Virtual travels – conservation stories from Italy. PART II: Firenze

Kate Waldron, Jo Neville and Rowan Frame

Thank you for joining us for the second blog post sharing our experiences of a study trip to Italy in July 2019! Following the format of our itinerary in Rome, this part of the trip involved visits to further renowned schools and institutions of conservation in the city of Florence, meeting yet more lovely and inspiring people who were pleased to share their work with us – and finding windows of extra time to pop into a beautiful church or two. Without further ado we will pick up where we left off, arriving in Florence for a busy, exciting and incredibly hot two days…

Thursday, 18th July 2019

Visit to the Studio Arts College International (SACI) – Jo

On the morning of our third day, we paid a visit to the Studio Arts College International (SACI). SACI is housed in a Renaissance palazzo in the centre of Florence. Stepping into the building, we could hear voices of chattering students echoing through arched hallways. In many ways, this visit offered interesting comparisons to our own department. SACI was founded a year after the Hamilton Kerr Institute, and also offers a diploma course in the conservation of paintings.

Over coffee, we were able to talk to current conservation students, and had lively discussions about their training and projects. It was clear that the SACI diploma course has an international reach, with many students having come from the U.S. We learned that in situ work is a very central aspect of their training, with an impressive range of projects undertaken both in Florentine churches as well as further afield.

Students at the SACI at work on their projects. Photograph © Jo Neville.

We were then given an extensive tour of the studios by the head of department, Dr. Roberta Lapucci. We saw paintings that presented a wide variety of conservation challenges, and discussed similarities and differences to the conservation practices commonly employed at our own studio.  For retouching, we noted the diverse shades of brown on retouching palettes, leading to a fascinating comparison of Italian and British approaches to the question of patina on paintings.  There were also many familiar sights: Rowan and I were pleased to see the reconstructions made by SACI conservation students, which looked very similar to those that we had completed earlier in the year.

To round off the visit, we were given a tour of the archaeological conservation studio with Dr Nora Marosi, and introduced to some of the current projects. This included a very interesting discussion about the central role of the soprintendenza (the Ministry of Arts and Cultural Heritage) for conservation decisions concerning all objects that belong to the Italian State, and about some of the regional differences in choice of materials and techniques for certain conservation treatments. We were also shown some amazing 3D-printed replicas of objects for display (pictured).

Dr Nora Marosi showing us some 3D-printed replicas. Photograph © Kate Waldron.

Visit to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure – Rowan and Kate

In the afternoon, we reconvened at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure e Laboratori di Restauro (OPD). We were greeted by Marco Ciatti, director of the laboratory and of the higher education school of training for conservator-restorers at the Institute, where he is teacher of the history and theory of conservation on the 5-year programme (established in 1978). Marco gave us an engaging introduction to the Institute and its part in the history of conservation in Florence, from the time of Vasari to the catastrophic flood of 1966. It was at the time of the flood that the Opificio relocated from the Uffizi to its present location in a striking building that used to be a military fortress. When the Italian government formed a Ministry of Cultural Heritage in 1975, the restoration laboratory of the soprintendenza was merged with the OPD under the directorship of Umberto Baldini, to form a National Institute of Conservation, and today the Institute receives artworks from all over Italy including paintings, sculpture, textiles, works on paper, mosaics, jewellery, and objects of terracotta and stone.

The Opificio prides itself on being a renowned centre of research as well as restoration and training, and there is a strong specialisation in the conservation of paintings on panel. The enormous building is divided into areas focusing on selected aspects of conservation treatment, with, for example, a whole room dedicated to working on the paint layers. We were given a tour of the institute and moved from painting to painting, in each case hearing from Marco about the analysis or treatment undertaken and enjoying the opportunity to admire the beautiful artwork and discuss the artists. Many of the paintings return to churches so it was interesting to hear about the questions and procedures involved for preparing them for those environments. Like the HKI, Marco emphasised that the OPD is open to researching new methods and technologies under development for conservation treatments and incorporating them into their practice.

One of the most exciting things was to hear about the expert, complex structural treatments carried out on a number of panel paintings in the studio, with techniques that were developed there and are the subject of continuing research and refinement: the OPD remains a centre of excellence globally for the development of solutions for structural conservation and support for paintings on panel.

It was an incredibly hot day, so after our visit we went as a group to enjoy some more gelato! The treat was kindly paid for by the members of Cambridge Arts Society, as a thank you after a visit they paid to the HKI earlier in the year.

Enjoying our ice-creams beneath the beautiful and famous tabernacles of the church of Orsanmichele. Photographs © Jo Neville.

Not forgetting Rupert, Vicky and Adèle!

Friday, 19th July 2019

Visit to the studio of Stefano Scarpelli – Kate

On our final day, we visited the private conservation studio of Stefano Scarpelli. Along a corridor lined with cabinets full of brightly-coloured pigments, we met Stefano and his son in their main studio space, and glimpsed other rooms beyond with forests of frames and paintings. Stefano studied conservation at the OPD and later taught the relining course there. Before that, he trained as a conservator under Professor Edo Masini, the former technical director of the paintings conservation lab at the OPD and a prominent Florentine conservator. Stefano later went on to collaborate with Masini and has worked for major galleries in Florence and elsewhere, and on high profile works of art by artists including Giotto, Masaccio and Caravaggio.

Mostly, Stefano mostly works for private collections and galleries, but the studio has worked for the Uffizi and other public collections. Although they are familiar with contemporary developments in conservation methods and materials, they always start with traditional methods and this is their preference, as they are familiar with the materials and how they age. Stefano and his studio undertake all of their own structural work and lining of paintings, and also the work on frames. It was fascinating to hear about Stefano’s experiences of lining paintings, especially in the context of changing attitudes and approaches to lining in Florence and Italy over the years. We were introduced to several paintings which will be lined in the studio, including a painting that was severely damaged by flooding in the church to which it belongs. We also learned of Stefano’s procedures for retouching: for paintings owned by the Italian State, trateggio (see previous blog post) is the only retouching technique that is accepted. For other works, imitative retouching is done instead, as we are accustomed to doing in the UK.

Some reflections…

We had such an enlightening tour of conservation studios in Italy, augmented by visits to the breathtaking art in some of Italy’s best galleries and churches. At the institutions we visited, I was particularly struck watching students retouching using the trateggio technique. We learn about this in our own training, but I have not ever used the technique myself and I had never seen it in action before. It was much more complex than I could have imagined and I was in awe of the speed and precision with which the students worked. We were also conscious of the differences in material choices between conservators at different institutions, some remaining attached to historical or traditional materials and others being more open to new technologies and methods. However, the constant and resounding message we received from the conservators we met is that it is the skill of application that is perceived as key.

I want to end with a few thoughts from the final excursion of our time in Florence, on the afternoon of our last day before we returned home to the (rainy and cold) UK. We were treated to our very own private tour of the magnificent church of Santa Maria Novella, the main Dominican church in Florence, by Roberta Lapucci. It was my first visit to the church, yet it contains so many artworks that were central to my undergraduate art history studies and imprinted themselves in my memory. Roberta began with Masaccio’s groundbreaking Holy Trinity fresco, and told us about the process by which it was physically transferred from its unknown original location to its present position on the north wall of the nave, as well as other aspects of its conservation history. It was especially wonderful to hear about the technical art history of Giotto’s monumental crucifix, with emphasis on the skill of the carpentry and construction. I was particularly struck by the discoveries about the underdrawing: while the main composition is drawn freehand, the outline for the cross is known to have been provided by the church, and the faces of John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary are scored out according to ‘mask’-like models, called patroni, that would also have been imposed by the church. As we continued our tour of the church and cloisters, we also learned about some of the complex and devastating ways in which some of the frescoes have decayed over time or been damaged by ill-informed methods of cleaning in the past.

Making our way to Santa Maria Novella. Photograph © Hamilton Kerr Institute.

The visit to Santa Maria Novella served as a reminder to be thankful for every opportunity we have in our lives to experience direct close encounters with works of art. As events this year have shown, one can never know how long it might be before the next opportunity will arise – even if you work with art every day.

