16 March 2010

reversing the damage of a previous restoration

Photo: Overall shot before treatment

A beautifully painted portrait of a lady arrived at our door in a horrendous condition. The canvas had suffered severe shrinkage, the paint layer had been forced together, and having nowhere to go, had lifted away from the canvas forming tent-like shapes across the surface of the painting.

Photo: Close up of paint layer

As we investigated the cause of the canvas shrinkage, we found that a restorer had previously attempted to line the canvas using a water based adhesive. Lining is a procedure where a new canvas is adhered to the original canvas in order to add strength and support. However, we try to avoid lining paintings unless it is absolutely necessary because of the risks involved. Poorly executed lining can cause shrinkage of the canvas with associated damage to the paint layer, but can also change the texture and gloss of the paint layer. When carried out correctly, lining can result in a successful stabilisation of the painting without harm.

As conservators we think a lot about how we are going to treat an object. Often, it seems to us that conservation can be more about knowing what we cannot do rather than what we can. It is very easy to re-touch that missing section of paint, or glue a sculpture back together, but what are the consequences of our actions? In essence, this is what our training and code of ethics are all about – how do we treat the problems with an artwork or artefact whilst maintaining its significance and authenticity, and causing no harm to it now or in the future.

Our treatment of this painting was a lengthy and slow process. Over weeks the adhesive was slowly removed, first by softening it with solvents, and then by mechanically scraping away the adhesive. Simultaneously, we slowly stretched the canvas on an expandable stretcher, millimetre by millimetre. Once the canvas was its original size the tenting paint was then laid back into place.

The varnish layer on top of the paint was also badly damaged from the cracking and needed to be removed. Unfortunately, as the varnish was not a conservation grade varnish, it was not soluble in any solvents that did not also damage the paint layer. Consequently, the varnish had to be mechanically scraped away, which took one conservator three weeks to do.

Photo: After treatment

Finally, we lined the painting using the correct materials and processes, before varnishing, filling of losses and re-touching of damage. The overall results were very pleasing but some evidence of the damage still remains in the surface texture.

Photo: After treatment detail

Projects like this remind us of the challenges our clients face in finding a conservator. Conservators undergo extensive training, and generally specialise in just one field, e.g. paintings or paper or sculpture or metals or furniture / wood or textiles. Most conservators have tertiary qualifications – either an undergraduate or masters degree – and have several years experience on the job working with another experienced conservator in one area of conservation alone. When you find a conservator, it is always worth asking them about their qualifications, area of specialisation and experience, and if they have carried out this sort of treatment before.

Communication is also important so that both you and the conservator understand what you wish to achieve from the conservation treatment, and what the conservator expects the outcome from treatment is likely to be. Returning a painting or artefact to a “new” condition is rarely possible or appropriate, but treating it to bring it into a stable and presentable condition is almost always achievable. Prevention of damage is always far better than a cure, and once you have found a good conservator you can be confident that they have the best interests of your artwork, antique or artefact in mind.

Adam Godijn
International Conservation Services


Pamela Denise said...

Fantastic job Matteo on 'portrait of a lady' well done!


Kerryn Madsen-Pietsch said...

Lovely to read this post and to see the final results. Thanks for sharing.
Just curious as to the age of this oil painting and I would assume it originally was painted on a linen canvas?