A restoration too far?

September 8 2011

Image of A restoration too far?

Picture: Tate

If a third of a painting is missing, should you try and recreate it? Some time ago, I was kindly shown around the conservation studios at Tate Britain. There I saw the above enormous but damaged work by John Martin (1789-1854), The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum.  

The picture was damaged in 1928 when the Thames burst its banks at Millbank. But for the new exhibition, Apocalypse (see below) the Tate has decided not only to clean the surviving portion, but to paint in the missing section using photographs of the original, and another almost identical version. 

I saw the picture after it had been cleaned and re-lined. The stark contrast between the pristine white section of new canvas and the cleaned and brightly coloured remainder was indeed disturbing. But I can't help liking the romanticism of the dirty and damaged picture, above. Writing in the Guardian today, William Feaver argues that the picture should not have been restored:

Earlier this year, in the course of several meetings with Tate Britain curators and conservators, I urged them not to reconstitute the one large missing fragment as they had determined to do. [...]

Waving my arms like one of Martin's prophetic linesmen, I argued repeatedly that such a painting needs not patching up but respect for what it is: a picture of an act of God (or the gods) that happens to have been dealt a titanic whack. It deserves special consideration. The missing area may be considered actual loss visited on a graphic representation of catastrophic loss. Here, after nearly two centuries, Thames embankments and Pompeiian waterfront align. History encircles us. We the onlookers, toeing the touchline between here and then, should surrender to being tantalised. It's a jigsaw lacking a few pieces, a filmic image enlivened with unforeseen jump cuts. The losses jolt the narrative

I'm sure the Tate have done an excellent job - and what an effort for the poor restorer. But for an artist as interested in destruction as John Martin, there is something deliciously appropriate about Feaver's argument, don't you think? 

You can zoom in on the picture pre-conservation here

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