Virtual travels – conservation stories from Italy. PART I: Roma

Kate Waldron, Ellen Nigro and  Maria Carolina Peña Mariño

Spending such a long period at home during lockdown made me realise how little I truly appreciated the ability that we had before to travel freely and explore the art and culture of other countries. Each year, a group of students, interns and staff from the Hamilton Kerr Institute go on a short study trip, usually to another country, to learn about paintings conservation in cultures other than our own. Sadly, the pandemic meant that our scheduled study trip to Amsterdam in May this year had to be cancelled. To make up for this, we’ve put together a blog post about our study trip to Italy in July 2019. It has been pleasant indeed to reminisce about this during the difficulties of this year, and we all hope that we will get to travel again before too long. I hope that the accounts below can provide some escapism for readers too.

Stoically undeterred by temperatures of 32°C and above, we packed a lot into the trip. For this reason, I have divided it up into two blog posts: this one will take you through the things we learned in Rome, and the second one will cover what we did in Florence.  As I hope you will see, the trip provided a rich and fascinating glimpse into approaches to conservation (of easel paintings but also many other objects and art forms) in Italy, and what it is like to train as a conservator in the country.

Monday, 15th July 2019

On Monday we had the opportunity to visit the Musei Vaticani. It was so busy that, once inside, it was generally a case of shuffling along with the heaving crowd of visitors, catching glimpses of artworks along the way. But at least in the Stanze di Rafaello and the Sistine Chapel, the paintings were high enough to be visible to all, and we were able to take our time looking at them.

In the evening we visited several churches containing notable paintings by Caravaggio, with Rupert Featherstone, director of the Hamilton Kerr Institute, as our guide. We visited:

  • San Luigi dei Francesi – Contarelli Chapel (1599-1600)
    • The Inspiration of St Matthew (over altar)
    • The Calling of St Matthew
    • The Martyrdom of St Matthew
  • Sant’ Agostino – Madonna dei Pellegrini (1603-1605)
  • Santa Maria del Popolo – Cerasi Chapel (1600-1601)
    • The Crucifixion of St Peter
    • The Conversion of St Paul
The churches were quiet and dark, with coin-operated lights illuminating the paintings. Photograph © Jo Neville.

Tuesday, 16th July 2019

Visit to the Barberini – Ellen

The Palazzo Barberini is one of two sites that house the painting collections of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica (the other site is the Palazzo Corsini, on the other side of the city). We were greeted warmly by Chiara Merucci, who filled us in on the history of the conservation studio and explained that the sole focus of their work is paintings belonging to the Galleria Nazionale. One of these is a painting of Venus and Adonis by the workshop of Titian, of which several other versions exist – some in the UK – all of which vary slightly. The one at the Barberini was recently cleaned and had technical analysis carried out on it, and as a result of the investigations it is now attributed to Titian’s workshop, rather than a copyist. We were also introduced to a range of other paintings currently in the studio, including a group of beautiful works on copper. We were interested to learn that in contrast to paintings conservation practice in the UK, the conservators at the Barberini are generally not keen on using synthetic varnishes, preferring to use the natural resin dammar for retouching. Another great part of our visit was meeting the conservators of musical instruments in the collections.

We also had a wonderful time meandering through the galleries, which have a range of works from all regions of Italy.  This was very interesting because the collection was formed in the 19th century after the unification of Italy, and many of the aristocratic Italian families donated works to the collection in solidarity with the new nation.  A major highlight (at least for me) was seeing the Pietro da Cortona fresco. It is a wonderfully over-the-top Baroque explosion of a ceiling!

Visit to the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro (ICR)- Maria Carolina

In the afternoon, we visited the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro (ICR), located in Trastevere in the former L’Ospizio Apostolico di San Michele. We were welcomed by the director of the degree courses, Francesca Capanna, and the head of communications and promotion, Anna Milaneschi. This institution, established in 1939 and directed initially by Cesare Brandi, is part of the Italian Ministry of Culture and Tourism and oversees the conservation, restoration, and research of works of art and cultural heritage in the country and also provides professional training in the field.

The program offered is a 5-year theoretical and practical course leading to a Laurea Magistrale in Consevazione e Restauro dei Bieni Cultural. Students attend lectures, laboratory sessions and studio work in the conservation of many types of objects: mural painting and architectural decorated surfaces, mosaic and stucco, paintings on panel, wooden sculpture, paintings on canvas, contemporary art, ceramics, glass, ivory, excavated organics, metals, leather, paper and vellum, textiles, and plaster. The teaching in conservation is given by an inter-disciplinary staff of chemists, physicists, biologists, conservation scientists, historians, art historians, architects, archaeologists, and conservators in different specialities. We were given a tour of several departments and it was incredible to learn about the conservation of so many different materials and in such depth.

The visit started in the mural painting and architectural decorated surfaces studio, where Professor Valeria Massa explained to us the students’ current projects. One of these was the stabilization and treatment of an amazing group of Roman mosaic fragments that remain from il Tempio della Gens Flavia (1st century AD,) excavated in the 1970s underneath the Palazzo del Quirinale. Following that, we visited the panel painting studio, where students were treating paintings from the Museum of Capodimonte in Naples, and they showed us their process of retouching in watercolour and Gamblin using the Italian trateggio technique.1 On a portrait that was exhibiting widespread and persistent flaking, the conservator showed us the painstaking processes by which she had addressed the flaking and was now filling the many minute losses and matching the texture to the painting’s incredibly smooth surface. In the separate studio for paintings on canvas, Professor Carla Zaccheo introduced us to the complex conservation treatment of a double-sided processional silk banner that was exhibiting multiple tears and fabric losses.

Finally, we arrived at the space reserved for treating very large paintings, an extraordinary former 17th-century jail building. Here we were shown the Fishing Pavilion Series (1918) by Humberto Coromaldi treated by the ICR. The paintings were recently the focus of a large-scale project of conservation and research, directed by art historian Laura Agostino and conservator Paola Lazurlo, during which they underwent major structural treatment including tear mending, large inserts to fill gaps in the canvas, strip-lining in polyester sailcloth, and re-stretching with a spring system to aluminium stretchers.

Hearing about the treatment of the Coromaldi paintings in the repurposed jail building. Photograph © Jo Neville.

Wednesday, 17th July 2019

Wednesday was reserved for travelling between Rome and Florence, so we used it as a study day and took the opportunity to explore some of the other museums and galleries in Rome. I visited the Villa Farnesina, with frescoed rooms decorated by Raphael, Sebastiano del Piombo, Baldassarre Perruzzi (who also designed the architectural layout) and other famous artists. It was particularly interesting because there were actually conservators working on some of the frescoes in the Loggia di Galatea when I visited, and as I explored, I followed a display that presented the history of conservation carried out in the villa. In recent decades, a lot of this has focused on tackling issues of vibrations caused by the relentless heavy traffic on the nearby roads, which have posed a severe threat to the frescoes.

Just around the corner was the Palazzo Corsini (the sister gallery of the Palazzo Barberini, housing artworks of the Galleria Nazionale), where I bumped into Rupert and we exchanged thoughts about some of the paintings.

Then it was time to say goodbye to Rome and head to Florence, which will be the subject of the following post. Arrivederci!

Photograph © Elisabeth Petrina.

Conservation in isolation! Experiences of a conservator in lockdown

Kate Waldron

It has now been over three months since the beginning of lockdown, and it goes without saying that things have been hard for everyone, whatever the individual circumstances. For conservators it is a trying time, given that so much of our work revolves around practical treatments of objects. My heart goes out to all freelancers in the field and for everyone midway through their higher education training and early career positions, for whom the timing could not have been worse.

In light of all the difficulties we all face, I have been heartened by all that I have been seeing and reading on the importance of art for our mental wellbeing and a way of escaping or finding comfort. Many museums, including the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, have been closed of course, but in some ways museums and galleries have become more accessible than ever, with more of their collections available to peruse online and lots of virtual events and resources. I liked the series of ‘Stay at Home Museum’ YouTube videos by VisitFlanders, particularly the one from the Rubenshuis Museum in Antwerp. Closer to home, Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge also rose enthusiastically to the challenge of a virtual visiting experience and their website has lots to offer; I particularly enjoyed their series of interviews with artists whom they have worked with before, to hear how they have responded to these unprecedented times, and the live webcam inside the house – thanks to Jo for discovering and sharing that!

