One of those botched restorations, the Spanish St George sculpture, was reported as having been ‘unrestored’ recently, meaning that the overpaint that had been so liberally daubed over the original had been removed and the whole thing had been more sympathetically and expertly treated. It’s a bit of a clumsy term, but I know what they are trying to say. It reminded me of a couple of paintings I’ve had through my studio, which had been ‘restored’ to within an inch of their lives. Whoever had had them last had almost completely repainted parts of them, which I suppose is where people get the idea that that’s what I do (I don’t). It can be a bit tricky when something has had too much done, because I can’t be certain of what will be left underneath. Often they are heavily damaged, but there is almost always more original material under the over-zealous restorer’s work than the extensive treatment would suggest.

This portrait on panel had a long split running through the centre. The edges of the split were uneven, so the previous restorer had filled over original material to smooth the surface. However, once they’d done that they’d covered the original nose up with filler and had to make one up. The one they painted was facing the wrong way, with both nostrils visible where there should only be one. When I removed the overpaint and excess fill, I found that the original nose was almost completely intact, there was little evidence to support such a strong shadow on the forehead or the eyelid. Although the surface, with the big step between the one side of the crack and the other, is still visually problematic, my minimal filling and retouching mean that much more of the original artist’s work can be seen and, I hope, enjoyed.

Another unrestoring job, from very early in my career, was this portrait of a male sitter. This chap had been smoothed out all over: given a new hair do, a bigger chin and a new sleeve that didn’t quite make sense. My client wanted to see what was really there, so I undertook to remove all of the previous restorations. I found that the painting had been severely over-cleaned before it was overpainted (not necessarily by the same person). It is quite daunting to take something that looks whole (for all that it is obviously not original) and make it look ‘worse’. However, the surviving paint was so much more delicate and translucent than the restorer’s opaque work that removing it gave the painting back its quality. The retouching was quite difficult, with such extensive areas of loss to tackle with my tiny brush, but by ‘knocking back’ the bare wood with colour, I was able to bridge the gaps and discover what remained. Importantly, I didn’t try to invent what I thought should have been there or attempt to make it look ‘as good as new’.

Having pointed out what a excessive, incoherent and unsympathetic work these other restorers have done, I should say that the restorations were easily reversible without damage to the original. This is where my two ‘unrestorations’ depart from the headline grabbers, which have been further damaged as well as disfigured by inexpert hands. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, please don’t try this at home!

Tiny brushes

Box of brushes

I posted a while back in reaction to the whole “how have you got the patience to use such tiny brushes?” thing, saying that I also do some fairly heavy-duty stuff too. These blog posts are always quite heavily influenced by what I’m working on in the moment, and perhaps I didn’t explore the rationale and the usefulness of using such tiny brushes for retouching. It was only after having to give a talk about a recently finished project that made me really think about how to explain the process of retouching and how I approach it. I know that people do things differently through the field, so this is very much a personal account, rather than a more general explanation of the professional practice.

Retouching is hugely important and often controversial. The human eye is extremely sensitive to damage, to the thing that is not “right”. A painting can be 99.9% intact but the viewer will usually find the 0.1% that is damaged. When the viewer spots this imperfection they will, likely as not, be wondering what happened, and the illusion of the painting (its purpose) is lost; forgotten. (To be honest, this has made my ability to enjoy looking at a painting as a punter more difficult, but I’m starting to get it back.) By removing or reducing a distracting blemish, the painting can function as it  was intended. However, when people see a painting in its unretouched state, they can sometimes come to think that the work of the conservator is dishonest; making the painting appear whole when it is not. Think of the Salvator Mundi, bought for $450m yet having its authenticity questioned in part because of photographs of its unretouched condition.

