From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures
Part 1: Veronese into Botero
A rupture between words and pictorial realities has emerged in the museum world. It is the product of an over-heated international scramble to produce blockbuster exhibitions. After prising and pulling together works from many quarters, curators of temporary exhibitions write as if blind to the most glaring differences of condition and as if ignorant of all restoration-induced controversies. This widespread critical failure to address the variously – and often very recently – altered states of pictures corrupts scholarship and confers international respectability on damaging local restoration practices. In doing so, this effective pan-national conspiracy “not to notice” also compounds and sanctions the general reluctance of museums ever to acknowledge their own errors in the “conservation” treatment of art. The injuriousness of so much picture restoration is more the product of aesthetic/artistic incomprehension than of any self-agrandising intent. If every unhappy restoration is unhappy in its own way, so to speak, with Veronese, the best balanced of all painters, the most commonly encountered crime against his art is the debilitation of his firm plastic grip by restorers in hot pursuit of brightened and heightened colours.
The catalogue to the National Gallery’s show “Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice” provides a usefully explicit and clear-cut case in point. Its text is entirely the work of the show’s “guest” curator, Xavier Salomon. The National Gallery’s director, and fellow Veronese authority/champion, Nicholas Penny, declares the catalogue “a significant book”. Formerly of the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum, and presently the chief curator of the Frick Collection, New York, Dr Salomon has (with the National Gallery’s own ten Veroneses) assembled no fewer than fifty, often very large, works. Salomon describes his own catalogue/book as both a general introduction for the public and a work offering “stimulating and original insights for experts and longstanding lovers of Veronese’s work”. In doing so, he claims that:
“The two over-arching principles in the selection of paintings for the London exhibition have been quality and condition, in order to show Veronese’s art at its best.”
We recognise that (as Dr Penny once acknowledged to us) it can be impolitic as well as seem ungracious to attack the conditions of generously loaned works. However, given Salomon’s own declaration on the importance of condition – which he reiterates as being “crucial” – we must assume that he is untroubled, for example, by the present condition of the Louvre’s Veronese The Supper at Emmaus and that he is happy for it, along with all other works in this compilation, to be seen as both of the highest artistic quality and in the best possible physical condition.
Concerning the condition of this particular painting, among many procedural shortcomings present in the course of its recent treatment at the Louvre (as here reported in December 2010), the restorers were discovered by our colleague, Michel Favre-Felix, to have repainted a face twice within five years, on each occasion atrociously, and the second time in a secret intervention at which no records were made (– see below and Figs. 1 to 4b ). Far from alerting neophyte visitors or readers to this picture’s now grossly adulterated state, Salomon specifically praises its “opulent and majestic” overall effect; its “superb” portraits; and its details in which “Veronese reached a level of poignant harmony that was unprecedented”. This is an exhibition and an issue to which we will return but, first, another wrecked painting that is presently being flaunted in London calls for attention.
Part 2: Smoke into Steam
Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights
An extraordinary publicity barrage accompanied the launch of the National Maritime Museum’s “Turner & The Sea” blockbuster. It centred on a single painting – the artist’s Rockets and Blue Lights. The decision to favour that particular wrecked and challenged work passed beyond the brazen. As Maurice Davies observes in the spring issue of Turner Society News:
“The most unnecessary loan is Rockets and Blue Lights … The catalogue talks diplomatically of ‘alterations to some areas of the painted surface.’ It is in fact so horribly damaged that there’s little value in seeing it in the flesh. ArtWatch talks of the picture as an example of ‘the bizarre and perverse phenomenon of promoting demonstrably wrecked paintings in special loan exhibitions.’ It would have been quite enough to include a small illustration in the catalogue and move swiftly on.”
That painting is held by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA (see “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners”). We first discussed its restoration fate in an article published in the winter 2003 ArtWatch UK journal by the painter Edmund Rucinski who disclosed that the restorer, David Bull, had not only removed the surviving remains of one Turner’s two steamboats but had defended his decision on the grounds that the boat had probably been some later restorer’s invention – even though the existence of a second steamboat was confirmed by the plural “steamboats” in the picture’s full title: Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water, and by visual records of the painting, as shown below right.