I want to take the opportunity to share how we at the HKI have been affected by the recent events, to offer a glimpse of what life is currently like for an institution of paintings conservators. When lockdown began, most of the staff and all of the students and interns were told we had to work from home until further notice. This meant we had to pack up our projects and the paintings we were working on, and begin the slow adjustment to working remotely, from our homes – and for two of our number this involved travelling back home to Austria and Colombia respectively. Most of our time at the HKI is spent working on paintings in the studios, and I found it daunting to think it could be months before we were able to return to carry on with that work. But it is easy to forget that there are MANY other things that conservators do besides practical work! I have found that lockdown has been an opportunity to focus on documentation, research, and virtual learning, and in this post I will talk about some of the things I have been doing.  In the next post, I hope to share stories from some of the other interns and students – and even some of the staff members!


One of the things I have been up to is catching up on documentation for the paintings I am treating. This is always ongoing and updated at every new stage of the conservation treatment, and for me it involves going through all the latest jottings in my studio notebook and writing them up into something coherent. In the knowledge that it could be months before I see the paintings again, it is especially important that the documentation is up to date at this stage!

One of my projects involved making a thorough treatment proposal and estimate for future conservation work. This is for a large set of painted objects in a rural church – something quite different from your ‘typical’ easel painting that one would treat in the HKI studio. So, it was far from straightforward and I have actually been very grateful to have this time during lockdown to think carefully about the appropriate potential courses of action, the ethical issues surrounding these decisions, and all of the fiddly logistics and timeframe – not to mention the maths involved in the costing process! Writing estimates is a task that interns at the HKI are very fortunate to gain experience in. It can be difficult to anticipate how long each stage of a proposed treatment might take, especially as this is usually based on only very tiny tests on the object (or none at all in this case). So I was really glad to have time to focus on this and get it as accurate as possible, with my supervisor’s help. Hopefully, with the more estimates I write the easier it will become!


Something that has been really exciting for me to work on is a paper for the HKI Bulletin. We are spoilt at the HKI as we have our very own journal, published biennially, to which students, interns, staff and associates can contribute articles . The articles span a range of topics and often focus on interesting treatments or research that students and interns carry out during their training at the Institute. My paper was about a treatment of a painting that I completed in my first year, during which the Roberson Archive at the HKI turned out to be a really important resource for finding out about the artist’s materials and techniques and informing the treatment decisions. This was such a good experience of writing for an academic journal and all of the steps involved – particularly the editing process and obtaining image permissions. The staff putting together the current issue and doing all of the editing have an even bigger task than usual, being a reduced team and having to do everything via email, which is not easy when dealing with multiple drafts and juggling images and captions. So, huge hats off to them.

We have also been able to continue sharing with each other the research that we are all doing. In normal times at the HKI, we hold a ‘research forum’ once every academic term, when a number of people sign up to each give a small presentation on a recent or ongoing research project. During lockdown we have altered the format by having a research presentation every Wednesday afternoon from a different person each week.

Here I was attending Christine Kimbriel’s brilliant research presentation, which explored the many painted copies that exist of Hans Holbein’s portrait of Sir Thomas More at the Frick collection, and discussed their possible relationship to it.

This has been fantastic, not only to keep practicing our presentation skills but to keep up with everything that is going on – we were so used to catching up with each other daily in the studios, asking how projects are going or interrupting someone during practical work to ask what they’re doing if it looks interesting!

We are lucky indeed to have the IT support and resources to do all these things via various online video platforms. It is bizarre presenting to a screen (I found that when I was giving my presentation I had no idea if my audience was even still there, especially given the patchy performance of my internet).But it is such a comfort just to see familiar faces, and the discussions after the talks almost make me forget that it is all through a screen and not back in the library at the HKI.

A screen shot from my presentation, showing gold and silver stencils on a set of 15th-century rood screen panels from a church in Norfolk, which is one of my current studio projects.

We have also managed to continue with our weekly coffee meetings on Tuesdays, for more informal discussions: we have had re-jigged the time slightly to make sure that no poor person has to get up in the middle of the night to join in from their part of the world, and it remains the good old opportunity to catch up with the latest developments and upcoming events in the collective diary – albeit slightly fewer than usual – and exchange anecdotes about the quirks of working from home. There is even a conservation book club, which sadly I have not been able to attend just yet, but from what I have heard I am missing out massively so I hope to join it soon.

A portion of the familiar faces that appear on my screen at our weekly meetings!

Extra learning

We have all been enjoying the abundance of webinars and online lectures that have become available since lockdown began. One thing that the students and interns were able to ‘attend’ was a two-week workshop, for professionals and trainees in conservation, on new methods being developed for cleaning paintings and other cultural artefacts. Although we have all been introduced to these already in our training, it is always good to have a refresher and especially to be kept abreast of the latest developments in the field, as technologies are advancing all the time. On that note, I was just in awe of the extraordinary ability that there is now to bring hundreds of people together from all over the world, many in different time zones, for a shared workshop – but mainly for my computer not to crash at the time.

Slides from two of the webinars with Ki Culture. Credit: Caitlin Southwick.

Another course that I found very fulfilling was a set of webinars about sustainability in cultural heritage and conservation, which were run by Caitlin Southwick of Ki Culture. These covered topics like energy and waste, and explored not only how we can incorporate sustainability into our daily practice as conservators but also how our profession fits into the bigger picture of cultural heritage and sustainability goals on a global scale. The webinars involved stimulating discussions with a group of like-minded people from around the world, and it was enlightening to hear about their experiences of sustainability in their own workplaces.

All of this has made me critique my own practice and realise that there are many simple ways that I can improve in my work, lifestyle and thinking. I feel lucky that at the HKI and Fitzwilliam Museum, there are already conversations being had around some of the issues covered. I was also introduced to the subject of social sustainability, a term that was new to me and refers (in a very brief and inadequate summary) to the bringing together of communities, working with each other despite geographical, social and political barriers to make all voices and perspectives heard and ensure that our cultural heritage, and the world resources we share, are made open and available to all. In light of the recent events in America and their repercussions internationally, highlighting just how much inequality still exists in our societies, the conversation was timely, and is one that I hope is on course to continue, particularly regarding the history and future of our museum collections.

So, for me, lockdown has been a period of reflection alongside my work. I feel very fortunate to be in a position where I am well supported by my colleagues and peers, and for the freedom to devote more research time to my areas of interest. And although it feels like there is a long way to go and we all face uncertain times ahead, particularly at the moment, I am optimistic at least that the conservation community is well-placed to make a difference and forge creative solutions as the world tackles unprecedented challenges in the future.

Paint… and butterflies? Conserving and researching a painting by Otto Marseus van Schrieck

Sophie Lamb, postgraduate intern

Flowers, Insects and Reptiles by Otto Marseus van Schrieck is an oil painting on canvas, dated 1673. This work was brought to the Hamilton Kerr Institute for treatment and investigation, after receiving generous support from the Woodmansterne Art Conservation Awards in 2019. The painting belongs in the Fitzwilliam Museum collection. It was bequeathed in 1834 by Daniel Mesman and is one of three paintings by this artist in the Museum. Only two other paintings by van Schrieck are held in public collections in the UK.

Otto Marseus Van Schrieck, 1673. ‘Flowers, Insects and Reptiles’: before treatment. Photograph © Chris Titmus, Hamilton Kerr Institute.

Flowers, Insects and Reptiles depicts a nocturnal gathering of creatures by the edge of a pool of water. The grouping is lit by pale light coming from the left-side of the composition. From a mossy patch of earth in the foreground springs a cluster of thistles, weeds, carnations and a rose, and around this composition are numerous butterflies and moths, dragonfly, lizard and a snake, which snaps out from behind a leaf at a passing butterfly.

Otto Marseus van Schriek was a Dutch-born painter active in the later part of the seventeenth century. He travelled to Rome early in his career and later set up his home and studio in the marshy outskirts of Amsterdam known as “the land of snakes” (Jorink, 2014). He is known for creating a signature genre of painting, the forest floor still-life, which is often termed sottobosco in Italian. This genre developed from conventional floral still-life painting, shifting the floral ensemble out of vases and into the forest, resulting in eye-level portrait of the dark world of the undergrowth and the creeping fauna that inhabited it. His works teem with reptiles and amphibians, toads and snakes, and, hovering above, butterflies and moths.

Otto Marseus Van Schrieck was fascinated by animals and was especially intrigued by the small reptiles and amphibians that could be found around the ponds and wetlands near his home, just outside Amsterdam. Collectors and dealers visiting his studio would be shown the menagerie of snakes and creatures he bred and kept as models for his paintings. He spent so much time hunting around the damp woodland and undergrowth that he earnt the nickname ‘Snuffler’ amongst the circle of painters he socialised with (ibid.). Van Schrieck worked on the borders of art and science (Seelig, 2018); he was interested in Natural History and especially in the discussions around spontaneous generation, which is reflected in the accuracy of the animals depicted in his works, although set in fanciful imaginative situations.1

A close-up detail of the snake and butterfly. Photograph © Hamilton Kerr Institute.