As an art historian, rather than a painter, I have learnt to paint through retouching, rather than bringing painterly knowledge and experience to my retouching. My earliest attempts at retouching were thwarted by completely practical things, like not knowing the consistency of the medium and the ratio of pigment to binder, resulting in being unable to get any colour at all to come off the brush and onto the fill; nevermind getting the right colour or achieving the correct level of gloss. Once I did get the paint to transfer there are all of these other factors to take into account, such as transparency and covering power, metamerism, and the dreaded (and useful) turbid medium effect.

There have been different ideas about ‘best practice’ in retouching over the years. People have debated whether or not the retouching should completely disappear or whether it should subtly differ from the original, to make it clear what is the work of the restorer. Conservators talk about “six feet/six inches”: the retouching should not be visible from a viewing distance of six feet but can (maybe even should?) be visible from a viewing distance of six inches.

So there are quite a number of practical variables in play already before I even get to what it is I’m supposed to be filling in this gap with. Sometimes it’s a fairly small loss that needs one colour painting in just to knock it back. Other times there are a lot of lines or colours that will help to reintegrate a loss. On still further occasions, perhaps for more extensive loss or loss in a significant area, such as a face, all I can do is feel my way. Using my tiny brush, I try to match a colour in the surviving paint and dot-in from the edge. As I take out the distracting white fill, it becomes more obvious to me what is going on and what should be there. As I match the colours I can find existing areas on the other side of the gap, and see whether they need to be joined up. It can be daunting to attempt to reintegrate some missing lips, for example (below a detail from a heavily damaged Madonna and Child), but not to attempt it would be deeply unsatisfactory.

Something else that I always have to do when I’m retouching is to step back. I have to read the composition to make sure, especially when retouching abrasions and scratches, that they are damage and not, in fact, intentional. A dropped quill in one of my most recent paintings could have easily been mistaken for a scratch and painted out.

Detail of The Central Executive Cotton Famine Relief Committee by Arthur Hughes et al showing a dropped quill, which could have been mistaken for a scratch.

What helps soothe my nerves, when I am carrying out more significant retouching, is that my work is reversible. I do what I think is right, both by the painting and by professional standards, but I also do what can be undone. Should someone down the line find that I have got it wrong, they can remove my retouching without damage to the original, and embark on new treatment as they see fit.

So I use my tiny brushes so that I can stay within the lines of the fill and so that I can incrementally discover what may have been there before. And, yes, it does take patience and I do need a steady hand.


As I was first finding out about conservation one of the things that struck me was all the cooking up of concoctions that has to be done. And what concoctions- rabbit skin glue, animal glue, fish glue, beaver glue (this one was actually a mishearing of BEVA). And if it’s not based on an ancient traditional recipe involving part of an animal then it’s futuristic and scientific- Paraloid B72, MS2A, Laropal A81, BEVA 371, Plextol, Regalrez.

Most if not all conservators have a collection of rather unappetising recipes that they will be called upon to cook on a more or less frequent basis depending on what they’re working on. Some of these collections are organised in a special recipe books, very much the preserve of an individual.  Others are scraps of stained and aged paper in different peoples’ handwriting that act as a tangible history of conservation as well as history of the studio. Others still are taped inside the solvent cupboard so that anyone making the stock solution for whatever the favoured varnish is can just add more to the massive jar.

In a fairly young profession like conservation materials come in and out of favour, depending on new research or practical experience. Some of the materials once considered standard are either now out of commission for ethical reasons, perhaps concerns over reversibility or ‘re-treatability’. Wax-resin is a good example of this. It was used widely in the mid- to late twentieth century as a good solution to the problem of moisture response and susceptibility to mould of the earlier lining-material-of-choice glue-paste (glue-paste is still used at the National Gallery now). The problem is that once the wax has impregnated the canvas it’s not coming out again and the whole painting is now susceptible to deformations associated with heat among other things. Other times there are supply-chain issues. Such as a reported scarcity of isinglass (glue made from the dried swim-bladders of Russian sturgeon fish) brought on by the Cold War*; or MS2A, (a resin used for varnishes that is the by-product of some industrial process that I don’t know about) which first became cripplingly expensive when it had to be made as a product in itself due to changes in whatever process it was the by-product of by one man who has now retired, taking it from expensive to unavailable without a great deal of warning.

