Category: Conservation

Restoring the Armada Portrait

August 20 2017

Video: NMM

The National Maritime Museum's recently acquired Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I has now been sent off for conservation. It will be away for six to nine months.

More about the picture here

Cleaning Hull's Dobson

June 25 2017

Video: ZCZ Films

The Great Waldemar, who is the British 17th Century artist William Dobson's appointed representative on earth, has paid for the conservation of Dobson's 'Portrait of a Musician' in Hull's Ferens Gallery. He's also made the above short film. Bravo Waldemar!

Two for the price of one (ctd.)

May 16 2017

Image of Two for the price of one (ctd.)

Picture: Washington Post

Conservators at the National Gallery of Art in Washington have discovered that a lost portrait (of a woman playing a piano) lies beneath the above 'Ruth and a Boaz' by Frederic Bazille. Since Bazille died at the age of 28, leaving only about 60 paintings, identifying another is quite a coup - even if we can never really see it. More here

Cleaning Dobson

April 11 2017

Image of Cleaning Dobson

Picture: Waldemar Januszczak

The Great Waldemar, who is among many things the world's number one William Dobson fan, has decided to fund the conservation of one of Dobson's most intriguing paintings, Portrait of a Musician, which belongs to the Ferens Gallery in Hull. The painting has been difficult to assess properly in recent years due to layers of dirt and old varnish. AHN looks forward to seeing what the cleaned picture reveals...

Cleaning the Fitzwilliam's Madonnas

March 22 2017

Image of Cleaning the Fitzwilliam's Madonnas

Picture: HKI

Conservators at the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge spent almost 600 hours preparing a series of Madonnas for exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum. 'Madonnas and Miracles' opens on March 7th. More here

Van Dyck's fingerprint?

March 22 2017

Image of Van Dyck's fingerprint?

Picture: JVDPPP

The Jordaens/Van Dyck Panel Paintings Project has discovered what may well be one of Van Dyck's fingerprints on a painting of St Thomas. If anyone has any other examples, let them know. I've seen two in my time, on a Henrietta Maria and a Flemish clerical painting. Whether they are Van Dyck's himself, or an assistant picking up a wet painting is hard to prove. It's Van Dyck's birthday today by the way - many happy returns Antoon. 

Conservators, look away now.

January 31 2017

Image of Conservators, look away now.

Picture: Maaike Dirkx

This unsettling piece of plumbing was spotted in a church in Bucharest by by the Dutch art historian Maaike Dirkx (here on Twitter).

Re-stocking a stately

January 8 2017

Image of Re-stocking a stately

Picture: NT

Croome Court in Worcestershire is one of the National Trust's more recent additions: the management of the house was taken over by them in 2007. The house did not come with a collection, but now around 1200 items, including a number of pictures, have been returned to the house and will be gradually put on display. More here

Bowes Museum acquires rare Bouts (ctd.)

January 6 2017

Video: National Gallery

Last year, the Bowes Museum in the UK acquired a panel painting by Dieric Bouts the Elder and his Workshop. In the above video, Rachel Billinge of the National Gallery's conservation department gives the painting a thorough technical assessment to find out how it was made.

£4m Government Indemnity payout for Zoffany

January 4 2017

Image of £4m Government Indemnity payout for Zoffany

Picture: TAN

Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper reports that the UK government will have to pay out £4m to the owners of a painting by Zoffany (above) that was destroyed in the tragic fire at Clandon Park. The payout will be made directly by the Treasury, as the picture (on loan from a private collection) was covered by the Government Indemnity scheme. This allows museums to cover the risk of damage or loss to a painting, without paying an insurance premium. The government - ie, taxpayers - assumes all the risk. The scheme is vital for exhibitions and loans in the UK. The fact that the payout is, as TAN reports, the highest ever made, tells us a great deal about the success of the scheme. For £4m is not really a significant sum, in relation to all the works of art that have been covered over the years. 