Van Schrieck’s technique and use of butterflies

Van Schrieck was commercially successful in his lifetime, and so would have developed a methodical approach to painting, since it would be economically effective to do so (Madeleine, n.d.). In terms of the materials he used, it is likely that he did not prepare his own canvases, since readily prepared canvases were available to buy in the Netherlands at the time (Wallert, 1999). A canvas maker would typically size the linen canvas with an animal glue such as rabbit skin, in order to protect the fabric from the potentially damaging effects of oil paint. Following this a ground layer would have been applied to provide a suitable surface on which to paint. This painting has a reasonably thick application of a white ground, which may be either lead or chalk based. It was often the case that an artist would apply a second layer of priming in a preferred colour to work on; however, it is not clear whether van Schrieck applied this second priming before painting (Howard, n.d). He would then start by making a detailed drawing on the priming; artists contemporary to van Schrieck were known to make the underdrawing in silverpoint, black chalk, or ink. The painting would then be built up in layers, consisting of an imprimatura (a first wash of a single colour), then the dead-colour (a flat wash of colour for each form depicted), followed by successive layers of glazes to model shadow and form, and finally fine details such as patterns and highlights (ibid.).

Van Schrieck carefully arranged the composition of the intertwining thistle, flowers and reptiles to give an illusion of movement and depth. For example, the thistle shown in the left of the foreground is depicted convincingly in a three-dimensional space; pale light reflects off its prickly edges. The lighting of the scene is complex with emphasised contrasts of light and dark, and this gives it a sense of tension and movement. One feature stands out arousing curiosity: the butterflies. These have a stiff and static appearance, which contrasts with the naturalistic depiction of the foliage and reptiles around them. The butterflies appear noticeably pale and yellow against the dark background, as if they exist in a plane superimposed onto the rest of the composition.

On inspection under a microscope, a regular pattern of minute scales can be discerned on the butterflies’ painted wings (Webexhibits, n.d.). Van Schrieck practised the unusual technique of pressing butterfly wings into wet paint so that the tiny scales remained caught in it, and the butterfly’s natural colours became a part of the painting. Using a brush he would then paint in the body and make small corrections. In order for the wings not to disappear against the dark background paint, a butterfly-shaped reserve would have been created in white prior to their application, to allow reflected light to shine through their colours (Steensma, 1999). This technique, which has been identified in other works by van Schrieck, is also evident on this painting (Ibid; Beier, 1987).

Opinions differ about precisely how the scale transfer technique was carried out; one theory is that van Schrieck pressed the wings directly onto a prepared patch of paint in the shape of the butterfly (Steensma, 1999). Another idea cites a set of instructions for a ‘double-pass’ technique whereby the wings would be first pressed to dry between sheets of paper coated with gum arabic. On peeling the wing membrane away, the scales would remain adhered to the gum arabic. The paper sheet would then be cut to the outline of the wing, and this would be placed face down onto freshly varnished paint. This would then be left to dry. Since varnish is hydrophobic, the scales could be released from the paper using water, leaving them embedded in the varnish the correct way up (Berthier et al, 2008).

The butterflies have greatly changed in appearance since they were applied fresh. Most of the scales have faded due to exposure to light – the effects of even small doses of UV light exposure will accumulate over time – and have now become colourless. Their yellow appearance is due to the presence of an overlying discoloured varnish. Some reddish scales have not faded, and enough remains to help with the identification of the corresponding species (with thanks to Russell Stebbings of the department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, for his help). The butterflies in this painting were identified as being native to the Netherlands and would have been also native to Cambridge, although the Large Tortiseshell is now considered extinct in the UK and the Garden Tiger Moth is declining in numbers.

Condition of the painting

Although the painting was in a stable condition when it arrived, its image was partially obscured by multiple layers of very old, non-original natural resin varnish that had degraded. This substantial varnish layer had become hazy, extremely yellowed and rather opaque, making it appear as if one were peering at the scene through thick fog. The dulled original colours and their reduced tonal range resulted in the loss of the sense of depth and many details of the artist’s intended composition were obscured, including the skyline and the intricate detail of the foliage. It was decided that removing the discoloured varnish would greatly improve the appearance of the painting and restore these aspects that are so central to van Schrieck’s oeuvre and philosophy. The application of a new varnish would then re-saturate the colours and provide renewed protection to the paint surface.

Conservation treatment

Minute paint samples were taken from two locations (one from the background and one from a butterfly wing) in order to ascertain whether it would be possible to safely clean the varnish without affecting the delicate paint layers. Examination of the samples in cross-section indicated that there were at least four layers of varnish present. These samples further showed that the scales were placed onto the painting and then varnished. The scales appear to be embedded in a varnish layer, possibly the varnish used during the double transfer method. This is, however, distinct from the main upper varnish. It was decided, following a series of testing and further observations, that cleaning this later coating gradually whilst leaving the imbedded scales intact would be possible.

Cleaning of the painting is currently underway. The painting also presented a layer of modern synthetic varnish, which was applied when the painting last visited the Hamilton Kerr Institute in the mid-1990s in preparation for an exhibition. This topmost varnish was removed first before the older discoloured natural resin varnishes were tackled. A water-based method of cleaning was developed to safely remove these layers gradually, avoiding the excessive use of organic solvents and swab action which could potentially disturb sensitive layers such as oil glazes or the varnish containing the embedded scales.

The treatment is ongoing at the time of writing this blog. Once the varnish has been cleaned from the paint layers, I aim to carry out further technical examination to gain more understanding of the pigments, binders and the technique used, in particular the butterfly scales application. I will then fill and retouch any losses to the paint layer whilst leaving the butterflies untouched. Afterwards a final varnish will be applied. I am also working on reconstructing the technique so that I can learn how it might have been used, but also to gain a glimpse of how the painting may have appeared originally. We know that the butterflies and moths have drastically changed over many years and it is not possible to restore their original appearance on the painting, but it might at least be possible to see the original intention on a reconstruction.

Conserving this painting is an interesting challenge in terms of trying to find a safe way to clean the painting whilst preserving the very fragile remains of the butterfly wings, especially since the artist’s precise method for transferring the scales is not yet fully understood. It is hoped that this project will bring new insight into the study of van Schrieck’s painting methods, and perhaps open further research into experiments with embedding organic material in paintings and methods for treating them. Flowers, Insects and Reptiles is proof of van Schrieck’s inventiveness and skill as an artist and of  his parallel interest in the natural world.

Many thanks to Alice Tavares da Silva, Henrietta Ward and Russell Stebbings for their guidance and support.

With thanks to the Woodmansterne Art Conservation Awards for their generous support in funding this project.


Beier, B., 1987. >>Contre-Epreuves<< in der barocken Stillebenmaleri. Maltechnik 1. Restauro. pp. 35-39.

Berthier, S. ; Boulenguez, J. ; Menu, M. ; Mottin, B. 2008. ‘Butterfly inclusions in van Schrieck masterpieces’. Techniques and optical properties. Applied Physics A, 2008. 92(1). pp.51-57.

Howard, H. N.D. Support and Ground. The National Gallery. [online] Available at: Accessed 9th March 2020.

Jorink, E. 2014. Snakes, Fungi and Insects. Otto Marseus van Schrieck, Johannes Swammerdam and the Theory of Spontaneous Generation, in: K.A.E. Enenkel, P.J. Smith. eds., Zoology in Early Modern Culture. Intersections of Science, Theology, Philology, and Political and Religious Education. 32(2014). pp. 197-234.

Levine, R. and Evers, C. 1999. The Slow Death of Spontaneous Generation (1668-1859). [online] Access Health @ the National Health Museum. Available at: Accessed 12 March 2020.

Steensma, S. 1999. Otto Marseus van Schrieck: Leben und Werk. Hildesheim; Zurich; New York: Georg Olms Verlag.

White, M. N.D. The Highly Systematic Methodology of Dutch 17th-century Painting Techniques. [online] Available at: Accessed 27 March 2020.

