To clean or not to clean?

August 31 2016

Image of To clean or not to clean?

Picture: NPG

Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper reports that the National Portrait Gallery is considering cleaning the world-famous Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare:

The National Portrait Gallery in London is considering cleaning one of its most famous pictures, the Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare. The proposal was made at a seminar with outside specialists; the gallery’s trustees will decide next year whether to proceed with treatment. 

As the NPG stresses, however, the Chandos portrait is not just a dirty painting:

Tarnya Cooper, the gallery’s curatorial director, admits that the portrait is now “almost a relic”. The original paint was sparsely applied, so today only a thin layer survives. Early restorers made changes to details, such as lengthening the figure’s beard and hair. Retouches have become discoloured, most noticeably on the forehead. Old varnish has deteriorated, giving the picture a darker and yellow hue.

If the picture were to be cleaned, a very different portrait would therefore emerge. The beard would look less hipster-ish, and the hair would lose its thespian length. Shakespeare would look far more like an ordinary, bald, middle-aged Tudor. Could we cope with that?

I hope so. While I always appreciate the argument that later accretions are part of a paintings' history, I generally find myself thinking that where possible we should go back to the original. The Chandos portrait was never a great work of art, but in this case restoration is not intended to do justice to the artist, but to the sitter. Think how exciting it would be to excavate the true face of Shakespeare.

Of course, the pre-eminent consideration must be - is it possible to safely remove the various layers of dirt, overpaint and varnish? If anyone can work that out, it will be the expert curators and conservators at the NPG. I hope the trustees back the opinion of their staff. But it won't be an easy decision.

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.