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.
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.
When a picture comes in to me for conservation treatment one of the first things I have to do is get it out of its frame if it has one. This may sound straightforward but it can be one of the most frustrating and potentially dangerous jobs, depending on the approach the previous framer has taken. Occasionally in older paintings still in their original frames the framer has made wooden buttons that are screwed to the frame and can be turned the let the painting out (I love these) but unfortunately panel pins are far and away the most common method of securing an oil painting in its frame. Sometimes they have been knocked into the frame and bent around the back of the painting (forgivable), sometimes knocked right through the stretcher and into the rebate (awful). Sometimes the frame isn’t even a complete object in its own right and is simply pinned to the outside edges of the stretcher (nightmare). Once I’ve finally managed to remove whatever rusty nails have been holding the picture in I sometimes find that the picture still won’t come out. Maybe it’s been put into the frame too soon after varnishing, maybe there’s another sneaky pin somewhere…
Whatever torment the previous framer has devised I can usually do my best to ensurethat the next person to take the picture out isn’t cursing me. One of the first things to do is clean the rebate and line it with cushioned tape to make a softer interface between the frame and the front of the painting. Then come the fixings. There are a number of ways to hold a picture in a frame but my favoured method uses brass strips. These little strips can be bent quite easily to fit the profile of the painting in the rebate and they have a little bit of flexibility to accommodate movement due to environmental fluctuations. They are then secured with brass screws, which can be removed without anyone having to break a sweat.