Wallert, A. 1999. Methods and materials of still-life painting in the seventeenth century. In: A. Wallert, ed. 1999. Still Lifes: Techniques and Style: An Examination of Paintings from the Rijksmuseum. Zwolle: Waanders Publishers. Webexhibits. N.D. Causes of Color: Butterflies. [online] Available at: Accessed 27 March 2020.

About the author:

Sophie Lamb graduated in 2018 with an MA in the Conservation of Fine Art (Easel Paintings) from Northumbria University. Prior to this she completed her BA (Hons) in Fine Art from Oxford Brookes University. While there she won an Erasmus scholarship to study oil painting and drawing at the Vilnius Academy of Art. Additionally, she studied on the foundation year in Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Manchester. Her projects at Northumbria included treating a 19th century painting on millboard, which led on to an extended research project investigating unusual materials for painting supports and investigating an 18th century painting on papier-mâché board. During her training she undertook conservation internships with the V&A museum and with various private conservation studios around London and East Anglia. 

To contact Sophie:

Annual Inspection of the Thornham Parva Retable

The Thornham Parva Retable. © C. Titmus. With many thanks to the wardens of St Mary’s Church, Thornham Parva.

The Thornham Parva Retable was made circa 1330-1340, and is one of a very small number of such objects known to survive in Britain. It is a remarkable and important extant medieval English religious painting and sits behind the altar at the east end of the chancel in the tiny church of St Mary, Thornham Parva, Suffolk. In February 2019 a team of staff, students and interns from the Hamilton Kerr Institute drove to the church to conduct an inspection of the Retable, a duty performed annually since its extensive conservation treatment at the Institute almost 20 years ago.¹ While we were in the area we paid visits to two other churches, Yaxley and Eye, to see their rood screens; a genre of late medieval decorative painted church furniture with over 500 survivals in East Anglia.

The church of St Mary, Thornham Parva. © Hamilton Kerr Institute

The Thornham Parva Retable

The Thornham Parva Retable is a horizontal panel some 3.9m long and 1.1m high, divided with columns into 9 sections which depict respectively, from left to right, Saints Dominic, Catherine, John the Baptist and Peter, the Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John the Evangelist, and Saints Paul, Edmund, Margaret and Peter Martyr. A Retable is an altarpiece; a panel decorated with devotional images that would have been positioned behind the altar and formed the backdrop to the liturgy. This Retable is thought to have been commissioned by the Dominican Priory at Thetford, Norfolk, and the depicted saints point to a Dominican patron. The Retable’s considerable size and quality are indicators of origins in a large and wealthy religious house. Stylistic similarities have been noted between the images on the Retable and designs on medieval glass fragments excavated from Thetford Priory ruins. The Cluny Frontal (Musée National du Moyen Age, Paris) has been identified as the companion piece, showing scenes from the life of the Virgin, which would have been positioned at the front of the altar table. The same craftsmen collaborated on both pieces.

Thornham Parva
The Retable inside the church, viewed through the Medieval rood screen. © L. Wrapson.

The Retable is constructed from oak, and its straight grain indicates that it was imported from the Baltic, which is common in panel paintings in England from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern period. It also had a frame originally that would have been affixed to the support prior to painting and decoration. The original frame on the Cluny Frontal gives some indication of what its appearance might have been here. The panel is has a ground of chalk bound in animal glue, and analysis has suggested that the chalk may well have geological origins near Thetford. The design for the painting is drawn out onto the chalk layer, and some of this drawing was executed in the bright red pigment vermilion, which is unusual. Next, a layer of lead white in oil was applied. The sumptuous background decoration, comprising squares of gilded ‘tin-relief’ designs, would have been applied before the figures were painted. The name ‘tin-relief’ derives from the technique for this form of decoration. The reliefs are made of putty containing a mixture of pigments in resin and oil, which was pressed into a mould lined with tin-foil as a release layer. A variety of moulds were used here. This decorative technique is particularly interesting because it was to feature prominently in the later medieval rood screens of East Anglian churches. The figures are painted in a bright array of pigments including lead white, blue azurite, red and yellow earth pigments and copper-based greens. These were also mixed and blended to give other colours and tones. A greater range of colours and effects was created by glazing over the top with transparent pigments like red lake and the copper green pigment verdigris.

Detail of lamb motif in tin relief. © Hamilton Kerr Intitute

Rediscovered in 1927 in Thornham Hall, where it existed in three sections, the Retable was installed in St Mary’s and throughout the 20th century was transferred to several places in the country at various times, escaping war, travelling to an exhibition in France, and receiving intermittent conservation treatments to secure the paint and re-gild the background. It came to the HKI between 1996 and 2001, where, with funding support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, English Heritage, World Monuments Fund and Samuel H Kress Foundation, it received full conservation, including consolidation (re-adhesion of flaking paint and ground), cleaning and removal of multiple and thick layers of overpaint, discoloured resin varnishes and previous wax-resin adhesives. Extensive research and technical analysis were carried out, including dendrochronology, X-ray and pigment analysis, and reconstructions to further explore certain aspects of the technique. As a result of the treatment, the majority of the paint represents the original medieval scheme and, despite the areas of damage and paint loss incurred from iconoclasm and neglect, the painting is in exceptional condition for its age. The conservation also involved monitoring and improvement of the environmental conditions within the church and provision of a protective enclosure for the Retable, and the work continues in the form of an annual inspection. These are all examples of what is known as preventive conservation.

Preventive conservation and the Thornham Parva Retable

Preventive conservation is a branch of conservation and preservation that involves creating and implementing policies to passively ensure the longevity of cultural heritage. The Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) has identified ten “Agents of Deterioration” that act as an outline for what might harm cultural heritage.² Therefore, preventive conservation is concerned with environmental monitoring, documentation, integrated pest management, proper handling policies, implementation of security measures, and protection from fire, water, pollution, and too much light. Some of the actions a conservator might take to mitigate the potential harm include periodic condition assessment of objects and their environment to keep a record of changes, and to be alert of any changes that might be a detriment to the preservation of a work so they may be mitigated. All of this work ensures the long-term protection of works of art, including pieces like the Thornham Parva Retable.

With this in mind, students and interns led by Dr Lucy Wrapson, all from the HKI, set out to Thornham Parva to do a yearly condition check of the Retable and lightly clean its surrounds.  The Retable is set on the altar in a specially-made case, which protects the piece primarily from dust, changes in temperature and relative humidity, and possible theft or vandalism. The case was integrated into the structure of the nave so it was as unobtrusive as possible and still allowed the congregation to us it as it was intended.  As part of our inspection, we were able to lower the glass in front of the Retable and get a close look using flashlights and head loupes. This way, we were able to look for any flaking or other damage that might have occurred over the course of the last year.  Fortunately, there was no change in the paint and ground layers, except a bit of dust build up, which we very gently removed with a soft brush. Cobwebs around the case were also vacuumed up, as well as some salt efflorescence that perennially emerges between the floor and the wood panelling at the bottom of the case on the north side. While the source of this salt is not clear, it is important it is monitored and documented, as a change in the pattern can be an indication of something amiss with the building envelope. We also cleaned the inner and outer faces of the glass of dust and smears, so that the colours and details of the paintings can be fully appreciated.

Dusting the case with the glass partly lowered. © Hamilton Kerr Institute.

Salt deposit on the floor at the foot of the frontal. © Hamilton Kerr Institute.

Carefully cleaning the outer and inner faces of the glass, half-lowered, which required getting into some interesting positions! © Hamilton Kerr Institute.

The stable condition of the painted Retable speaks to what passive measures can do for the preservation of cultural heritage. For example, the red lake pigments are still very bright in the painting, which is very rare for an object of this age. These bright colours possibly suggest that the Retable was protected from bright light, which would have faded this fugitive pigment. Similarly, the wooden panels have been largely spared from damage by wood-boring insects, so they are still structurally sound. This special object was clearly valued by the community that had it made, and its stewards over many hundreds of years, including the current Thornham Parva community. The conservators at the HKI, in conjunction with the current church community, are able to use the principles of modern preventive conservation to continue to maintain the Retable for future generations.

