Category: Conservation

'The First Actresses' exhibition

October 20 2011

Image of 'The First Actresses' exhibition

Picture: National Portrait Gallery, London

I saw the National Portrait Gallery's new 'First Actresses' exhibition yesterday. It's well worth a visit; a nicely set out show of celebrated actresses from the 17th and 18th Centuries, from Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons. The exhibition's curators have selected some fine works. The highlights for me were two of Gainsborough's finest full-lengths, Madame Baccelli (Tate) and Elizabeth Linley, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The NPG have also rebuilt their temporary exhibition space, with great success.

The catalogue has some informative contributions, and sets out actress's (sometimes precarious) place in society with clarity and panache. However, if you're interested in the portraits themselves - say, their provenance or the circumstances surrounding their creation - then you'll be disappointed. I looked in vain for any information on the newly discovered portrait of Nell Gwyn. Both catalogue and exhibition are devoid of any meaningful research on the artist's role in the portraits. And surely it was thanks in part to the artists that the actresses achieved their fame (not least when it came to popular engravings). Some might say this is worrying in the National Portrait Gallery, and perhaps tellingly two portraits are exhibited with tentative attributions (and there's at least one attribution I have great trouble believing). Where have all the portrait experts gone?  

Before I start ranting about connoisseurship again (and it really doesn't detract from this splendid exhibition), let me turn to condition. The two Gainsborough full-lengths here are in excellent preservation, and hung low so you can really look into them - a great treat. Likewise, George Romney's Emma Hamilton on loan from Kenwood House is, in its uncleaned but readable state, a glowing endorsement of what is called 'country house condition'. Sadly, the same can't be said of Verelst's daring and beautiful portrait of the naked Nell Gwyn. This has been cleaned for the exhibition, and, as can be glimpsed from the photo above, has lost something of its original delicacy. Verelst is known for his porcelaineous finish and crisp drawing, as can be seen in Nell's hand. But while the picture may have been succesfully cleaned, its restoration, the process of repairing the damaged and missing areas of original paint, leaves something to be desired. For example, there are too many missing glazes, such that the curls in her hair and the shadows around her face don't read as they should. Even the purple drapery looks overly bruised and damaged. 

Succesful conservation is about so much more than technical skill - it requires a degree of artistry, and a sense of art history, that not all conservators are blessed with. Those restorers who lack that artistic feel often make a conscious decision to leave damage exposed - and call this approach 'minimal intervention'. But, while nobody likes an over-restored picture, there is a middle ground, which involves the careful re-introduction of retouching medium in the manner the artist would have intended.

The most succesful conservation is often a collaboration between restorer and expert, rather like a talented violinist under the guidance of a veteran conductor. The conductor may not be able to play the violin themselves, but in having spent their whole life studying, say, Beethoven, knows better than the violinist how the bare notes on a page should translate into a characterful performance. In Nell Gwyn's case, therefore, a quick refresher course in Verelst might reveal where the picture would benefit from judicious intervention - a retouch here, and a glaze there, and suddenly a picture can be transformed.  

The Louvre cleans a Leonardo

October 15 2011

Image of The Louvre cleans a Leonardo

Picture: Figaro

Exciting news - the Louvre has released some images of its restoration of Leonardo's Virgin and Child with St Anne. You can zoom in on what it used to look like here

The Louvre is famously averse to cleaning pictures. Some (including me) would say that the Louvre's keep-em-dirty approach has paid off, for wandering around the collection today it is noticeable that the pictures are generally in exceptional condition. Ov average, the collection is in better condition than that of the National Gallery, which was one of the first public galleries to start cleaning pictures, often with disastrous consequences. These days, happily, cleaning techniques are advanced enough for us to be sure of doing as little permanent damage as possible.

Look at this painting - did you notice the missing piece?

October 6 2011

Image of Look at this painting - did you notice the missing piece?

Picture: Tate

As I mentioned earlier, the Tate has restored the missing section of John Martin's Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The decision to restore it was undertaken with the help of a vision scientist, Tim Smith, who tracked the eye movements of 20 people to see how they reacted to the damage in the painting. Not surprisingly, they noticed the missing section. He has written an article about the process

The decisions made by conservators when restoring important works of art have a direct influence on how the final painting will be perceived and there is a lot of psychological insight that can inform this process. For example, computational models of visual attention can tell a conservator whether a crack or the loss of a segment is likely to capture the viewer's attention and how this will change depending on the context in which the painting is viewed.

