Artwatch UK

Review: The Unobservant Eye

21 June 2013

Mr. Collier’s Letter Racks: A Tale of Art & Illusion at the Threshold of the Modern Information Age, Dror Wahrman, Oxford University Press, 2012, HB, 275pp, over 70 col. illus., $34.95/£22.95, ISBN 978 0 19 973886 1

During the past few months we have disclosed horrendous restoration injuries on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes*. Restoration damage is not always so spectacular. Sometimes it is discernable only to the most knowledgeable and alert scholars – and one such is here discussed by the (alert, Berlin based) writer and artist Alexander Adams**.

Alexander Adams writes:

In a recent book investigating the work of Edward Collier (1641/42-c. 1708), historian Dror Wahrman has sought to uncover the methods and meanings of this neglected painter’s art. Collier was a Dutch still-life painter who was active in Leiden before moving to London in 1693. It is supposed that he died in London around 1708. Collier’s signature work was a form of trompe l’oeil painting. He painted letter racks depicting boards crossed by leather straps with items tucked into the straps. The items often included newspapers, sealed letters, pamphlets, combs, quills and bars of sealing wax.

Wahrman started noticing inconsistencies and seeming errors which had been ascribed – by the few writers who had noticed Collier – to a foreigner’s linguistic slips. Yet, as Wahrman has newly discovered, Collier was born into a Scottish-Dutch family and was likely familiar with English from a young age. It seems Collier delighted in playing with inconsistent spellings that he found in printed material of the time. He painted “Monday” and “Munday” and “December” and “Desember”, sometimes combining two versions in the same painting. That these were deliberate decisions not mistakes is confirmed by the identification of the original copies of the documents which show that Collier chose to alter spellings. Collier seems to have been acutely aware of the way that printing was gradually regularising English spelling.

A playful and tricky painter, Collier often included his initials and name in extremely indirect ways. An informed eye is required to locate and decipher these initials, often embedded in flourishes. He also took to secreting his initials in slight alterations of text and numbers, delicately changing the size and font of text. Collier’s most indirect allusions depend on complete legibility and the integrity of picture surface.

Wahrman was searching for Collier’s name in Trompe l’Oeil Letter Rack with Letter to the Dean of Durham (1700, see Figs. 2 to 6), private collection. He noticed that “1690” was written in a slightly eccentric way and suspected this was a hidden signature. Upon consulting an archive photograph taken by Christie’s in 1984, Wahrman discovered that during the course of restoration a point had been removed from “1.690”. When viewed inverted (see Figs. 5 and 6), the flourish and original script read “Colÿe”, a Dutch variant of the artist’s surname. What had evidently happened is that in the course of restoration after the 1984 photograph was taken, the restorer had spotted what seemed to be a mistake (or at least a distracting eccentricity) in the painting and had taken it upon himself/herself (or had been instructed) to remove it. In so doing, the restorer erased a hidden message left by the artist and instead of “improving” the painting, diminished its carefully woven complexity.

Thus we come across an example of a restorer “knowing better” than an artist and tidying up his charge for the sake of neatness. The minimalist principle of preservation in restoration is to repair obvious damage, remove and replace discoloured varnish and – in some cases – remove intervention by later hands and is not to tidy, straighten, sharpen or in other ways “enhance” a picture to conform to the aesthetic expectations of the day. Meddling is especially egregious when owner and restorer do not fully comprehend the intentions and technique of the original artist, as is the case with Collier, a long-neglected artist whose work was (prior to Wahrman’s discoveries) not understood at all. If the restorers were to work on the minimalist principle, this problem need never arise.

Alexander Adams

** Alexander Adams is a regular contributor to The Art Newspaper, The Burlington Magazine, Jackdaw, and, Printing Today. His work was included in “New Acquisitions”, which ran at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery, from January to June this year. For Adams’ discussion of injuries to the integrity of the picture surfaces of modernist, abstract works, see “Malevich Restorations Questioned”, ArtWatch UK Journal 28.

*As shown on our 28 March post, responses to our presentation of evidence on the injuries to Michelangelo’s frescoes have been positive and free of any challenge. Particularly generous support for our post of 27 May and its criticisms of scholars’ endorsements has come from Michael Savage, in his Grumpy Art Historian blog of 16 June (“Taken to the cleaners”): “The reputations of some great scholars, like John Shearman, will forever be tarnished by their foolish support for this destructive restoration…”

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Above, Fig. 1: The Dror Wahrman book’s dust wrapper.
Above, Fig. 2: Edward Collier’s Trompe l’Oeil Letter Rack with Letter to the Dean of Durham (1700).
Above, Fig. 3: Three versions of a detail of Collier’s Trompe l’Oeil Letter Rack with Letter to the Dean of Durham as published in Dror Wahrman’s book (p. 114). The black and white photograph, (top, by courtesy of Christie’s, London), shows the painting in 1984 before restoration. The photograph below it (centre), shows the painting after restoration. The document (“Taylors Bill”) to which unwarranted changes were made during restoration is seen on the left of these details.
Above, Figs. 4a and 4b: The restoration treatment of the date “1690” on “Taylors Bill” is at issue. Before cleaning (left) there were two painted dots associated with the (apparent) digit 1. After cleaning (right), the dot between the digits 1 and 6 is seen to have disappeared. An ultraviolet light photograph at the bottom of Fig. 3 (by courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts) shows that the dot remained but had been painted out during restoration.
Above, Figs. 5 and 6, showing the date “1690” inverted so as to reveal the Dutch spelling of Collier’s surname (“Colÿe”) with the dot serving (top) as the accent above a Dutch ÿ, before its removal during restoration (bottom). [Another similarly functioning dot/accent was removed from the date “1700” seen to the right at Fig. 3.]
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.

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