Two Suffolk medieval rood screens

While we were in the area we had the opportunity to visit the rood screens in the churches of the nearby village of Yaxley, and the town of Eye. ‘Rood screen’ is the generic term that refers to the composite divisional structure that separated the chancel from the nave in a medieval church, and East Anglia contains the densest concentration of this type of object Europe-wide. Most screens that survive were constructed between the early 14th and mid-16th centuries, and they were known by the names rood loft, candlebeam, perke, and a host of other interchangeable terms. They were composite structures generally consisting of the dado (the lower part, bearing images of saints – this is usually the only part that survives in the church) and an upper traceried part, surmounted by a beam bearing the rood group (a wooden cross and figures of the Virgin and St John the Evangelist). The saints and angels depicted on screens acted as intercessors through whom the prayers of the local communities reached God. Screens were the work of multiple workshops that included carpenters, painters and sculptors, some of whom engaged in multiple crafts. They also would often have been fabricated piecemeal, with multiple donations, usually in the form of will bequests, for the construction or decoration of separate parts of the structure – for example, an individual or a local guild might dedicate a sum in their will towards the painting of their name saints. Many screens have been lost or severely defaced in bouts of iconoclasm following the Protestant Reformation and during the English Civil War. Of those that do survive, the work of certain craftsmen or workshops has been identified on a number of screens, which was a focus of Dr Lucy Wrapson’s PhD.³ Click here to view the blog post about the conservation of the rood screen in St Matthew’s church, Ipswich, in 2016.

St Mary’s church in Yaxley is a mainly 15th-century structure with a magnificent porch featuring flint flushwork, and a roof with carved angels and other figures. There is also a doom painting above the chancel arch. There is beautiful gilded tin relief to be seen on this screen, including a charming little face with a sticking-out tongue, and the saints’ garments are decorated with intricate brocade patterns. We looked closely at the carving and carpentry, which features intricate designs and is the output of the same group of craftsmen who worked on the screen at nearby Eye.

The rood screen in St Mary’s church, Yaxley. © L. Wrapson.

Detail of St Mary Magdalene on the rood screen at Yaxley. © L. Wrapson.

Detail of face with tongue sticking out in tin-relief background at Yaxley. © Hamilton Kerr Institute.

As Eye was a wealthy wool town in medieval times, the church here was notably large and grand. In this screen, the dado is medieval and most of the rood loft and beam with rood group is the early 20th-century work of Ninian Comper. The painted saints on this screen are very different in style to those on the Yaxley screen, being much more generic and less refined (but still charming). Here the saints were generally arranged male-female alternately, whereas those on the Yaxley screen were mostly female. The tin relief designs in the background here are much simpler than at Eye. Lucy highlighted the similarities of the carving and tracery designs on the spandrels and in the lower dado with the Yaxley screen and pointed to the remains of a dedicatory inscription on the loft.

The rood screen in the church of St Peter and St Paul, Eye. © L. Wrapson.

Detail of St Agnes on the rood screen at Eye. © L. Wrapson.

Preventive conservation measures are important for the protection of rood screens, although sadly many exist in churches with uncontrollable humidity, temperature and light levels and are deteriorating as a result and suffer damage from insects such as deathwatch beetle. The visits we made today were an insight into the treasures that survive hidden in East Anglia’s churches, and the story of the Thornham Parva Retable exemplifies what is possible with the enthusiasm, support and collaboration of people with diverse interests, knowledge and professional skills, and what might be achieved for rood screens in the future.

Katharine Waldron and Ellen Nigro, 1st year Post-Graduate Interns (2018-2020)


1. Massing, A., ed., The Thornham Parva Retable. Technique, Conservation and Context of an English Medieval Painting (Hamilton Kerr Institute, University of Cambridge and Harvey Miller Publishers, 2003).

2. Canadian Conservation Institute, ‘Agents of Deterioration’. Retrieved from, February 2019.

3. Wrapson, L., ‘Patterns of Production: a technical art historical study of East Anglia’s late medieval screens’ (PhD this, University of Cambridge, 2013).

About the Authors:

Ellen Nigro graduated from the University of Delaware in 2013 with a B.A. in Art Conservation and Art History. After gaining internship experience through projects at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, Shelburne Museum, Villanova University, and the Chrysler Museum, she entered the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC). Her projects in the program included developing a consolidation strategy for a matte, underbound, 19th-century Thai panel painting, and completing a technical study on it. She earned her M.S. from WUDPAC in 2018 after her third-year internship at the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis as the Fulbright-American Friends of the Mauritshuis Intern.

To contact Ellen:

After completing a BA in History of Art at the University of Warwick, Katharine graduated from The Courtauld Institute of Art in 2018 with a Postgraduate Diploma in the Conservation of Easel Paintings. One of her projects involved the conservation and technical research of a modified 17th-century harpsichord lid, which led to her third-year dissertation project on historical copper green glazes. She has worked for Katherine Ara Ltd. and as an intern with the National Trust, the House of Lords, the National Maritime Museum, the V&A, and the RCE in the Netherlands as a Zibby Garnett scholar. Among her current projects at the HKI, Katharine is involved with research into the pigments and techniques of church polychromy in East Anglia.

To contact Katharine:

Conference Review – Migrants: art, artists, materials and ideas crossing borders. Hamilton Kerr Institute, 15th-16th November 2018.

Final DesignThis two-day interdisciplinary conference, hosted by the Hamilton Kerr Institute and held at the Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, featured talks that explored how artists, conservators and their materials, ideas and techniques have crossed borders from antiquity to the modern day (click here for the full programme). The artworks discussed were diverse, not only paintings but sculpture, mosaics, textiles, architecture and archaeological finds, and the speakers addressed issues of war, trade, exploitation, individual personalities and the transmission of information across localities and time. It was an opportunity to bring together people from different countries and cultures, and share research from a number of disciplines in the arts, sciences and humanities.

Dr Kristin Kausland (Norwegian Institute of Cultural Heritage Research/Hamilton Kerr Institute) began the first session, ‘Art and Artists’, with her talk on the manufacture of Scandinavian altarpieces in the late Middle Ages, considering the contribution of immigrant Northern German artists to their fabrication, as well as the import of objects. Presenting results of detailed technical study of several altarpieces, she highlighted the amalgamative nature of these superstructures, clues in regional techniques such imitation gold, and the use of model books through generations of craftsmen. We are greatly looking forward to welcoming Dr Kausland at the HKI in February as she carries out her post-doctoral research.

Jessica David, representing the Yale Centre for British Art and colleague Edward Town, presented research exploring the work of the 16th-century artist Netherlandish Daniël van den Queborn, who served a British client base formed of military men who fought in his homeland during the Dutch Revolt. From in-depth examination of his works, the authors built an interesting portrait of a versatile artist who, in his role as ‘court’ painter to the House of Orange, built his career on diplomacy. Records from the RKD database were consulted, a resource cited as an example of instantaneous accessibility to knowledge that enables us to virtually traverse geographical distance and time today.

Javier Grossutti (Swinburne University of Technology) introduced us to terrazzo, a form of mosaic flooring seen in many buildings in the UK and Italy. Grossutti led us from the craft’s 16th-century origins in the Italian town of Friuli and its development in the 19th century under Pietro Mazzioli, who travelled to England and established a factory in London. We were given a sense of the sheer scale of the industry from the pictures of familiar places such as the National Portrait Gallery, but also buildings in other British towns and cities.

Pia Gottschaller (The Courtauld Institute of Art) discussed the Asociación Arte Concreto-Invención (AACI) movement in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil from the 1940s to the 1960s. She set out a vivid picture of the artistic network established and highlighted the artists’ experimentation with new media, enabling them to communicate their ideas in a new way. Gottschaller reminded us that the travel of the artists in the 20th century, when journeys were expensive and long, might be considered just as striking a feat as Queborn’s establishment of an international client base in the 17th. On the other hand, Gottschaller also noted that these factors, and language barriers, continue to inhibit communication today, contributing to the dearth of scholarship on Concrete artists.

Beginning session 2, ‘Conservators and Conservation’, Dr Caitlin O’Grady (University College London) talked about the use of wax in the preservation of archaeological artefacts in the early 20th century, centring on the work of Sir William Matthews Flinders Petrie who led new developments in the preservation of excavated artefacts. O’Grady showed how the use of wax in the field became a recognised practice, and how the paucity of documentary evidence means that now, much of the information regarding the use of wax must come from the objects themselves. She also defined the role of ‘boundary work’ between archaeologists, scientists and curators in the spread of knowledge about such techniques for preservation.

