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!
I was surprised to see the word ‘patina’ appear as a Daily Prompt today. It’s a very ‘conservation’ sort of a word and one that is pretty loaded. It refers to the quality that something acquires as it ages, a sort of ‘lived in’, mellow look. When that’s an oil painting it means dusty and yellow. One of the major criticisms of conservation is that we strip away patina when we clean pictures or other works of art, and take with it something that made the work of art feel more special or authentic. As I’ve previously talked about, one of the best ways to ensure that you’re not taking off something you shouldn’t is to work in a controlled way tackling surface coatings in layers rather than all at once.
My own criteria for deciding whether or not to remove a coating, and I’m sure I’m not alone, depends very much on originality. If a varnish is present that I believe to be original, which is rare, especially in museum collections, then my default position is to leave it where it is. There are a number of things that might alert you to an original varnish including the known history of the object and uneven or selective varnish application. It’s important to consider whether or not a varnish has been applied by the artist as if that is the case it has likely been applied closer to the time that the painting was finished, so may have bonded with the fresh paint beneath, making the distinction between paint layer and varnish layer blurry. The artist may also have decided to add finishing touches on top. Turner was renowned for varnishing his pictures before the paint was dry. There has also been much discussion about how much artists may have anticipated and hoped for the effects of age on their varnishes.
Dirt, for me, is less of a problem. Unless there was some kind of hugely important event that caused the dirt, it’s not usually considered to be significant to the history of the object. One item that I can think of that would fit into this category is Jackie Kennedy’s outfit worn in Dallas on the day of her husband’s assassination, which is in the collection of America’s National Archive still gruesomely soiled. It would obviously be entirely inappropriate to clean the suit but it’s significance also renders it undisplayable. Thankfully the dirt on paintings is usually far more innocuous but if left on the surface it robs the picture of depth and vibrancy, eventually making the paintings illegible and unfit for display.
There’s been a bit of rumpus on social media this week after the Philip Mould Gallery posted a video on Twitter of a painting being cleaned. The intention of the video was to say “look at this amazing person doing something really dramatic with this filthy old painting” and the conservator carrying out the treatment is experienced and, I understand, accredited but many conservators across the world feel that the treatment as shown doesn’t accurately portray the knowledge, experience and delicacy required when attempting such a task. I don’t generally like to pass judgement on a fellow conservator’s work but the, shall we say, ‘casual’ approach of the conservator did make me wince. I don’t know what he was using, it was some kind of gel, or what safety margin tests he’d carried out, but the manner in which he was using it, allowing it to dribble down onto already cleaned areas, seemed to me to be less than ideal.
Cleaning pictures is fraught with difficulty. Modern conservators hold the principle of reversibility sacrosanct, which is great when you’re putting something on but completely redundant when you’re taking something off and therein lies a problem. The original cleaning controversy was conducted through letters to the Burlington Magazine about the conservation of paintings at the National Gallery in London. Today there is a group called ArtWatch, which likes to watch out for any painting that has been ‘over-cleaned’ and show up at conservation conferences to grill the speakers. A book on the required reading of my training course called ‘The Ravished Image’ also addresses the problem of over-cleaning. Taking away layers of varnish using solvents and other cleaning agents is a delicate task and one that should not be undertaken lightly. The only way for conservators to protect themselves from allegations of improper treatment is to treat every picture with the same standard of care and ethical consideration and to rigorously document treatments and explain in the documentation the rationale behind decisions.
In the past, and possibly still today in some practices, there was a tendency to go straight for varnish removal to solve the problem of a discoloured and obscuring surface but this is not usually done any more. It is my practice to try to remove surface coatings in layers, starting with the dust and dirt (shown in the image at the top). This allows for a more controlled treatment, often requiring less mechanical action (scrubbing) than if you’re trying to take off everything at once. It also allows you to monitor the necessity of further treatment. There have been times when I’ve expected to have to do a full varnish removal treatment to make the picture legible only to find that once the dirt has been taken off the picture looks great and doesn’t need any further treatment. On other occasions the dirt has been masking a badly degraded varnish that really needs to be remedied.
I said near the top that I don’t like to pass judgement about colleagues in the field and that is because I’m acutely aware that we are all, usually with the best of intentions and current knowledge, carrying out sometimes irreversible treatments to precious objects that may in the future be derided as ignorant, barbaric and destructive. I hope not. But as long as there is someone cleaning pictures there will be someone criticising them.