'Wrecked beyond repair'?

June 6 2016

Video: The Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam Museum has restored and put back on display Sebastiano del Piombo's 'Adoration of the Shepherds'. It had been in storage for many years, and was considered unfit for exhibition - indeed, deemed 'wrecked beyond repair'. As you can see in the film above, the picture is in a very damaged state, due to a restorer in the 18th century having the bright idea of transferring it from panel to canvas. As is often the case, those who have done the most damage to paintings have been those charged with the preservation.

But now, however, conservation methods are better than ever. The work was done at the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge - which rightfully has legendary status in the art world - under the leadership of Rupert Featherstone. I was lucky enough to see the painting as the work was being done. Don't be too terrified by the 'stripped down' photographs - although the painting looks at first sight like a complete wreck, actually there was enough to begin a restoration, and as Featherstone explains most of the really crucial areas of the picture were relatively intact. A copy in France allowed most of the losses to be recreated. Featherstone also discusses whether the painting should have been restored in the first place, since many might say that would have been better to leave it in its damaged state. But personally I think the museum was right to embark on the project - surely it would be wrong to let the people who damaged the painting have the last word. 

PS - don't adjust your set, the sound quality in the video is terrible.

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