It’s the start of another year, indeed another decade. It doesn’t feel like long enough since last January and once again it’s been a hectic start, with extra work coming in that I didn’t know about a few weeks ago. This time it will mean spending some time at National Museums Liverpool to help with a glut of loans. It will be ten years since I started my conservation career there, so it will be interesting to see how much has changed. I’ll also be at Gallery Oldham fairly regularly, continuing the conservation assessments and treatments after their flood. In between all these trips out I’ll be psyching myself up for structural treatments on some of the paintings in the studio.
Away from the studio I’ve been doing some fun stuff. I spent an afternoon making a palaeolithic ‘Venus’ figurine as part of a Learning through Making session at Stockport Museum. It was a fascinating activity and appealed to my interest in materials and techniques in art, and my art history background. It was great fun smashing up bones with a stone to incorporate into the clay, especially since I spend so much time being careful not to break anything! And then contemplatively forming the clay into a female figure and reflecting on the process and what people making them 30,000 years ago might have had in mind. I’m not sure I had a great deal of insight to add to the discussion, as I am aware how much our own history and culture pervades our interpretations. I was reminded of the Van Meegeren forgeries of the 1930s, which at the time appeared so like Vermeer’s works that many people were fooled. But looking at them now, though there is a sense of stillness similar to Vermeer’s, they seem so obviously imbued with 1930s culture (particularly the heavy Marlene Dietrich eyelids) that it seems extraordinary that experts should have been taken in. Hindsight is 20/20 in the case of the Van Meegerens, but I think our 2020 vision (if you’ll excuse the terrible pun) makes it impossible for us to know for sure what the ‘Venus’ figures meant to the people who made them. What I think they do indicate is how essential the need for creative expression is, whether for spiritual reasons or aesthetic ones.
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.
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.