Increasingly the materials and supplies needed are becoming harder to find. In a niche profession there aren’t multiple suppliers of the things we need, which means that we are reliant on small companies and individuals. Changes in the ethics of treating pictures, with a move towards ‘minimal intervention’, means that the suppliers of previously highly demanded materials are no longer seeing that demand and are cutting conservation lines as they aren’t cost effective to produce or stock. But it’s not all doom and gloom. For all of the problems with supply that I have had in the past year I have been helped by the wider community of conservators.

Another increasingly prevalent issue with materials is sustainability. Not only are some of the materials conservators use bad for the user but they are bad for the environment. In a world becoming more conscious of bio-diversity as well as Health and Safety people are looking for alternatives to some of the solvents and materials we are using (I’m looking at you again, isinglass).

It can be daunting trying to get to grips with something unfamiliar, especially when you work on your own like I do, but it’s so important to keep up-to-date, reach out to others and to try some new recipes.

Here is a link to see how they make up very beautiful and orderly isinglass flakes at the conservation department at John Rylands Library. Next time I need to make a batch I’m going to do it their way.

*I can’t find a reference for this at the moment but I don’t think I’ve made it up. I’ll look in some actual books instead of just Googling.

Greener conservation?

With the Extinction Rebellion happenings of the past week I have turned my thoughts to my own contributions to climate change. It’s sort of funny that I have flippantly told people that the conservation I do isn’t the “saving pandas” kind, but I’ve not really considered the footprint of my work. My whole purpose is to make things, art, last longer so that people can continue to engage with and be enriched by them in the future, which rather takes the future for granted.

At home I’ve long been a keen recycler but over about the past six months I’ve been concentrating on reducing rather than relying on recycling. It’s been quite effective to the point where my son’s school are collecting Ecobricks and we didn’t have a plastic bottle to fill for about 2 months. At work, however, it’s a different story. I make a bit of an effort to recycle boxes and I save things that I can use again- empty jars, off-cuts of materials that might be big enough to use for something else, gloves that have only been worn once- but I still create quite a lot of hard to recycle waste, particularly dirty cotton wool, nitrile gloves, parcel tape and polythene. I’m careful and responsible in how I dispose of my rubbish but is that really enough? What can I do to reduce the amount I send to landfill?

There’s a group called Sustainability in Conservation who are based in the US and have been much quicker on the uptake than me. I’ve known about them for a while but it’s only more recently that I’ve started to look at their resources for ways that I can improve. From their website I’ve found that there are schemes in the UK for recycling used gloves, so that’s one thing I can start doing. I’ll have to keep looking to find out what else can be done with my grotty swabs, or if there’s a good reusable alternative to cotton wool out there. Any suggestions would be gratefully received.

Are you doing anything to reduce waste at work?

Getting together

As an independent conservator and lone worker I sometimes miss the opportunity to connect with other people at work, whether just a chat over a coffee or getting heads together to solve a problem.

One of the ways I get round this is making sure that I get out to conferences where I can hear good speakers talking about things that are relevant or interesting to me and chat to others in a similar position. Luckily I’ve managed to get to two conferences in the last six months, which were two quite different affairs.

The first, in the autumn was the ICON Paintings Group conference in Edinburgh on the subject of “Wet Paint”. It was niche and I’d be surprised if there were many conservators from other disciplines there, never mind anyone from outside the profession. It was a brilliant programme full of inspiring and informative talks by other paintings conservators. Friends who I trained with and others who I’ve worked with were there, which made it an opportunity to catch up as well as to learn (plus the Paintings Group organisers have a wonderfully convivial attitude to the post-conference refreshments). I came home feeling like it was time well spent and enthused to find out more about some of the new treatments I’d heard about.