For the damaged John Martin we decided to compare how viewers attended to and made sense of different digital reconstructions of the painting by recording viewer eye movements. An eyetracker uses high-speed infrared cameras to record where a person looks on a screen. This allowed the TATE to foresee how viewers might attend to the final product before embarking on costly and time-consuming work on the painting itself.


In the neutral version of the painting the mouth of the volcano and part of the city is lost and instead the viewer dwells on the edges of the loss, spending significantly less time on the foreground figures. The consequence of the different gaze pattern is that when asked to describe the content of the painting, viewers of the unreconstructed version did not realise it was a painting of an erupting volcano. The painting had lost its meaning and viewers could not view it as originally intended by Martin.

The difference in gaze behaviour between the completely restored and unrestored (neutrally filled) versions confirmed our intuitions about how destructive the loss was. [...]

Isn't this an explanation of the bleedin' obvious? I'd love to know if this exercise cost the Tate anything. 

The biter bit

October 3 2011

Image of The biter bit

Picture: BBC

From BBC Bristol:

An artwork by street artist Banksy in Bristol has been painted over in an incident described by residents as an "act of vandalism".

The painting, opposite Bristol Children's Hospital, is of a crouched armed police officer, with a child about to burst a paper bag behind him.

The picture first appeared on Upper Maudlin Street four years ago. It has now been covered in black. It is not yet known if the black paint can be removed.

The search for Leonardo's lost masterpiece

September 23 2011

Leonardo's greatest lost work is his Battle of Anghiari, painted in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. Many scholars believe the painting survives, hidden beneath Giorgio Vasari's murals in the Hall of Five Hundred. Recently, it was discovered that behind Vasari's paintings is a gap, with a space 1 - 3cm deep before the main wall. Did Vasari deliberately create this gap to avoid painting over Leonardo's work? I've always thought it possible, given Vasari's interest in preservation.

Now, a group of experts is trying to use specialist scanning equipment to peer through Vasari's murals, in an attempt to solve the mystery. Fellow blogger Hasan Niyazi has posted an interview with one of the team behind the search, over at Three Pipe Problem.

No breasts please, we're Methodists

September 21 2011

Image of No breasts please, we're Methodists

Picture: Phil Yeoman/BNPS

From The Guardian:

A statue of a bare-breasted woman whose torso was discreetly covered for centuries has been found in a Bristol church house where John Wesley worshipped. There is speculation that the half-clad figure was considered too much of a distraction for Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and his followers. The figure, holding a cornucopia of fruit, is suspected to be Abundantia – a Roman personification of abundance and prosperity.

A reader writes:

Of course the article doesn't tell us what we really want to know - who is sable between three scallop shells argent a chevron of the second.

Quite. Any heralds out there?

Before and after

September 20 2011

Image of Before and after

Picture: Tate

The Tate has unveiled their newly restored painting by John Martin, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. For more on the story, see here

Goya X-ray revelation

September 20 2011

Image of Goya X-ray revelation

Picture: Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum has discovered a partially completed portrait beneath its portrait of Don Ramon Satue. Full details here

Rodin vandalised

September 12 2011

Image of Rodin vandalised


This time the pillocks have struck in Buenos Aires. The graffiti has since been removed, hopefully without damaging the patina.

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

New work by Jean–Léon Gérôme discovered

September 6 2011

Image of New work by Jean–Léon Gérôme discovered

Picture: The Staedel Museum, Frankfurt. 'St Jerome and the Holy Aerobie' 1874 (detail).

The Staedel Museum in Frankfurt has found a lost work by Jean–Léon Gérôme, the French 19th Century artist. It was given to the museum in 1935, but was lost until rediscovered during renovation works. More details here

Vicente Carducho series returns to Spanish monastery

August 3 2011

Image of Vicente Carducho series returns to Spanish monastery

Picture: Hoyesarte

A series of 54 paintings by the 17thC Italian artist Vicente Carducho has been reassembled in a Spanish monastery, the place of its original commission.

The pictures were first taken away from the monastery La Chartreuse del Paular in 1835, but have now been returned and restored. The pictures depict the life of St Bruno and other celebrated Carthusian monks. Full details here (in Spanish)

How the Leonardo show was put together

July 29 2011

Richard Dorment has the story behind the loan negotiations in The Telegraph.

Banksy conservation begins

July 26 2011

Image of Banksy conservation begins

Picture: The Drum

Conservation work is progressing on an 'early Banksy' in Bristol, after the owner of the building on which it is painted whitewhased it out. Saheed Ahmed had painted over the graffiti because he 'thought it was worthless', and didn't like the mess. But now, after being told it could be 'worth £100,000', he is paying to have the whitewash removed (as you can see above).

