My latest project is working with Gallery Oldham to conserve paintings from their collection that were damaged in a flood. The variation in severity of damage is vast, with some paintings really badly affected by direct contact with water, while others have been damaged by the humidity. I have taken some of the larger and more badly damaged paintings into my studio to work on over the coming months. For the smaller and less badly affected ones I have been working from a pop-up studio in the gallery while it is open.
I’ve worked in my pop-up studio twice, with my next visit booked in for the beginning of November. It’s a very different way of working for me, as I’m making assessments and then doing the remedial work straightaway. So far I’ve repaired a damaged frame, surface cleaned three pictures with adjusted water, consolidated a large, lifting paint flake, re-tensioned canvases, tied in stretcher keys and lined frame rebates. I’ve come across more nailed in pictures than I’d like, but I’m replacing the nasty things with brass strips. It’s been a challenge to make sure I have all of the right kit for carrying out such diverse treatments, but the joy of going back several times is that I can always pick something up next time.
A few people have passed by while I’ve been working but not many people have come to say hello. I think in the coming visits there will be some information about what it is that I’m doing, and I’m thinking of reorienting my little space to invite more interaction with visitors, which might help people feel less like they’re interrupting. So if you’re in Oldham on a Monday come and see if I’m working. If I’m not there it’s still well worth the visit.
I spent a week in London learning about a new (to me) system for cleaning paintings called the Modular Cleaning Program, through lectures and lab/studio time. The leader of the course was Chris Stavroudis, an independent conservator from Hollywood who has been working on complex cleaning problems with the conservation team at The Getty for many years. Thirty conservators at different stages in their careers, mainly from the UK but also from Europe, the US and Australia, gathered to learn something new.
What is the MCP?
It’s called the Modular Cleaning Program (MCP) because from a kit of stock solutions you can mix and match to test lots of different solutions in a short time. Though the recipe for the tests may change, there are always five parts to the recipe, which helps keep things simple. The five elements are water, buffer, chelator, surfactant and gel. In any small test you use 1ml of each component and that ensures that everything is at the correct concentration. Using the accompanying computer software, which will automatically adjust all of the elements if you make a change to one, even an art historian like me can be confident that I’ve not mixed up something I shouldn’t have. That’s not to say that the computer program does the thinking, just that it keeps track of all of the different elements for you.
Here comes the science bit
The lectures were patiently delivered to a room largely full of arts people, rather than scientists, trying their best to understand. As conservators, we could see the applications of the science even if it was a struggle to get a handle on the molecular workings. The range of experience among the people in the workshop was really useful during discussion times, as people’s questions and comments helped everyone get more out of the workshop.
The concept of solubility parameters (the intermolecular forces that hold things together, determining the kind of forces needed to split them up) and that ‘like dissolves like’ is central to all cleaning. While this is something I was taught during my training, Chris Stavroudis and his colleagues have really been digging down into what goes on inside layers of dirt, varnish and paint, and even what’s going on within each of those things and formulating solutions to address each one.
It starts from looking at what we already use safely (for the painting) and effectively and tries to improve it (the computer program button for trying the improve the solution says ‘Yes but modify’). So, for example, a lot of us use spit for removing surface dirt (this did get a bit contentious during the week as some people think it’s too disgusting). What’s good about spit is that it’s slightly viscous, meaning it doesn’t go everywhere, and it’s full of enzymes that can target certain components in the dirt, and it comes free and ready buffered. The less good things are that it’s a bit icky, it’s inconsistent (depending on whether you had a heavy night on the gin or pineapple at lunch) and you need to clear it from the surface with water, which some surfaces don’t like. Then there’s water. It can be deionised, distilled, carbonated or from the tap. For a long time I assumed it was best to use deionised water, as it seems more scientific and careful somehow (as you’ve gathered I’m not a natural scientist). However, its lack of ions means it’s hungry and can strip ions from a surface indiscriminately, which means its sometimes better to use tap. In the MCP there is a selection of adjusted waters, which means they are pH buffered and conductivity controlled (conductivity is how you measure the ions in the water) so that you can use the right one for the job.
