Good as New With some white spirit and a restorers skill, your painting can go from rubbish to Rubens, says Ivan Lindsay
Good as New
With some white spirit and a restorer’s skill, your painting can go from rubbish to Rubens, says Ivan Lindsay
PAINTINGS, LIKE HUMANS, can do with a touch-up from time to time. Instead of doctors abrading unsightly bumps and hairdressers disguising the march of time with dyes, restorers remove over-painting, sew up tears in the canvas and de-varnish the slick and shiny.
This not only allows the painting to look as good as new, revealing the artist’s original vision, but can also help to change the work’s attribution, moving it from a nobody to a master; provide a financial uplift; alter our interpretation of it; and reveal more about the artist’s technique. Restorations are not always successful, though — just ask Cecilia Gimenez.
Gimenez, a devout, misguided old Spanish lady, decided to ‘restore’ a 19th-century fresco of Jesus in the Sanctuary of Mercy Church, Borja. She said she wanted to improve the work after moisture damage, but thanks to her efforts Jesus now resembles ‘a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic’, according to the BBC. (Ironically, the botched improvement has brought thousands more tourists to the church.)
Simon Gillespie, one of the world’s top restorers, says that all kinds of pleasure — aesthetic, art-historical, financial, personal — can be gained from a well-restored painting, which may also involve x-rays to uncover earlier stages in the artist’s process. Gillespie describes one of his first restorations, where he removed some over-paint from the bottom-right corner of a charming Impressionist work — and revealed Monet’s signature.
Given that the painting had last been seen before the war, Gillespie reckons the signature might have been painted out to avoid its true worth being recognised. Another restoration uncovered not just a butcher version of Sir Walter Raleigh but also a sceptred Elizabethan redhead walking away from him.
Gillespie often works with Philip Mould, the art dealer and presenter of BBC’s Fake or Fortune?, who has uncovered — in many senses — works by van Dyck and Gainsborough, including one on eBay for $120.
‘It had the body of a pub sign and a head that was rather seductive and soft — it was truly weird. I then did what I wasn’t supposed to do — I usually wait for my restorers — and took out my solvents and began taking off the over-painting. It was a religious experience: the whole body came off. There was a tear down the middle of the body — that’s why the restorer, like the builder from hell, painted over it then filled in all around it to disguise their handiwork.’ Et voilà! A Gainsborough revealed.
Paintings may need to be restored not just because they have been touched up for condition. Decorum plays a role: Mould says he has ‘uncovered countless private parts’, like those of a once-again-nude Venus for a museum in Falmouth.
Think of the fig leaves which have sprung up from nowhere to spare the blushes of subject and viewer alike. Equally, religious (in)sensibilities led early Christians to knock the noses and private parts off Roman and Greek pagan sculptures and post-Civil War Puritans to paint over Queen Henrietta Maria’s Catholic accoutrements.
(Works can of course be damaged beyond restoration for the same reasons, such as the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan, blown up by the Taliban.)
Mould tells the story of a work by Anne Killigrew, a rare late-17th-century female painter. It depicted a dog with a bloody maw hovering ravenously over a mauled cat — ‘just about the most unsellable [picture] you can imagine’. When he came across it five years later, the blood had been mopped up, the cat unmauled and the title changed to Shall We Wake Him?.
RESTORATION IS A skill that can only be learnt by experience. There are few courses that teach it and most of today’s restorers learnt their craft by becoming an apprentice and then an assistant to an existing restorer before starting their own studio.
Experienced restorers such as Gillespie, Patrick Corbett and David Chesterman (pictured left) in London are in demand and often can pick and choose what they want to work on. Restoration requires patience, being surrounded by noxious chemicals and sitting still a few inches away from a panel or canvas for months on end, carefully trying to put back what was there.
The best restorers approach each painting with an open mind and seek input from art historians where they feel it is appropriate. They study other works by the artist and painstakingly try to return the painting to its original state, as far as possible.
Like a good actor who tries to avoid putting any of his or her own character into a part, a restorer must ignore his own artistic tendencies and work as a technician as opposed to an artist. When he noticed one of his apprentices painting in his spare time, Professor Helmut Ruhemann, the restorer at the National Gallery in London after the Second World War who taught a whole generation, discouraged him and told him he could be a good painter or a good restorer, but he needed to choose which.
Most paintings need conservation every generation or so. Works on panel provide different issues from works on canvas. Panels move and crack in different temperatures and climates, such as damp (England) or dry (Italy). Sending a painting on exhibition from one to the other can have disastrous consequences.
Rubens often painted his landscapes on panels consisting of several oak boards glued together. His landscape of the castle at Het Steen splintered along its panel joins one cold night when the central heating failed in the National Gallery.
Canvas stretches over time and needs re-lining, whereby the old canvas is stuck down on to a new canvas to anchor the paint, otherwise the paint simply falls off. In the past, techniques considered old-fashioned today involved ironing the old canvas on to the new one; this flattened all the impasto (ridges in the paint) and left a painting that is referred to as ‘skinned’.
Varnish, the final layer applied by restorers over the paint to protect it (and by painters in the form of a glaze), tends to discolour and go brown after 30 years or so. Restorers usually start by removing this discoloured varnish with a solvent such as acetate mixed in white spirit.