December 22 2016

Image of Poocasso

Picture: Picasso Museum

Writing in The Art Newspaper, Diana Widmaier Picasso reveals that Picasso sometimes liked to paint with human excrement. He particularly favoured:

[...] excrement produced by his daughter Maya (my mother [above]), then aged three, to make an apple in a Still Life, dated 1938. According to him, excrement from an infant breast-fed by its mother had a unique texture and ochre colour. 

Get out of that one, conservators.

Rubens' self-portrait to be restored

December 13 2016

Image of Rubens' self-portrait to be restored

Picture: Rubenshuis

I was glad to discover that one of the Rubenshuis museum's star pictures - his c.1630 self-portrait - is to be restored. At the moment it is rather obscured by a thick and plastic-looking layer of varnish, which in normal viewing conditions has the effect of deadening the painting. The varnish, one of the newer 'synthetic' varnishes, was applied no doubt with good intentions during an earlier restoration, in the hope of avoiding the fate of traditional organic varnishes, which go yellow.

As is so often the case in conservation, every generation of restorer's is convinced they've got the best solution to a problem. But in fact they're just storing up trouble for the next generation of conservators.

The picture will leave the Rubenshuis in January, and be back on display in 2018.

Art history miracles (ctd.)

November 30 2016

Image of Art history miracles (ctd.)


A Jeff Koons 'balloon dog' has been damaged at Miami Art Basel. Apparently “it just fell out of the display” , according to a witness. More here.

Louvre reveals St John Baptist clean

November 7 2016

Image of Louvre reveals St John Baptist clean

Picture: Figaro

Le Figaro has new photos of the Louvre's St John the Baptist by Leonardo, which has undergone cleaning for the first time in decades. The beginning of the process was met with concerns that the job might be botched. But as the photos (better here) seem to suggest, the picture has only been part cleaned, and many older layers of varnish are still in place. The fact that it's not entirely clear which photo shows the picture before or after conservation is probably a good thing. The picture will go on display on Wednesday.

Vasari's Last Supper rises again

November 7 2016

Image of Vasari's Last Supper rises again

Pictures: TAN

A Last Supper by Vasari, which was submerged for 12 hours during the terrible flooding in Florence in 1966, has now gone back on display after conservation. This time there is a special gadget to raise the picture, should the Arno break its banks again. More details here.

Musée D'Orsay puts conservation on show

August 16 2016

Image of Musée D'Orsay puts conservation on show

Picture: NYT

The New York Times reports on the Musée D'Orsay's decision to let visitors see the cleaning of works such as Auguste-Barthélemy Glaize's 'Women of Gaul'. I'm always in favour of this sort of thing - it not only encourages visitors to look more closely at pictures, but can also help demystify the science of conservation.

Letting the public see the cleaning, however, is not to every conservator's taste:

For the conservators — a profession dominated by women — the attention to such a solitary métier is gratifying. But they were trained to use swabs and tools to thin and swipe away old varnish. Many found it difficult to cope with waves of noise, abrupt public announcements and, sometimes, rapping against the protective glass cube. Not to mention the limits on their use of chemical solvents because of their proximity to the public.

Laurence Didier, who leads the independent team of 13 conservators restoring “The Women of Gaul,” had never worked in public before. She said that it took time to become accustomed to an audience, even though conservators faced the canvas with their backs to visitors.

“Everyone is different and has their own style,” she said. “I need absolute calm, and so I have my headphones playing Baroque music or Vivaldi.”

Cécile Bringuier, who leads the second team on the Courbet restoration, also said she is not a fan of conservators on display. “Would you like to be watched while you work?”

Incidentally, that is an interesting remark that conservators are mostly women: it's true, but I've never stopped to think why, or when that became so. Anyone have any thoughts?

Update - a reader writes:


Update II - another reader writes:

Regarding why more women work in conservation than men: more women study Art History, and therefore there are more women to go into conservation - you usually need an Art History degree before you can do post-graduate studies in conservation. What I found interesting when I studied (which was over a decade ago) was the ratio of men to women - more women were studying art history than men, more women were teaching than men, but more men in the institution were Professors and also more men ran major art institutions and galleries. I don't know if these stats still stand, or are international, but they were the reality when I was a student. The only area wholly dominated by women was Conservation. I know the TV is now spattered with female historians and curators etc. but I don't know how that stacks up in the Art History world, having been out of it for so long. There seem to be limited male art historians on TV (presenting whole series) and they don't seem to be of a Phd level or higher - but journalists, while the women on TV seem to be curators or university tutors/ fellows etc. 