When it comes to varnish removal, I and many or even most conservators use free solvents, that is, liquids in a bottle applied to the surface with a swab and evaporate willy -nilly into the air and into your lungs. While this is perfectly fine for the paintings (so long as you’ve tested for safety beforehand) it’s not the healthiest of occupations. The MCP allows for formulating aqueous gels, emulsions and micro-emulsions that carry smaller amounts of solvent or resin soaps instead and stop the solvent from evaporating so readily. An aim of the MCP is to find something that is better for the conservator and better for the environment. There is an added element of controllability, as each distinct layer of grime and oxidation is targeted by a specific solution and removed to leave a displayable surface. This way the client and conservator can choose together where to stop for the best result. Of course, not all paintings play by the rules and this kind of layer unpacking won’t always be possible.
Getting stuck in
Making the solutions
Lab time had a bit of a Breaking Bad feel to it. We split into groups and given a recipe to follow, though we first had to multiply everything by 30 to ensure there would be enough for everyone to take home. I’ve never seen so many bottles of chemicals. Many of the solutions required making up to a specific pH, which in practice meant a lot of grown-ups staring intently at pH meters and getting very excited by seeing the numbers change. The excitement came as carefully prepared solutions suddenly went shooting out of a buffer zone (something, according to the lectures, to do with de-protonation and fat kids on see-saws) and had to be salvaged by rebalancing the components. By day 3 or 4 we developed a pretty good production line and knew when to go carefully and when we could be more relaxed.
Testing the program
When we weren’t cooking up litres of stock solutions we worked in groups on some sample paintings. These paintings are the kind of thing that many institution studios have in drawers, that someone has had a go at in the past and given up on. The one my team were working on had been partially cleaned, meaning that there was still some varnish on in some places, but other areas had been over cleaned, damaging the paint underneath. There isn’t anything quite like trying something out on authentic dirt and varnish layers, especially when there’s no pressure to get it right! My friend Mike, who trained at the same time as me in Northumbria and now works at the Whitworth Gallery, took a video of me cleaning our group’s painting with one of our concoctions.
Another group had a painting that was really difficult to clean. Some of the mixtures had no effect and others were cleaning it but also taking off the top layer of paint too. By trying different solutions and methods of application there was a glimmer of hope for that painting by the end of the week, but the clock had run down.
Bringing it back
Now that I am back with my large and heavy box full of solutions and my head full of new ideas, I’m excited to see when my first opportunity will be to use it. I’m excited about adjusted water. Now, rather than choosing between just deionised water or tap water I am able to test pH buffered and conductivity controlled waters that will evaporate more completely from the surface.
My mind has been brought back to the importance of working out the constituents of the stuff that I’m trying to remove, and using that information to tackle and target it. It’s so good to have more tricks up my sleeve when dealing with more complex cleans, especially when that means using less harmful substances. I don’t suppose I’ll abandon spit, but there are other things that I’ll probably phase out.
I’ve also been reminded of what a funny, clever bunch of people work in paintings conservation around the country. The enthusiasm, enjoyment of the job and keenness to accrue new skills is just as sharp in those who have been in the business for 30+ years as it is for those who have just graduated.
The Autumn will forever feel like the start of a new year for me. I think a lot of people feel the same way, but I’m certainly feeling very much like sharpening my pencils, putting on some new shoes and buckling down at the moment. I’ve even written myself a timetable for the next few weeks to ensure I get everything done before the start of a big project later in the month, which will involve some studio work and some on-site work. It’ll be nice to be on-site for a change, as working in my studio is a rather solitary pursuit. I’m going to be carrying out some minor remedial conservation work on a number paintings affected by a flood. I’ll share more about this once the project is underway.
I’m also going on a week-long course soon, learning how to more effectively and safely clean modern paintings. It’s really important for me to keep up to date with recent developments in conservation to ensure that I am doing the best for the paintings that come through my studio. The prospect of spending a whole week with a group of other conservators is both exciting and a bit daunting, since I’ve not done anything quite like it since I finished training. I’ve got loads of reading to do in preparation. I think it might tell you something about the kind of student I was that I’m writing a blog post rather than actually doing the reading… I’d better get to it!
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.
Overpaint removed: plenty of original paint uncovered
After treatment: reintegrating the damage to allow the original paint to show.
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.
Before treatment (after over-restoration)
Evidence of past scrubbing
After toning out the losses
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!
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.
After cleaning and before retouching
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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’sThe 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”.
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 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!