Last week I went to a conference organised by the Museum Freelance Network in Manchester. This is a group that I’ve only known about for about a year and, while still quite niche, has a broader range of museum professionals, mostly freelance sole-traders like me but not many other conservators. The subject of the day was Agents of Change and the speakers brought different points of view to the emotive and sometimes challenging subject. Talks were again inspirational and informative but instead of being directly relevant to my skills they were directly relevant to my mode of working. One of the lovely images I’ve come away with came from a comment from the floor about what freelancers bring in the form of ideas and best practice from organisation to organisation and describing us as ‘pollinators’, which I found particularly apt in Manchester where the city’s symbol is a bee. Again I’ve come away from the conference with my head full of things to look into and new things to try, but also with the knowledge that there are more of us independent museum people out there than I had realised.

One of the speakers at the Agents of Change conference, Caroline Newns, had a nice analogy for self-employment with expertise as petrol and the business as the vehicle. If I keep going to engaging, inspiring and informative conferences like the last two I should be going the right way to keeping my vehicle on the road.


Happy New Year!

2019 is off to a busy start so I’ve had to hit the ground running. My first job of the year was to prepare a painting for loan by doing a small repair- reattaching a small piece of paint that had come off but was still in the frame. Unfortunately the small loss was just the first indication of a more serious problem and by the time the painting got to the studio the small repair had turned into a big one– one of the panels had become detached from the rest! It’s back in one piece now and so I’ll get on with sorting out the paint loss and its documentation before it goes off on its loan at the end of January.

Setting up the two pieces of panel for re-joining


Next month holds another challenge- the biggest painting I’ve ever worked on in my studio. It’s a 3.5m long behemoth of a group portrait, again getting ready for a loan. Hopefully there won’t be any surprises with this one, but if there are I’ll be ready!

Changing colours

Colours are hugely important in painting, both in terms of aesthetics and for understanding. Colours have been imbued with meaning through the ages, which means that changes in the chemistry can lead to misunderstanding in the interpretation. Sometimes the colour change can be seen at edges that have been exposed to different conditions behind the frame’s rebate. At other times there are clues in the title of the picture that point to discolouration, but other times all of colour has changed and it requires scientific analysis to establish that it has occurred at all.

One of my favourite examples of colour change in a painting making a difference to the interpretation is The National Gallery’s painting by Robert Campin of The Virgin and Child Before a Firescreen, as described in The National Gallery Technical Bulletin Volume 15 from 1994. The Virgin Mary is shown seated reading her prayer book in a white dress. The white dress has connotations of purity, which seems appropriate for the Virgin. Except it wasn’t originally white, it was mauve, which was discovered through microscopic analysis of a paint sample. The pigments used included fugitive red lake and what we end up seeing today is the lead white that was used to make the colour lighter. Purple tones don’t usually signify purity but royalty. It puts a different spin on things.

There are also fugitive yellow pigments, as can be seen at the National Gallery of Scotland in Greuze’s painting A Girl with a Dead Canary, that fade to leave in this case blue leaves and a white canary. Yet further complications can arise when changes in the chemistry of your pigment make its Refractive Index (to do with how it interacts with light) match that of the medium (oil binder) and your paint becomes transparent. This is most often seen in thinly painted white pigments. One example is the semi-transparent newspaper in front of the fire in Sadler’s The End of the Skein at the Lady Lever Gallery. Someone has just published research exploring colour changes in the work of a particular Flemish painter who encountered both of these unlucky colour changes entitled “Blue Cabbages and Invisible Onions”. 

Partially cleaned coat of arms showing discolouration of smalt pigment

I’m working on an early 18th century coat of arms from a church, which shows the Royal Arms of Queen Anne. I must have been looking at it for quite some time before I realised that large parts of the scheme that look white should in fact be blue. In all likelihood this is an example of colour change in an oil painting. A blue pigment called smalt, made of cobalt containing glass, is known to fade to a pinkish grey or brown, and was used widely at this period. While many people associate light exposure with fading, often correctly, it seems that smalt discolours because of humidity in the environment.