Here is what the wall looked like with the Banksy.

And here is what it looked like as Whitewash on Stucco Wall, with Bins, 2011, by Saheed Ahmed. Which do you prefer?

I sometimes see Banksys in conservation studios, particularly works on canvas. They don't have a very long shelflife. The spray paint effectively eats the canvas.

Poussin attack - Leonardo exhibition at risk?

July 25 2011

Image of Poussin attack - Leonardo exhibition at risk?

Picture: Guardian

Interesting story in the Independent yesterday about the Poussin attack at the National Gallery - now there are concerns that the loan of Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine could be at risk. The Czartoryski Trust, which owns the picture, is in negotiations with the gallery:

Olga Jaros, who took over as chairman of the foundation, confirmed that a decision had yet to be made, and that a contract has yet to be signed with the National Gallery. "In the light of what happened last weekend at the National Gallery, I have informed the foundation what has happened. We are still in negotiations."

Even before Saturday's attack, concerns had been voiced over the painting's hectic schedule. It is at present on loan to the Palacio Real in Madrid for an exhibition of Polish art treasures. It is then scheduled to visit Berlin before travelling to London.

Obviously, there's a significant difference in risk between a Leonardo in a reinforced glass box, and an un-glazed Poussin. So I hope the Leonardo lenders don't overreact. 

The most worrying aspect, however, is the news that buget cuts have led to a reduction in security guards at the National Gallery, with some having to monitor two rooms. This, if true, is cause for concern - really the protection of the paintings is the National Gallery's number one duty. But I'm afraid that, having seen some of the guards at work, and the ease with which the Poussin was vandalised, a more thorough security overhaul is required. 

David Packwood at Art History Today also discusses the problem here

Pillocks vs Security guards

July 19 2011

Image of Pillocks vs Security guards

Picture: BBC

The pillock who assaulted Rupert Murdoch today shows how difficult it is to stop such nutters. If someone can get a can of shaving foam past security at the Houses of Parliament, and hit Rupert Murdoch on the head with its contents, then the attack on the Poussin looks like childs play.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try and prevent such attacks. To that end, a reader who knows about these things suggests that searches at the National Gallery would be relatively easy to implement. These, he says, are the rules:

Enough staff to prevent queues. No-one likes being searched with an audience so if it gets busy throw more staff at it. Large desk for resting bags etc on and one member of staff doing metal detecting, good equipment needs only a quick sweep, this cuts out spray cans.

Options for paint become very difficult. Stand in front of a picture, heart racing and try to throw paint from a container. It can be very difficult.

Always have an extra staff member just watching and taking no part in the search, absolutely vital this.

Properly done this should cause minimal inconvenience and can be very strong deterrent. It need not cost the earth.

One last thing. Target art is invariable 'cased' in advance. This is when CCTV comes into it's own and a good operator knows his area.

There is tracking software available but I don't think it has ever been used in a museum context.

Top marks, incidentally, to Mrs Rupert Murdoch (in pink) for retaliating against today's pillock. Both the National Gallery and the Houses of Parliament should hire her to train their security guards.

PS - if you're wondering what the tapestry is, The Art Newspaper has the answer here.

Poussin attack - not the first time

July 18 2011

Image of Poussin attack - not the first time

Picture: Guardian

I'm grateful to two readers who have written to say that the Adoration of the Golden Calf has been attacked before, in 1978. Yesterday, I said wrongly that it had survived 'unmolested' until the most recent debacle.

The 1978 attack is chronicled in Adrienne Corri's engaging book, The Search for Gainsborough. Here is her fascinating diary entry for the day after the attack, when she happened to be going to the National Gallery to do some research on Gainsborough:

Everyone was in tears, even strong guards! [...]

Someone had slashed the Poussin Moses and the Children of Israel Worshipping the Golden Calf. It is one of the gallery's great treasures, one of the world's greatest pictures, or rather, was. They had closed the main galleries and the police were in charge. The only people not weeping were the science department. They were beside themselves with delight, sweeping up the tiny bits of paint which lay on the ground, and conserving them carefully. now they would know exactly what pigments Poussin used in his paints. It's an ill wind...!

[More below]

Read More

Poussin - It's all going to be ok!

July 18 2011

Image of Poussin - It's all going to be ok!

Picture: Guardian

Here's a statement from the National Gallery:

At 5.08pm on Saturday 16 July 2011, a panic alarm was set off in Room 19 of the National Gallery. A Gallery Assistant acted promptly and triggered the alarm after observing a person appearing to spray two of the paintings in the room with an aerosol can.

The police were called at 5.10pm and arrived at the National Gallery at 5.19pm. A man has been arrested.

