Review: Ways of Showing – or not
The Conservation of Easel Paintings, Eds. Joyce Hill Stoner and Rebecca Rushfield, Routledge (in the Routledge Series in Conservation and Museology), 2012, Hardback, 928 pp, £220, ISBN: 978-0-7506-8199-5 (hbk) and 978-0-08-094169-I (ebk)
This monumental compilation is said by the publishers to be: “the first comprehensive text on the history, philosophy, and methods of treatment of easel paintings that combines both theory with practice”. Hopes are further expressed that the book, which contains a large bibliography and essays by over seventy-five experts, will provide “a crucial resource in the training of conservation students” and furnish “generations of practicing paintings conservators and interested art historians, curators, directors, collectors, dealers, artists, and students of art and art history with invaluable information and guidance.”
Whether these long-term ambitions might be realised in such a perpetually fluxing and schismatic field, for critical outsiders, this collective account constitutes an invaluable guide to “the professional now” – to the material practices, theoretical rationales and ideological ambitions of those who presently are acting upon pictures and advocating further interventions. (It so happens that one of this book’s editors and three of its contributors will be speaking in London on July 12th at a Christie’s-sponsored conference on conservation practices. For details, see NOTICE below.)
We begin our consideration of this milestone work with an examination of its fourteenth chapter.
Gareth Hawker writes:
In his admirably brief contribution entitled “Image documentation for paintings conservation”, David Saunders [Endnote 1] shows a certain amount of reserve when it comes to describing the significance of his subject. He writes only that, “…photographs or images … can offer a point of reference against which to make future comparisons.” In the context of a book about conservation, perhaps he is too courteous to point out that images provided by a photographic department can show where conservators have damaged paintings. His topic is of central relevance to the whole subject of conservation.
Images which show a painting before and after treatment are vital if cleanings and restorations are to be reviewed impartially. Over the last 70 years or so, the paintings in public collections have changed a great deal, far more than most members of the public suspect. When a photograph of a painting, as it was many years ago, is compared with a photograph of the same painting, as it is today, significant differences may be observed. Most paintings have not simply been cleaned; they appear to have been stripped of paint. There may be a number of reasons for this change in appearance, but there can be no dispute about the fact that areas of paint really have been concealed or obliterated – often passages of the utmost delicacy of detail, complexity of form and subtlety of gradation.
When paint has been removed, the change to a painting is irreversible. No restorer has enough skill to reproduce a master’s brushstroke: if he did, he would be a master himself, and able to repaint a complete picture on a fresh canvas. It is understandable that a restorer would be reluctant to admit to having removed original paint, yet the photographic evidence suggests that, in many cases, this is exactly what has happened (see right). Even so, the National Gallery has not confessed to having ever removed a single atom of original paint .
The public might suppose that there was an independent committee which reviewed these restorations – some equivalent to the Financial Conduct Authority in financial matters – but no such regulator exists. This is why public opinion is so important: there is no higher authority. However, for the public to be able to make a meaningful comparison of the pictures before and after treatment, like should be compared with like. For example, a photograph ‘before’ in black and white should be set against a photograph ‘after’ which is the same size, and also in black and white. But frequently, in its publications and exhibitions, a gallery will side-step a direct comparison. The viewer may find that a small black and white photograph ‘before’ has been placed next to a large colour photograph ‘after’, or next to the newly restored painting itself. It is then impossible to compare like with like.
This sort of unbalanced juxtaposition characterised the National Gallery’s exhibition, “Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes & Discoveries” (2010). This was out of keeping with the policy of openness to public scrutiny which the gallery has pursued under its current director and his predecessor, who have both been outstanding in making photographic records freely available for examination.
Given this free access, the public might assume that critics and historians would be able to act as a viable substitute for a regulator – that they would notice any ruinous effects of a restoration and report on them – but very few critics and historians can rise to the task. As Michael Daley described in earlier posts, historians were almost unanimous in their support for the cleaning of the Sistine ceiling even though, as the cleaning progressed, ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs were being published which showed that detailed brushwork was being wiped off. Historians failed to see the damage. They failed to see it even when artists were pointing it out to them.
Perhaps art historians are taught to look for subject matter, rather than for lines and patterns. Whatever the explanation, if critics and historians were unable to see the injury to the Sistine ceiling, arguably the most obvious in the history of Western Art, then they are unlikely to be able to see other injuries to other masterpieces. When critics and historians cannot be relied upon, public opinion becomes the closest thing there is to an independent regulator, and the evidence provided by photographs and images becomes of crucial importance.
Gareth Hawker is a portrait painter and ArtWatch UK Journal’s Picture/Photography Analyst. For his views on the quality of the National Gallery’s photography, see his 10 January 2011 post “The National Gallery, London: The World-Leader in museums’ online provision of photographic reproductions of paintings”.
1 David Saunders is described in The Conservation of Easel Paintings’ notes on contributors as: “Keeper of Conservation and Scientific Research at the British Museum. Here and in his former position at the National Gallery, London, his research interests were mainly in preventive conservation and the application of imaging technologies to the examination of museum objects.”
2 For example, in a letter to The Independent (“New life for the Old masters: careful restoration or careless destruction?” 14 April 1993), the National Gallery’s then head of conservation, Martin Wyld, wrote: “…Mr Appleyard says: ‘I asked Martin Wyld, chief restorer, to identify any mistakes in [the National Gallery’s] huge post-war restoration programme. He could think of none.’ This is not true. Mr Appleyard’s question was on the narrow but important point of whether original paint had been removed during cleaning from pictures at the National Gallery. I replied that it had not.” In a letter of reply (“Reasonable caution in the restoration of paintings”, 16 April 1993), Appleyard responded: “I asked Mr Wyld very specifically if he could think of any mistakes the gallery had made in its post-war restoration programme. He replied equally specifically that he could think of none. Now he appears to be implying that he does now have some. He should supply a list. It would be of immense value…”
“The Picture So Far…50 Years of Painting Conservation” is a conference organised by The Picture Restorer (the journal of the British Association of Paintings Conservator-Restorers).
The conference will be held at the Royal Institution, London, on 12 July and is described as constituting a major retrospective and discussion of the future of painting conservation. The lecture programme is as follows:
“Three Days That Changed Conservation” By David Bomford – Director of Conservation, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston “The View From The Edge: Reflections on Conservation from a Traveller Among Other Disciplines” By Prof. Alan Cummings – Emeritus Professor, Royal College of Art, London / Visiting Professor, Faculty of Engineering, Imperial College, London “The Heritage of Powerful Personalities and Pioneers of Painting Conservation” By Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner – Professor and Paintings Conservator, University of Delaware/Winterthur “Sense and Sensibility and Patina” By Dr. Salvador Muñoz-Viñas – Professor of the Conservation Department, Universidad Politecnica de Valencia “A Changing Fashion in the Presentation of Old Masters” By Dr. Nicholas Penny – Director of the National Gallery, London “Aqueous Cleaning Methods in Fine Art Conservation: 1984-2014” By Prof. Richard Wolbers – Associate Professor, Art Conservation, University of Delaware
“The Picture So Far…And Beyond”, A discussion chaired by Prof. Alan Cummings.
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