The correct colours for the coat of arms

The meaning of the coat of arms isn’t changed as it is still recognisable as the scheme used by Queen Anne, but the visual effect is left wanting. What I find interesting is that the old repairs have tried to match the discolouration, including the yellow varnish, so the change must have occurred quite early in its history. Likewise I won’t retouch the discoloured areas to reflect the original intentions of the artist as this would hide the original material.

So look out for blue leaves and transparent newspapers and remember that you can’t always believe your eyes!

Don’t try this at home

The infamous botched restoration of a fresco in Spain now known as ‘Monkey Jesus’

How do I clean a painting?

The internet is an amazing thing. You can find out how to do pretty much anything just by doing a quick Google search or finding a video on YouTube. There are plenty of ‘how to clean your painting’ videos out there- quite often involving bread- some with bizarre but ultimately not hugely harmful advice and others with DEFINITELY NEVER DO THAT stuff on, like using boiling water to correct the tension in a canvas. Just don’t. There have also been a number of high-profile botched restoration jobs. Monkey Jesus is still my favourite/least favourite but there more recently there have been a couple of polychrome sculpture disasters too. In all of these cases there is a serious problem with what has been added, but there is also a problem with things being taken away- scrubbed with wire wool or a wet cloth or cleaned of final touches.

Conservation on film

In fiction there are a wonderful number of cleaning- a-painting-gone-wrong incidents: the Mr Bean film, the old Paddington Bear, Shaun the Sheep (just a tiny aside at the end of that one when the pigs are cleaning up the house). It seems as though a lot of people know that it’s a delicate job that requires more than just enthusiasm and marmalade, but there are still people out there who get in touch with conservators and are only interested in what they should use at home. I’ve even seen websites offering DIY picture cleaning substances for sale. Going back to fiction, one of the things that bugs me about the depiction of conservation in Ghostbusters II is that Sigourney Weaver’s character is blindly carrying out a varnish removal and says something like “I’m doing well with that mixture you gave me”, as though she doesn’t understand what she’s using or why it might be working. A very wise conservator, when dealing with such an enquiry in my presence, firmly yet politely told the enquirer that it’s not about the ‘what’ it’s about the ‘how’. Of course using the correct materials and tools for the job is important but far more important is that the person wielding them knows what they’re doing and why.

One size doesn’t fit all

Importantly, conservators don’t use a ‘one size fits all’ approach to treating paintings. We are trained to look closely and assess, we research, we aim to understand what we’re dealing with and have learned what is likely to be problematic, we test, we are cautious and work in small areas, and sometimes a painting still doesn’t respond in the way that we expect, we keep abreast of new developments and share findings, in the UK we have an agreed professional code of conduct, we also know how what we are using might damage our health and so take the appropriate precautions. So step away from the wet cloth, the fresh bread, the kettle, the ‘oil paint cleaner’, and please don’t try this at home.

How did you get into THAT?


People often ask how I got into conservation, so here it is. I’ve always loved art, both looking at and making it. At 19 I decided getting a degree and History of Art seemed like a good way to spend the next few years, so started looking around universities at their courses. When I went to see the department at Edinburgh University I was shown the library, the seminar rooms and, down in the basement, the conservation lab. I suppose I must have been aware of ‘restoration’ but before being shown the basement lab in George Square it had never occurred to me that that was something that I might be able to do.

Early in my first term I went to meet my Director of Studies, Dr. Patsy Campbell, who it turned out was the enthusiastic keeper of the conservation lab and gave courses in the History of Conservation until her retirement in 2006. I have since met a number of other conservators who were inspired by Dr Campbell to pursue a career in conservation, both contemporaries of mine and others up to 20 years my senior. During my third or fourth year I took the History of Conservation course, as part of which we could spend some time in the conservation lab working on whatever projects were in. We also went on field trips to the National Galleries of Scotland Conservation Department and to Northumbria University’s MA Conservation of Fine Art open day. The trainee conservators there were divided into two easily identifiable groups: lab coats for those studying Works on Paper and black smocks for Oil Paintings. It was great.

