: Your Paintings/Derby museum
The excellent Derby Museum and Art Gallery has secured a £15,000 grant to help them decide whether the above painting is by Joseph Wright of Derby. The subject is The Colosseum by Night, and the picture belongs to the museum. However, its authorship has, reports the Derby Telegraph, been doubted. Presumably on account of what appears to be the curious drawing of the arches on the right. Wright painted The Colosseum by Day, which also belongs to the Derby museum.
£15,000 is a lot of money to find out an attribution, and I presume this sum allows for the picture to be cleaned, and analysed. I can only find this not especially good photo online. Though at first sight the painting looks too wobbly (that's the technical term) to be by Wright, the sky and foliage top left looks convincing enough. Probably there are some condition issues going on, which are affecting how the picture appears. I'm trying to get a better photo, and will put it up if I can.
Update - Lucy Bamford, the curator at Derby, has kindly sent a high-res image, and below are some close ups. I'm sure that the picture is indeed by Wright - we can tell that alone from the little figure in the window, and also the foliage and sky at the top left.
But the rest of the picture has been savagely 'restored' by someone in the 1960s or 70s, with huge areas entirely over-painted (as seen in the last image below). The question is, why was it done - to cover up old damage? Or just ineptness. Often it's simply a case of the latter.
Lucy Bamford tells me, however:
Worryingly, I had a tip-off from someone who had some dealing with a painting that was also over painted by the same restorer as the Colosseum back in the 60s or 70s. Their approach seems to have been to sand down the original to make a smooth surface on which to lay new paint, ‘improvement’ being the chief concern I presume.
Yikes. The tale such woeful restoration may be a bizarre one to modern ears, but in my experience it's not unusual. No single group of people has done more damage to paintings in history than those who at some point have fancied themselves as 'art conservators'. Ironic but true. Those pictures that are in the best condition are those that have never been 'cleaned'.
The problome is, every generation of restorers (or, in days of old, simply domestic cleaners, who would scrub pictures with a potato if you were ucky, or a scourer if you weren't) thinks it has come up with the latest answer to 'improve' paintings: once it was 'transferring' (with disastrous results) panel paintings onto canvas; then it was wax re-lining (until people realised how the wax damaged the paint surface). Sometimes it seems art restoration is a giant, intra-generational job creation scheme by restorers.
But anyway, I have no doubts that this time around the work will be done well and carefully. And I look forward to seeing a Wright emerge from beneath the work of that sinful earlier restorer.
A Jacobean bargain? (ctd.)
January 12 2015
I mentioned a couple of years ago English Heritage's inability to sell Apethorpe Hall, a large Jacobean mansion which they had bought in 2004 and spent £8m on, saving it from total collapse. At last, reports the Telegraph, someone has come forward to buy the house (for £2.5m) and complete the restoration. He is a French aristocrat, called Jean Christophe Iseux, Baron von Pfetten, who apparently was once a member of the Chinese parliament. I'm not sure how me managed that, but he sounds like the sort of fellow who can rescue a great house. Congratulations to him, and a hearty AHN good luck with the restoration. I daresay he'll be needing a few pictures...
Turner's house wins £1.4m grant
January 7 2015
Regular readers will know I've been covering fundraising attempts by Sandycombe Lodge, which was the country villa designed by Turner in Twickenham. I'm very glad to report that they've been awarded £1.4m by the Heritage Lottery Fund, to help preserve the site. Well done to all involved. More here in The Guardian from Maev Kennedy.
Constable before 'n after
December 19 2014
Pictures: US NGA
There's a nice piece on the US National Gallery's website about the restoration of their 'White Horse' by Constable. Before conservation, above, the picture was thought to be a copy of a picture in the Frick. But cleaning (below) and x-rays revealed otherwise.
Meanwhile, in Tashkent...
December 15 2014
The Guardian reports that employees of the Usbek State Arts Museum have been flogging off originals these last fifteen years, and replacing them with copies. Crafty. Among the illegal sales were:
25 originals by European artists, including the Italian Renaissance painter and sculptor Lorenzo di Credi.
I wonder if anything's happened to that 'Veronese' they discovered in the vaults a few years back.
December 9 2014
The man who punched a hole in a Monet in the National Gallery of Ireland has been jailed for six years. He also had paint stripper on him at the time, but didn't get a chance to use it. When police raided his house, they found a large cache of stolen paintings. More here.
One has to say that this is a good deterrent sentence. It beats the two years given to the nut who defaced the Tate's Rothko.
Re-gilding the Paston Treasure
December 9 2014
Video: Art Fund
Here's a good cause - the Norwich Castle Museum is hoping to raise £14,500 to re-gild the wooden frame that surrounds their 'Paston Treasure', a large late 17th Century still life which records a number of treasures owned by the Paston family in Norfolk. At some point (we're not told when, perhaps at some trendy point in the '70s) the gilding was stripped from the original frame.