Katya Belaia (National Trust) and Valeriia Kravchenko (Museum of Ukrainian Art) spoke on the history of conservation in the Ukraine and the issues faced by conservators working in a Soviet society. They highlighted the work of conservators who worked in the Soviet era to preserve objects that were forcefully disregarded at the time. It was particularly interesting to hear about the structure and content of conservation training programmes in the Ukraine today, where there remain restrictions against conservators working on a freelance basis. It was remarked that destruction of cultural property is still seen there today with attempts to abolish remnants of the Soviet era.

Rebecca Rushfield (New York City and Associate Director, FAIC Oral History Project) presented on the immigration of European conservators to the US from the early 20th century to today. She drew on information from the Oral History Project, an initiative by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation, begun in 1975 and containing transcripts of interviews with conservation professionals. She demonstrated the of role of professional networking in recent decades in enabling European conservators to take up posts in the US, but also the challenges experienced by the conservators who made the move, regarding visas, work permits and cultural transitions. She provided a glimpse of the wealth of material gathered by the Oral History Project, with the individual experiences of the conservators themselves.


The third session, ‘Art and Conflict’, opened with Morwenna Blewett (Worcester College and Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxofrd) on the subject of the British Intelligence Objectives Sub-committee (BIOS), composed of British government officials who were sent to Germany after the Second World War to report back on technical and scientific industries, including the manufacture of artists’ materials. Consulting information from manufacturers’ archives, including that of Winsor and Newton at the HKI, Blewett described how the advances of German industries were exploited in the years following the war through the internment of German scientists in Britain and their employment at institutions such as the National Gallery. The talk highlighted a striking example of forced migration that is rarely considered in the context of the horrors of the war.

Dr Roderick Bailey (Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, Universityof Oxford) gave insight into the work of another British investigative group following the Second World War, the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) sub-commission, who supported and educated the Greek authorities in the protection of ancient monuments such as the Parthenon and other buildings in the Acropolis, which had suffered many forms of damage during the war. However, illustrating the war damage sustained by a Jewish synagogue, Bailey also highlighted the limits of their work and the implications for the heritage of certain other cultural communities in wartime Greece.

Charlotte Bank (Art historian and independent curator) discussed the work of Syrian artists throughout the world, displaced by war from their homes. Through several case studies of artworks exhibited by the artists in several European cities, Bank showed how these individuals have used art as a platform to express their responses to their experiences and connect with their new cultural environments. However, she also warned of the ease with which viewers can become blind to all other interpretations of their work. Through highlighting their unique experiences and personalities, the talk served as a reminder to avoid the exploitation and pigeonholing of Syrian refugee artists as ‘war artists’.

On the second day, Dr Eckart Marchand (Warburg Institute/International Research Project Bilderfahrzeuge) kicked off the first session, ‘Materials and Techniques’, with his talk on the subject of Plaster of Paris, focusing on the Lucchinese figurinai, a community of peripatetic craftsmen from Barga who made popular plaster figurines (‘formatori’) and journeyed with their wares to Germany and America, where the craft gained particular prominence in the 19th century.  This was a remarkable example, recalling the mosaics discussed by Grossutti, of how a small craft local to a particular geographical area can spread and become an international phenomenon, its identity evolving along the way.

Felicia Gottman (Northumbria University) spoke about the role of migration within the cotton industry in 18th-century France, focusing on the career of textile manufacturer Jean-Claude Flachat, who imported workers from the Levant and expanded his industry exploiting the knowledge and technologies they brought with them. Gottman considered Flachat’s enterprise in the context of the Actor-Network Theory, focusing on the role of ‘non-traditional agencies’ – the cotton, the technologies, and the experiences of the workers – through which knowledge was transferred and developments ensued in cotton manufacture and trade.

Jenny Bulstrode’s paper (University of Cambridge) explored the many identities of copper, ranging from its elemental properties to its geographical source in the mines of Cornwall and Australia, its manifestation as trade tokens and ship hull sheathing, and its use in tribal masks. The talk demonstrated how copper has been exploited historically to advance technologies and cultures, and the distances the material has travelled between countries, from the depths of the Earth and through time. The talk highlighted that migration can refer to the changing identities of a given material as it migrates itself through time and between cultures.

Jacob Simon (National Portrait Gallery) discussed the impact of migration on the transfer of artists’ materials between countries from the 18th through to the 20th centuries. Simon documented the competition between manufacturers as materials were exported and supply chains for British and other European manufacturers established in several countries. He conveyed the complex exchange of influences and materials between British and foreign suppliers, which also impacted on where artists settled and how they chose to develop their art. Ultimately, Simon concluded that this last consideration comes down to the three factors of material quality, permanence, and price.

After lunch on the second day we had an excellent introduction to the collection of paintings at Murray Edwards College, which showcases over 500 works and represents the second largest collection in the world of contemporary women artists. Many of the paintings were on display around the college and we had a wonderful opportunity to explore.

Opening the final session, ‘Transmitting Ideas’, Karen French, representing the Walters Art Museum and colleagues Christine Sciaccia, Glenn Gates and Hae Min Park, gave a talk on the late medieval Ethiopian religious paintings currently undergoing technical research in a collaborative project at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Describing the popularity in Ethiopia of religious imagery and cults from the Western Christian church from the 15th century, French discussed the exchange of ideas with Italian painters brought to the country, focusing on the art icon painter Fre Seyon. French pointed out examples of the influence of Italian painting on aspects of the iconography, but also revealed interesting divergences regarding the materials and techniques.

Julia Brandt and her colleagues Isabel Wagner and Corinna Gramatke (Technical University Munich) presented new research, currently in progress, on the art of the Jesuits who populated South America in the 17th century, imposing their religion and art on the indigenous Guarani people. The cultural influence appears to have been strictly concentrated in one direction, unlike the exchanges featured in some of the other talks. This example of art and culture enforced on the people was an interesting comparison to the conscious decision to pursue western religious doctrine by the Ethiopian emperors discussed in the previous paper.

Esmee Schoutens and her colleagues Rosa Mulder and Janneke Sif Rutten (VU University, Amsterdam and University of Leiden) presented collaborative research undertaken recently into the geographical representation of artists in the collections at the Stedelijk Museum. Using digital software to collect and organise the data from the collection from 1896 (the Museum’s foundation date) to 2003, trends were noted that showed, for example, that artists from Eastern Europe were well represented but those from the Middle East were not. This led to more complicated questions including whether some artists’ work only appears in the collections because they were working at that time in a ‘geographically represented’ region. This ongoing research demonstrates the information that can be gleaned from a study of such a significant world-class collection of modern and contemporary art.

The opportunities for discussion, led excellently by all of the chairs – Vicky Sutcliffe and Sally Woodcock (Hamilton Kerr Institute), Dr Alexander Marr, Professor Simon Schaffer and Professor Mary Laven (University of Cambridge), and Dr Abbie Vandivere (Mauritshuis/University of Amsterdam) – resulted in the emergence of notable links between even the most divergent talks. We saw examples of migration across vast geographical distances and across time. We were shown how migrants have often been perceived or conveyed throughout history as a ‘package deal’ comprising the labour, experience, skills and technologies of their craft. It was emphasised how migration is rarely in a single direction, with cultural exchanges taking place and the existence of complex networks of artists and industries established between different cultures. Also demonstrated were the results of when migration is prohibited or enforced upon peoples, and we came to appreciate the many different situations that have led to migration – voluntary or otherwise – by artists, crafts and materials over the centuries. Perhaps most compelling was the revelation of the individual stories of the artists and innovators that have travelled throughout history; the anonymous voices known predominantly through artefacts and rarely acknowledged in the wake of more prominent historical figures.

Overall, at a time when words and phrases such as ‘take back control’, ‘borders’, and ‘independence’ are in constant repetition, and when migration is so often portrayed as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ phenomenon, it was refreshing to explore with the speakers its many possible definitions and faces, to challenge the notions of borders and peripheries, and reveal the more nuanced picture of migration that historical events, individuals and artefacts convey.

Closing remarks were given by Dr Spike Bucklow (Hamilton Kerr Institute), who highlighted that the conference demonstrated how much can be learnt when we cross disciplinary boundaries and hear from colleagues around the world working in different fields of conservation, technical art history, as well as history and art history, science and archaeology.