Testing the water

Having studied for four years I wasn’t ready to jump into another two-year course straight away, so after graduation I went home to Manchester. I was wondering whether or not I’d have the patience to work with such tiny brushes when I was (by a rather convoluted route that I won’t go into) given the number of a person who worked at Manchester Art Gallery’s Conservation Department and was happy to accept a volunteer. This was a really lucky break since many places now won’t take a volunteer who hasn’t already been through a training programme. I went to the studios a couple of days a week and had the opportunity to spend time working with the frames conservator, a paper conservator and the paintings conservators (one of whom was a former student of Dr Campbell’s). At the time there was a big project underway in the painting department. William Etty’s huge The Sirens and Ulysses was lying on a specially extended table face down and in the midst of a lining reversal, which involved using a scalpel to flick off the old animal glue, which had once adhered another massive canvas to the original one, from the back of the original canvas. (If you click on the link it will take you through to a video of the project- my glue-flicking cameo is at 1:59.) It’s one of the less glamorous tasks in conservation but I was hooked.


Now that I knew which discipline of conservation I wanted to pursue I was ready to spend two more years studying. I was lucky enough to get a place on the Masters programme at Northumbria. The course was intense, with Chemistry and Physics classes every week, lectures about materials, theory, museum environment management, technical examination, more art history and ethics, as well as practical projects- both real and mock-up paintings. The eight of us on the course worked on different projects and shared our experiences and discoveries.

Burt Hall Gang
My MA Conservation of Fine Art, Easel Paintings buddies

In the summer between the two years of teaching I did work placements in a private studio and a museum department (Manchester City Galleries again, where I was able to assist with the retouching phase of the Etty project), where all of the theory started to fall into place and my confidence really grew.

Post-training experience

Unfortunately the economic crash in 2008 coincided with my entry into the world of work, seriously reducing job opportunities in the museum sector. Nevertheless over the next couple of years I was able to gain experience in at Lancashire County Museums Service as a volunteer, Manchester City Galleries as a freelancer, and then a maternity- cover post at National Museums Liverpool. Setting up on my own has allowed me to take up the slack in some of the institutions nearby that either don’t employ any conservators due to budget restraints or whose conservators are overstretched, but also allows me to offer museum standard conservation to private owners of paintings.


Not just tiny brushes!

Sometimes, when I tell people what I do, they say something along the lines of “I wouldn’t have the patience to work with those tiny brushes!”. Usually I just laugh- conservation is a very detail oriented occupation- but after the most recent time it happened it got me thinking. What do people imagine I do with such tiny brushes? Do they equate small brushes with some kind of exercise in fussiness when really a larger brush would be more appropriate? I was reminded of an off-hand remark in a newspaper article about cleaning Michelangelo’s David in 2004, where the original conservator resigned after her recommendation to dry dust it was rejected. The columnist reported her resignation comments and then wrote “and took her tiny brushes elsewhere”, which made her sound like an old fuss-pot. As a rule I would say that conservators like to keep things small to increase control. In paintings conservation we use tiny brushes to dot out tiny losses or certain kinds of cracks without going over onto the original paint.

But it’s not all tiny brushes. I’ve also got a growing collection of heavier duty tools for working with wooden supports and frames.


Woodworking isn’t always what people imagine as part of my job

This week I have been making a build-up for the frame of a picture I’ve been working on.  A build-up is sometimes added to the frame if the painting is sticking out at the back. I’m also adding glazing to the frame as it is an unvarnished painting with high impasto that is prone to collecting dust. The glazing plus the slip frame for spacing will mean that the original rebate just won’t be deep enough to hold the painting satisfactorily. It’s been too hot for it but I’ve been cutting lengths of wood down to size using a mitre guide and my trusty tenon saw. I can’t wait to get back to my tiny brushes.