Here's the blurb on the Art Fund's 'Art Happens' website:
Research has shown that the ornately carved frame was in all likelihood made for the painting, but it would not have looked like this in the 17th century. It would have been gilded – the dazzling finishing touch to the depiction of a dazzling collection. Six years ago, we raised money to have the painting cleaned and conserved. Now we want to re-gild the frame and restore this masterpiece in its entirety to its former glory.
The museum hopes to raise the money in time for an exhibition in 2016, when they'll assemble many of the treasures depicted within the painting. The funding total is currently at 1% - can you help them out?
Update - a reader writes:
I'm all for having the 'Paston Treasure' re-gilded (and I might consider bunging them a few quid) but £14,500!!?? Is this the best quote they could get?!
I'm clearly in the wrong business.
Alas, gilding, I know from experience, is very, very expensive.
Losing our marbles?
December 5 2014
The British Museum has lent one of the Elgin Marbles to the Hermitage. What do we think of this AHN-ers? The Greeks are outraged, of course, but then they always are.
I can't personally see too much of a problem, culturally; I'm all in favour of letting other countries see what we have, if it means we might also get to see what they have. That said, politically, it does come at a moment when we're supposed to be being beastly to President Putin, on account of his expansionist jaunts.
Update - areader writes:
You asked for some thoughts on the British Museum’s loan of one of the Parthenon marbles to the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. In principle I’ve no objection to the BM lending one of the sculptures that it owns and as for the objections of the Greeks, or anyone else for that matter, they can go to hell. Their nationalist whining is sickening and only makes me more determined that they should never, ever have the Parthenon sculptures back in Athens!
I am, however, very concerned that the British Museum is so determined to lend its objects to any and every quarter of the globe while failing abjectly to provide comprehensive, public display of its collections at the main museum in Bloomsbury. For example, the Museum of Mankind closed in 1997 but the BM still has not opened displays of its collections of Central & South American cultures ( other than Mexico ), Australasia and Oceania: this despite galleries for these collections being in their development plans and then disappearing when the new exhibition building was mooted. How long, for instance, do those who want to visit and study the finest collection of Pacific art in existence have to wait before it is displayed in London?
Or take the Egyptian collection. Four exhibition rooms have “disappeared” since the late 1990s; three swallowed up by the Great Court. Is it any wonder then that the display of Egyptian culture at the BM is so piece-meal and arbitrary? Where can you see Egyptian pottery or Amarna sculpture at Bloomsbury , for example? You cannot: there is no chronological or coherent display at all as the galleries jump around from Early Dynasties to mummies to 18th Dynasty wall paintings. Rare and important objects such as the 6th Dynasty wooden statue of Meryrehashtep or the gold bracelets of Prince Nimlot are never exhibited at all in Bloomsbury these days ( but I saw the latter on loan to the Met the other month).
It seems that any old exhibition or museum can count on borrowing objects from the BM while the British visitor ( and tax payer ) and international visitors are deprived of wonderful collections and individual objects which they should be able to see, study and experience in London.
The question is: having lent it are we going to get it back, given Lilyputin's demonstration of acquisitiveness in the Crimea?
Update III - another reader writes:
A few thoughts on the Marbles. Regarding lending them out, seems a good thing although this isn't part of an exhibition. Lending to Russia, less so but perhaps it's a victory for culture over aggression.
But on the wider Marbles debate which is not quite the issue at hand but as everyone else will mention it.
This issue gets caught up in Las Malvinas-esq nationalism but put simply, it would be better if the remaining marbles were on display together, in their original layout and in sight of the building which they not only adorned but were part of (which is why Elgin's men had such difficulty getting them). A building which UNESCO considers so important it uses it as it's logo. It would be interesting to hear someone claim a gloomy, grey room in Bloomsbury is a more appropriate setting.
Returning them would not be about giving in to Greek demands, it would be about reunifying two parts of a wider artistic whole. I cannot see how a lover of art would not be curious to see the remaining pieces, which are of such importance to Western culture, together again.
Would it not be a better scenario to have the originals in Athens and the casts in London? Thereby still allowing their impact on world culture to understood.
And no you can't restore all of them or indeed rebuild the Parthenon in the same way you can't undo Lord Duveen's 'cleaning' but no one is suggesting that and you should never let best become the enemy of better.
Duke's Titian declared genuine
December 4 2014
Pictures: Museo Prado
The Times alerts me to the conservation and re-attribution of a picture by Titian, which belongs to the Duke of Wellington. The picture, a Danaë, was cleaned by the Prado, and proved to be the original painting that once belonged to Philip II of Spain. Painted in about 1551-3, it entered the Wellington collection when it was given to the 1st Duke, following his victories over the French in Spain. It was recently thought to be a copy, but it is in fact an autograph repetition of Titian's first Danaë, which was painted in 1544/5, but with the addition of the old woman on the right. The photo below shows the picture in its stripped down state.
More here on the Prado's website, including videos.