Then they try to remove old restorers’ over-paint where paint losses were touched in and have now often also discoloured. If the old restoration was very skilfully applied, they sometimes feel they cannot improve it and leave it.
Generally they remove the old retouchings as modern restorers typically believe they are better than restorers of the past and have more advanced tools and technologies at their disposal. Then they carefully mix the right-coloured paints and touch in all the losses. This is relatively straightforward but becomes more difficult when it involves painting in significant losses.
Gillespie warns against always removing varnish: ‘Joshua Reynolds notoriously painted pictures and used yellow varnish to make them look like Old Masters or Rembrandts. That was his intention; the artist’s intention is foremost.’
The opposite is true, too: Pissarro stuck labels on the back of his paintings warning would-be restorers never to use varnish on them.
Philip Mould saw the Gainsborough in the picture on the left, and restored it to its former glory on the right
IF THERE IS an element of doubt about a painting’s age, then restorers can normally tell from their experience of canvas, paint and different artists’ techniques. Sometimes an owner will want more ‘proof’ and he will send the painting to a scientist such as Dr Nicholas Eastaugh in London, who can then subject the paint and panel or canvas to some specific technical tests to date it.
He will also do pigment analysis to establish whether the paint used on a picture is from the era it is supposed to be from. Clever forgers know this and carefully try to reproduce the exact canvas and paint for the period they are trying to forge.
Different countries have different approaches to restoration. For example, the National Gallery in London cleans its paintings very vigorously, still operating under a template laid down by Professor Ruhemann in the 1950s. Old varnish and over-paint are always cleaned off and the paintings there appear very new and brightly coloured.
This approach is diametrically opposed to that of many museums on the continent, such as the Kunsthistorische in Vienna or the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels, which prefer to avoid disturbing the discoloured varnish, leaving their paintings feeling older and more mysterious.
Both approaches have their champions and it is a subject that attracts a spirited debate. Gillespie feels that it is not always best to restore — even though it’s his career — because a painting’s patina is a natural part of its story.
Restorations can be over-vigorous, indeed harmful, and not just for paintings. Most notorious is the scrubbing the Elgin Marbles received in the 1930s, as described on the website of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, who want them sent back to Greece: ‘The sculptures were “cleaned” under the wrong belief that they were originally “brilliant white”. The so-called cleaning was never the intention of the curators, who knew very well that the sculptures made out of Pentelicon marble would have acquired a mellow honey colour when exposed to the air. Moreover, the sculptures showed clear traces of colour that the scraping destroyed.
‘The cleaning was done at the instruction of Lord Duveen, who financed the building of the galleries for exhibiting the Marbles. The cleaning carried out with wire brushes, copper tools and carborundum caused serious and irretrievable damage that was admitted by the authorities of the Museum. However, the British Museum officials kept the full report on the incident carefully under wraps until a Cambridge historian revealed it in his book Lord Elgin and the Marbles.’ This story has a political angle, yes, but it illustrates the dangers of ignorant restoration.
FAILING TO RESEARCH the condition of paintings they buy is one of the commonest mistakes made by art collectors. The condition of paintings varies from the near pristine, such as Vermeer’s Guitar Player at Kenwood House, to works that are badly damaged and over-painted, such as Claude’s Enchanted Castle in the National Gallery. A painting’s condition has significant bearing on its value, and experienced collectors and dealers always seek the opinion of a restorer before making an acquisition.
Pictures tend to sell better at auction when they have been untouched for a while and are referred to by the auction rooms as being in ‘country house condition’. This leaves buyers with the impression that there is a ‘clean’ in the picture and it will improve its appearance and hopefully its value after a post-acquisition cleaning.
Restorers have been known to mix coffee or Van Dyck brown into a modern varnish to achieve this effect artificially. Dealers, on the other hand, find it difficult to explain to clients that a painting is in its natural condition, as many clients think it looks dirty, so they tend to clean everything up before offering it.
It’s worth being cautious about restoration when it comes to auction rooms. The leading auction rooms, particularly as they develop their rapidly growing private sales (dealing) business, go to considerable lengths to advise their clients that buying at auction is so easy that they shouldn’t feel the need to seek any independent advice before buying. They are wrong.
IN THE DAILY Telegraph in October, Orlando Rock, deputy chairman of Christie’s, offered up a detailed guide on how to buy art at auction. It is all very reassuring to know that, despite any misgivings you may have had about the art world, it is in fact a nice cosy place and the leading auctions are a ‘transparent and fair platform’ that offer goods at fair prices with the ‘stamp of long-term quality and value’. And that buying art at auction is ‘accessible, affordable, personal and fun’. I would add ‘nerve-racking, opaque, confusing and often expensive’.
Rock does mention that condition is an issue and suggests that, if you feel the need, you can ask for a condition report from one of the in-house experts. However, these should not be relied on. A good restorer can make a painting that is in bad condition look fine to all but the trained eye. They can also be very good at disguising their work. The old expression that you do not find out what you have bought in the art world until you try to sell it is never truer than when it comes to condition.
If experienced dealers always feel the need to seek the advice of an independent third-party restorer before they buy, then that should tell private clients what they should be doing. Restorers are mainly generous with their time and often have to attend the major sales on behalf of clients. By seeking such advice, collectors will save themselves plenty of expensive mistakes, and it is sound practice to take the time to get to know a good restorer and make him part of your team.