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.
Writing reports accounts for quite a lot of my working time. There are condition reports, treatment recommendations, loan reports, treatment reports. I’m never far from my notebook when I’m working.
These reports aren’t just box-ticking (although sometimes box-ticking is exactly what’s involved) but are important records of the works at a particular time. Sometimes it’s obvious what purpose a report will serve. When a work goes out on loan for an exhibition, whether that’s between galleries or to a gallery from a private collection, we need to make a note of its condition before it travels and see how it looks when it gets there.
Other reports I write are often for the interest or information of some unknown person at an unspecified time in the future. Sometimes it can feel a bit futile, as if nobody will be interested, but actually I’m always grateful to see a previous report for a painting I’m looking at. It’s reassuring when you find that nothing much has changed, or it can narrow down a time period during which a change has occurred; it can save you time if the previous conservator has recorded something that will influence your treatment proposal.
Something I hadn’t previously considered is that there is the possibility that something I record could be more significant than I understand at the time. Recently in the news there was a story of a painting being identified as Nazi loot thanks to the detailed condition report of a museum employee during the occupation of France who recorded the presence of a small hole in the canvas. This, along with the present day conservators who have looked carefully and recorded what they’ve found and compared it to these old reports, should lead to the painting being reunited with the family that it was stolen from. Whilst I expect that most of the reports I write will be merely of interest in the future, the potential for my observations to be of greater significance will keep me motivated as I sit down to write the next batch.
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.