These are just my observations as a (now) armchair Art Historian. 

Please, don't touch...

August 8 2016

Video: You Tube

The New York Times looks at recent cases of visitors getting too close to museum exhibits, including the above disaster at the National Watch and Clock Museum in the US. The article cites this view as to why such things happen:

Steve Keller, who has worked in museum security since 1979, said the phenomenon of visitors’ defacing exhibits has been going on for years. He linked their actions to mental instability, a lack of appreciation of art or sheer ignorance.

Which sounds harsh, but is probably true.

The last time I was in the Louvre I saw a visitor vigorously rub the impasto on a painting by John Constable, and then compare it with the surface of a Turner hanging nearby. I gave them what for. 

Personally, I don't mind pictures being glazed, as long as it's done well. I recently visited the Queen's Gallery here in Edinburgh at Holyrood, to see the excellent exhibition Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer,* where every picture was glazed. But it was done so expertly, with perfect lighting, that it was impossible to tell at a normal viewing angle. If this is the price we have to pay to protect our finest pictures from the mad and the ignorant, then so be it. 

*Now at the Mauritshuis in The Hague.

George Stubbs and the use of wax

August 8 2016

Image of George Stubbs and the use of wax

Picture: NMM

The 18th Century animal painter George Stubbs is one of the most fiendishly difficult artists to deal with when it comes to conservation. He often used to mix wax in with his paints, which makes his paintings particularly vulnerable to the sort of solvents restorers usually use. Consequently, many Stubbs pictures are in bad condition. I once heard of a Stubbs that had been accidentally left in front of a sunny window in a New York auction house - parts of it literally melted. When I'm asked about cleaning works by Stubbs my advice is usually to leave things as they are. 

Happily, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (owner of Stubbs' Dingo, above) is doing its bit to publicise Stubbs' use of wax at a day long symposium on 14th October. More details here

Update - a reader writes:

Surely that "Dingo" is a Falklands Wolf, painted by Stubbs in 1772 from a preserved body brought back by Banks when the Endeavor completed its round-the-world trip in 1771. 

Perhaps Australia should feel only half bad that they didn't get the paintings after all.

Recreating a lost Degas

August 8 2016

Image of Recreating a lost Degas

Pictures: NY Times

I've been amazed by the digital recreation (above right) of an over-painted portrait by Degas, made possible by the sort of thing they only discuss at Cern, a particle accelerator. The New York Times has the story:

For decades, a mysterious black stain has been spreading across the face of an anonymous woman in Australia [below]. She is the subject of a painting by Edgar Degas, the French Impressionist painter, and since the 1920s, the oil paints in her portrait have gradually faded, revealing the hints of another, hidden portrait underneath.

Until recently, attempts to capture the image underlying “Portrait of a Woman” with conventional X-ray and infrared techniques have only yielded the shadowy outline of another woman. In a study published on Thursday, however, a team of researchers reports that they have revealed the hidden layer underneath the painting, which hangs in the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia, at a very high resolution. It seems to be a portrait of Emma Dobigny, a model who was a favored subject of Degas. [...]

To get their high-resolution image, the research team used a type of particle accelerator called a synchrotron. Synchrotrons are sources of extremely high-energy light. They work by directing that light, which is a million times brighter than the sun, into an X-ray beam that’s one tenth the diameter of a human hair.

Les inondations

June 6 2016

A Montargis, les oeuvres d'art du musée Girodet abîmées

Video: France 3

The Louvre looks to be safe, but the Chateau de Chambord has been flooded (drone footage here), and so have the store rooms of the Musée Girodet in Montargis. In the video above, staff can be seem gamely trying to wash the mud from various paintings. More here.

Update - There was no damage at the Chateau de Chambord - they tell me via Twitter - and it is open again. Splendide.

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