Art on lockdown

Elizabeth Jowett Conservation of Paintings

Writing from home in the weird circumstances of a global pandemic and general widespread lockdown, I got to thinking about what it all means for museums.

There has been a move towards visitor access and engagement in recent years, with collections and their care taking a back seat (except in instances of decolonising collections). With this in mind it is interesting to wonder whether the physical museum and its objects may be secondary to the ideas that they represent. Many museums have gone online with their content to allow people to access them despite the closures, and Maria Balshaw, director of the Tate galleries, said in a piece in the Observer (25th May 2020) that they are reaching new audiences through online content. In John Armstrong’s The Intimate Philosophy of Art, which I have been reading again recently, he talks about the pleasure and freedom of looking at pictures without any pressure to respond. It’s tempting to ask if we even need museums and galleries at all, with internet access to so much of the world and technological advances, such as 3D printing that mean objects can be faithfully reproduced almost anywhere.

Clearly art is a fairly basic human need after shelter and food, as cave art testifies. During lockdown people have been creating their own art, such is the desire to make and see it. I’ve been enjoying Grayson’s Art Club on Channel 4 and seeing the works people have been sending in on different themes. The utter delight of those whose works have been chosen for the exhibition that will follow has been contagious (possibly a poor choice of word in the circumstances). What’s interesting is the perceived elevation in status of the pieces, or perhaps legitimisation or approval, by the fact that they will be displayed in a gallery as part of an exhibition.

If we consider the space itself, a museums or gallery is more than just the place where a collection is displayed. As well as having this aura of importance that can legitimise the objects inside, they are also public spaces that anyone can enter and use. With People use museums as performance spaces, celebration venues, meeting places, learning environments and safe spaces. As a parent of young children, I go to museums on rainy days with them; the large spaces, lifts, stairs, shops and cafes are generally what appeals to them and it means I can pass a chunk of the day without them bouncing off the walls at home. If I can glance at something beautiful or interesting in between times then that’s great. If I can get them to engage with something then I feel I’m winning. At the beginning of this lockdown, the prospect of my kids at home for months on end and no museums to visit was quite daunting. With the news that galleries can start opening in July, I feel cautious optimism that I will be able to go again, slightly sooner than expected.

In my line of work, the tangible authentic object is important. I strive to do my best by the painting and its creator, to preserve what is there and make it as presentable as I can, so that the original work of the artist can be seen and enjoyed. I am concerned with how the painting has been made and ensuring that it is structurally sound. I can’t help feeling that there is something special about seeing an original object. This passage from The Intimate Philosophy of Art particularly resonated with me:

“…consider the fact – so obvious that it is almost embarrassing the labour it – that pictures are made by the manual application of paint to a flat surface. Paradoxically, copyists working in galleries (the Louvre seems to have more than any other) often attract keener attention than the original works whose superior merit their own devotion attests. What the copyist offers us – and what the finished work withholds – is acquaintance with the half lovely, half tedious process by which a painting comes to be made. We observe the gradual mixing… of colours on the palette; we enjoy the way the pigment is held on the bristles…; we take pleasure in the smell of oil and the hopeful areas of primed canvas… these are things we can enjoy sensually.”

– John Armstrong The Intimate Philosophy of Art, p. 26

I am more able than most people to contemplate artwork and come to greater appreciation at my own pace while I work on things in my studio. Obviously handling an artwork entails a level of risk, which means the particular privilege of seeing a work out of its frame isn’t feasibly available to the wider public. Attempts have been made in the past to democratise the experience by having viewing areas in conservation labs (there is one at the People’s History Museum) and conservation taking place on display (as with the Etty project at Manchester Art Gallery some years ago). It’s what I try to do through this blog.

There are things that you can’t fully appreciate from a picture in a book or on a screen, such as scale and texture. I remember seeing Dali’s The Persistence of Memory (you know the one: melty clocks) on a trip to MOMA in New York. For years I’d had the image on my wall as a teenager – an A1 poster bought from Athena on Market Street in Manchester – and was astonished to find that I had nearly passed it by in the flesh, so to speak, because it is so very small (Wikipedia tells me it’s 24 x 33cm). Astonished, but not disappointed. I think finding the details all there, so delicately rendered, made my appreciation for the work increase.

Lockdown has given everybody a new perspective on life, and a glimpse into what is for some people their everyday experience regardless of the pandemic. There are definitely things that we should keep from this experience of lockdown, including less focus on getting to a place and more opportunities to bring the place to people where they are. But I’m looking forward to being able to visit museums and galleries again when I can. I’ve got favourite places and favourite pictures that I like to see every now and then. When I’m in London, which is a lot less frequently than it used to be, I like to pop in to the National Gallery if I’ve got time, to say hello to Holbein’s Ambassadors and the Wilton Diptych. More locally, I like to check on paintings that I’ve worked on, just to make sure they’re still doing alright. Which works do you like to say ‘hi’ to when you’re passing?

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.


Drying cracks

Beth retouching drying cracks with a small sable brush

I’m currently working on a lovely portrait from the early 20th century that has extensive drying cracks. Although drying cracks can be quite alarming to look at they are usually completely stable. They occur when the upper paint layer dries more quickly than the one below, which means that as the wet layer underneath shifts as it dries the upper layer is pulled apart. Sometimes drying cracks aren’t particularly problematic but in this case a lot of white is showing in a black field of colour. When a paint layer is damaged your eye is drawn to the damage rather than seeing the subject, so I’ve been retouching the widest of the drying cracks to give some solidity to the forms. The medium I’m using for retouching has completely different solubility parameters to the original paint, which will make it reversible in the future if necessary.

My retouching palette for this painting