Paintings Conservation: Behind the scenes

Paintings Conservation: Behind the scenes


A painting might need restoration if there’s
something wrong with the paint itself – it’s flaking, maybe if the support – the canvas
or the panel – if there’s a problem with either of those two things. It may be very
dirty it maybe has a varnish that’s gone very yellow and brown and discoloured and
needs to be removed. Or perhaps there’s something wrong with the frame. Or indeed
how the painting is held inside the frame itself. Every painting throws up different challenges,
and it very much depends on the condition of the painting. But what we always do when
we get a painting into the studio is we first of all think about the conditions of it, its
history, its provenance, who owned it, the artist – do we know information about that
artist, what materials they used. All of things come into play, into helping us develop a
treatment programme. We try and divide our time between some studio
and some onsite work. We do quick fixes on site and we do more in depth treatments in
the studio. My favourite programme that I’ve worked
on at English Heritage is a Jan Steen from Apsley House. It came into the studio this
year and my colleague removed the varnish on it and it was absolutely beautiful underneath
– the colour and the detail. It was just absolutely stunning. It was a like a little
jewel. We have paintings by some lesser known artists
and we also have some incredibly famous paintings in the collection. At Kenwood House we have
paintings by Vermeer. Here at Apsley House we have paintings by Rubens by Titian amongst
many other really important Artists. It’s such a privilege to work on something
when you can see how talented an artist is and how much time and effort they’ve put
in to a painting and to actually sit with it for a length of time and actually understand
that process. To be a conservator, you need quite a lot
of different skills, which is why it’s so appealing to me as a career. You need to know
a little bit about art history, a little but about science, you need to have practical
skills, you need to have good colour vision and you to be able to paint a little bit as
well, and that makes it a really fascinating job. One of the best things about being a conservator
is having the chance to work up closely with these beautiful works of art. It’s incredibly satisfying, for example,
if I’m in the studio working on a painting and I’m able to see the transformation from
a painting that’s dark and dirty, to something that’s really bright and vibrant again and
back to how it might have been when it left the artist’s studio.

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