The two paintings involved are both by Nicholas Poussin, The Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633-4) and The Adoration of the Shepherds (1633-4). Both works are part of the National Gallery permanent collection.

Prompt action by Conservation staff has ensured very little damage was sustained by the two works.

They will be returned to display in Room 19 of the National Gallery on Monday 18 July 2011.

What a relief. And three cheers for the National Gallery's conservation staff for saving the day.

I wonder what paint the vandal used. If normal spray paint, of the type you use for your car, then one presumes it would have been very difficult to avoid serious damage to the original layers beneath. Perhaps (although I know it is dangerous to speculate) a far less harmful type of spray was used.

Either way, the culprit should be strongly punished as a deterrent. We cannot risk similar pranks in future, just for publicity. And of course, it is worth mentioning that vandalising old paintings is being done these days in the name of contemporary art, by the likes of Banksy. The problem is, if the 'damage' sustained was not serious, and amounts to less than £5000, then the maximum sentence is just three months and a fine of £2,500. It is conceivable, therefore, that whoever did this could get away with a very light punishment for his 15 minutes of fame.

Poussin attack - the security implications

July 18 2011

Image of Poussin attack - the security implications

Picture: National Gallery (detail of floorplan)

I went to see the scene of the crime today. The two Poussins are fine, no trace of damage. The vandal must have used a water-based paint that did not penetrate the varnish, or something similarly removable. The National Gallery will not give out any further details. Nevertheless, the punishment surely should reflect the potential damage, not just the actual damage, if it is to act as any meaningful deterrent. 

Having seen Room 19, where the pictures are, I think there are legitimate questions over security at the Gallery. The Golden Calf is a large picture, over two metres wide, and is hung at the end of the room (the red dot, above). The Adoration of the Shepherds, the other Poussin attacked, is to the right, some paces away (the blue dot). The room guard is placed at the end of the normally quite empty room, say some 20m away (the black dot), and stares straight at the Adoration of the Golden Calf. I wasn't there when it happened, of course, but one must wonder how the villain was able to comprehensively spray not one but two pictures before being stopped.

Jonathan Jones at The Guardian says we should step up security dramatically, and makes the comparison with the Louvre, where they x-ray all bags:

A painting like Poussin's Golden Calf is made by a great artist, cherished by owners, and miraculously preserved down the centuries. It is looked after in a museum, cleaned, studied, and silently enjoyed by thousands. And then in an instant someone can brutally attack this venerable human creation and make a vile mark on it.

That cannot be allowed, and modern society cannot be trusted – there is too much craziness out there. Museums should be more severe on visitors. No visitor gets into the Louvre without a security scan. It looks like no one should get into the National Gallery without such scrutiny either. If this is too expensive, museums should charge to cover the costs. Free museums are very fine. But what is the point if people just come in and desecrate the world's cultural heritage? Charge, search, protect.

Meanwhile, a reader with great experience of these things has kindly sent me this insightful view:

Your article [...] illustrates very well the almost impossible task of protecting public art and keeping works on view to that public. It is a delicate balance! As an ex Police officer, ex Christies Porter[...] I am, possibly in a unique position to see the argument on both sides.

[More below]

Read More

Appalling vandalism at the National Gallery

July 17 2011

Image of Appalling vandalism at the National Gallery

Picture: Guardian

Nicolas Poussin's masterpiece, Adoration of the Golden Calf, has been vandalised and sprayed with red paint. The attack happened at the National Gallery, London, yesterday at about 5pm. Aparently another smaller picture was also attacked, but the details of this have not been released. The Guardian reports:

Witnesses reported seeing a man spraying the paintings with a canister as security guards rushed over before detaining him in the room and contacting police. Five officers later came to arrest the man, who is thought to be French.

This is an act of reprehensible stupidity, which I find almost impossible to comprehend. How could anybody do something so pointless and deranged? The picture has survived unmolested for nearly 400 years, and is now possibly damaged forever just because some nutter decided he wanted to make a point.

Obviously, he should be jailed for a long time. The maximum sentence for criminal damage in this respect is ten years. There is a special section of criminal damage for 'heritage items', but oddly enough this does not include paintings.

My immediate worry is obviously the damage to the picture. If regular spray-paint was used, then who knows how much damaged will have been done. Our best hope is that this French pillock used an easily removable type of paint. 

The next question must be how was this allowed to happen? It does not look as if it was the work of a moment, especially if two pictures were damaged. Being a security guard can be a tedious job, but that doesn't excuse those at the National sitting there playing sudoku, as I've seen before.

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