As we later reported in the summer 2005 ArtWatch UK journal, the picture had been restored in preparation for its inclusion in a travelling exhibition (“Turner, The Late Seascapes”) which began at the Clark Institute and moved first to Manchester and then to Glasgow. It was said that seventy-five per cent of the picture’s surface (which had last been restored and relined in 1963-64 by William Suhr) was repaint and that by removing this paint Turner’s own brushwork would be liberated. What was “liberated” was a wrecked work in which a boat disappeared and the dark coal smoke from its funnel was converted into a white water spout. Despite this pictorial corruption, when the picture came to Britain, the Tate issued a press release in which it was claimed that:
“One of the stars of the show is Turner’s dramatic Rockets and Blue Lights (Close to Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water, 1840, which has recently undergone major conservation and is a loan from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA.”
In 2003 Eric Shanes, of the Turner Society, wrote (TLS 19 December) that although the painting had long been a physical wreck, “until its recent ‘conservation’ it at least constituted a pictorially coherent image. Now it’s right half has been entirely rubbed away, leaving an incoherent shambles that not only bears no similarity to Turner’s original but looks like nothing else in the artist’s oeuvre…”
Shanes later took a more indulgent stance towards the Clark Institute. Writing in the May 2005 Apollo, he held:
“…Yet if we adopt a wider perspective it is easy to see that the Clark Institute found itself in a fairly impossible situation in 2003: it was damned if it restored the painted and damned if it didn’t.”
This seemed to assume the institution had to send the painting across the Atlantic to Manchester and Glasgow. It did not. On October 28th 2003 the Times had reported the disclosure by Selby Whittingham that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts had refused to lend its Turner Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying – Typhoon coming on to the Clark exhibition because when it had returned from a loan to the Tate, the previously sound picture had been found damaged and “extremely unstable” (see below). By 2005, the incoherent work that had borne no resemblance to anything in Turner’s oeuvre in 2003 had, for Shanes, staged a partial recovery, becoming a presentable work once again, albeit if accompanied by a health warning:
“Without doubt the Clark Institute can validly argue that Rockets and Blue Lights is once again fully a work by J. M. W. Turner, possibly for the first time in well over a hundred years. But quite evidently, the museum also faces the concomitant duty to be absolutely honest with its public by making it abundantly clear that the Turner now seen by that clientele is but a shadow of its original self. To claim otherwise is very dangerous…”
When on October 15th 2003, the Times reported the article we were about to publish by Edmund Rucinski, Libby Sheldon, a paint materials historian at University College, London, said: “It’s good that [institutions] are being challenged. It makes them take more care. Organisations like ArtWatch, irritating though they are to institutions, are a good watchdog”. In response, a spokeswoman for the Tate Gallery which had extolled the restoration of Rockets said “We don’t want to comment further.” The Tate might have been sanguine about British newspaper reports of criticisms because elsewhere in the press the gallery’s hyperbolic estimation of Rockets, as transmitted through its press release, found many echoes among art critics:
“…this show contains some of the most extraordinary passages of painting ever applied to canvas. Its centrepiece, the recently restored Rockets and Blue Lights… is an unbelievable vision of swirling blue, orange and white light thrusting through fog [Sebastian Smee, Daily Telegraph]; Easily the most stunning picture in the show is Rockets and Blue Lights…The canvas has been given a restorative makeover…Turner’s brushwork is revealed in all its glory” [Lynne Walker, the Independent]; Most splendid…is the dramatic and recently restored Rockets and Blue Lights, a picture so spectacular, that like the shadowy group of figures on the foreshore, you can only stare and wonder [ Rachel Campbell-Johnson, the Times].”
Just as exhibition organisers might seem incapable of spotting or acknowledging an abused picture, so it would seem that the temptations (or the pressures) to lend precious and vulnerable works of art remain irresistible for many institutions. On 24 October 2007 we wrote in a letter to the Daily Telegraph:
“The Mellon Center’s decision (report, October 17) to break its own rule never to lend Turner’s fragile ‘Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed’ seems perverse: only seven years ago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston lent its Turner ‘Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying, Typhoon coming on’ to the Tate. On its return to Boston, that painting was found to have suffered losses of paint and to be in an ‘extremely unstable’ condition. A Tate Spokeswoman said: ‘It arrived here safely…Its condition was stable…However, Turner’s paintings are notoriously unstable’. This being so, why are trustees and curators prepared to take such risks with priceless works of art?”
When asked why no records had been kept of the second bungled repainting of the Veronese face in the Supper at Emmaus, a Louvre spokeswoman described the second restoration attempt as one in which the picture was simply being spruced up (“bichonnée”) and added, “That’s why you cannot find it in the painting’s dossier”.
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