Katharine Waldron – 1st year Post Graduate Intern at the Hamilton Kerr Institute

About the Author

After completing a BA in History of Art at the University of Warwick, Katharine graduated from The Courtauld Institute of Art in 2018 with a Postgraduate Diploma in the Conservation of Easel Paintings. One of her projects involved the conservation and technical research of a modified 17th-century harpsichord lid, leading to her third-year dissertation project which focused on the characterisation and deterioration of historical copper green glazes. She has worked for Katherine Ara Ltd. and completed paintings conservation internships with the National Trust, the House of Lords, the National Maritime Museum, the V&A, and the RCE in the Netherlands as a Zibby Garnett scholar. Among her current projects at the HKI, Katharine is involved with research into the pigments and techniques of medieval rood screens and church polychromy in East Anglia.

To contact Katharine:



Restoring a Landscape with Figures

Many of the paintings that come through our studio have had a long and eventful history. One such painting, Landscape with Figures attributed to the School of Teniers (Fig. 1) falls into this category. This blog describes the plucky painting’s road to recovery, and shows how paintings can be transformed with some TLC.

When brought to the Institute, the painting was in poor condition and in need of structural and aesthetic treatment. The original canvas was beginning to peel away from its old glue-paste lining and damage and wear to the paint layers, caused from harsh cleaning by previous restorers, was also evident and needed addressing. The raking light photo of the painting before treatment (Fig. 2) shows that the painting had severe undulations that related to the condition of its canvas support.  The tacking margins were so degraded that in many places the canvas was no longer attached to the stretcher.

Figure 1: Landscape with Figures, whole front, before treatment (©Titmus)
Figure 1: Landscape with Figures, whole front, before treatment (©Titmus)

Figure 2: Landscape with Figures, whole front raking light from the bottom, before treatment (©Bayliss)
Figure 2: Whole front raking light from the bottom, before treatment (©Bayliss)


Before the structural work began, the painting was cleaned. The varnish present on the painting was blanched and the painting appeared unsaturated as a result (Figs. 3 & 6 ). Both the varnish and overpaint were removed with solvents (Figs. 4 & 7). Brown overpaint had probably been applied to mask the severely abraded paint layers and the removal of this overpaint allowed us to appreciate certain details of the painting that were previously hidden. A horse and rider were discovered in the bottom right hand corner (Figs. 6 & 7 & 8), and the hawk (Figs. 3 & 4 & 5), which had been visible but completely swamped by the surrounding overpaint, was suddenly part of the narrative again.


Structural treatment

The painting has a large tear in the top left hand section that had gone through both original and lining canvases. A wax patch had been adhered over the tear on the reverse before the tear was filled and retouched from the front (Fig. 9). It was decided that the painting required re-lining, as the original canvas no longer had the capacity to support the paint layers. Lining is an interventive technique that in the past was often carried out on paintings as a preventive measure. Thoughts and fashions change though, and lining is really only considered now as a last resort when structurally treating a painting. However, it was certainly necessary in this case, considering the poor condition of the painting.

The painting had been glue-paste lined in the past, and we decided to re-line the painting using the same method. Glue-paste lining has been the traditional method in Britain and while it is less commonly used these days, it is sometimes used for paintings that have tears that need supporting (as in this case), or badly cupping or flaking paint.

Firstly, the painting needed to be de-lined – the old lining canvas and lining adhesive removed. The painting was faced (a process where tissue paper is glued onto the front of the painting in order to protect it) and then placed face down on a covered board. The tacking margins were so degraded that they could be gently pulled away from the stretcher.


Before de-lining, the wax patch was peeled away from the lining canvas using white spirit to soften the wax (Fig. 9). The painting was de-lined carefully, leaving the original canvas with much of the lining glue-paste present on the back of the painting (Fig. 10). This glue was mostly brittle enough to be scraped away with a blunt knife (Fig. 11 & 12). However, some of the glue could not be removed in this fashion. Laponite (a synthetic clay) was applied which swelled the glue-paste allowing the glue to be scraped off. De-lining, revealed a small gap between the sides of the canvas along part of the tear. This was filled by the addition of a canvas insert of sized linen.

A new, linen lining canvas was prepared. For the lining, a layer of warmed lining adhesive was applied to the lining canvas. The painting was laid on top of the glue and gently padded down to smooth it down and make sure there weren’t any trapped air bubbles between the canvases. The painting was ironed through four layers of canvas, and the temperature of the paint was constantly checked by hand (Fig. 13). Although the iron used in this process looks ridiculously large and heavy, as its weight is spread out over a large area it does not exert too large a pressure on the paint. Raking light was used to check the texture of the surface and a cold iron was used in some areas to chill and set the paint to the work out any distortions. After this first ironing, the facing was changed and the painting ironed again in a similar fashion.

The painting was left to dry for several days before the facing was removed. Since the result of the lining was satisfactory, a coat of BEVA was applied onto the reverse of the lining canvas to act as a moisture barrier before the painting was re-stretched.

Filling, varnishing and retouching

The painting was varnished and retouched using Gamblin© Conservation Colours. The wear and losses in the paint layers were retouched imitatively to a standard thought appropriate for the condition of the painting. Touching out the wear in the foreground helped to solidify the landscape and reintroduced a recession into the distance.

Figure 17
Figure 17: Landscape with Figures, whole front, after treatment (©Titmus)

Figure 18
Figure 18: Landscape with Figures, whole front raking light from bottom, after treatment (©Bayliss)

This was a wonderful project, allowing me to gain experience in lining and treading that fine line of re-intergrating a badly damaged image. There is obviously a narrative going on between these figures and the idyllic landscape now brought back to life, although we still don’t know exactly what’s happening in this painting. But this is certainly part of its charm and no doubt it will continue provoking the question, “what is going on?!” for many years to come.

Figure 19
Figure 19: Detail of startled man (©Bayliss)

Reconstruction of Joos van Cleve’s Madonna and Child

For our second reconstruction, an example of early Northern panel painting, Anna Don and I both chose a Madonna and Child by the Flemish painter Joos van Cleve.  The painting was at the Hamilton Kerr in preparation for the exhibition “Madonnas and Miracles“. It was examined and treated by Camille Polkownik in 2016 and you can view and read the treatment here.

This was a distinct change from our early Italian copies as we were not only working from the same panel, but we also chose similar sections of the panel to replicate. As can be expected, this lead to a lot of dialogue between us as we came up against the various challenges of reconstructing this beautiful painting. We have decided therefore, to share with you some of that dialogue and present our reconstructions of Joos van Cleve’s Madonna and Child together and in our two voices, each paragraph is named at the start with the author.


Anna: Joos van Cleve (1485-1541) was mainly active in Antwerp in the early part of the 16th century. He seems to be a very typical painter of this period, as he had a very large successful workshop that managed to weather a recession in Antwerp in 1525, by remaining incredibly adaptable to what the market wanted. Therefore, his style is quite representative of the tastes and culture of the time. For example, in the early part of his career he produced a lot of large altarpieces, but after Antwerp began to struggle he moved to producing a huge amount of small, almost mass-produced devotional pieces that could be purchased by individuals. The painting that we copied, Virgin and Child (1525-29) from the Fitzwilliam Museum, is on the cusp of this change (Fig. 1). Joos van Cleve held various important positions in the Guild of St Luke in Antwerp, so it is possible to assume that his standards and practices were demonstrative of the guild’s outlines. [1]

Anna: Panel makers were members of the Guild of St. Luke in Antwerp, where the first surviving regulations date from the late 15th century. The guilds stipulated that that wood should be seasoned for roughly 2-5 years, depending on its thickness. Earlier in the 15th century, when boards were thicker, boards could be seasoned for up to 10 years. In Flanders, panels were often hand-sawn (there were no sawmills in Antwerp until the early 17th century). Machine cut boards display straight and parallel marks, unlike hand-sawn. The panels were often butt-joined, possibly with some heartwood on the outer edges, and boards could be adhered with casein or animal glue, and then planed down.

There was an unpainted border around the panel, and the edge of the paint is slightly raised, indicating that the ground and paint layers were applied within an engaged frame (Fig. 2). The back of the painting is bevelled, making it easier to insert into a frame. In our case the support for the reconstructions was pine, rather than oak. The calcium carbonate used for grounds in Northern Europe was simple to prepare, impurities would be removed with washing and then it would be mixed with animal skin glue. Sometimes this ground was applied quite thinly in Northern European panel paintings.


Elisabeth: After the multi-step complexity of gesso preparation, the chalk grounds favoured by artists in the Northern parts of Europe were a delight to apply.

Anna: One issue that I encountered, which Elisabeth didn’t, was small pinprick holes forming in the ground. I wondered if this was due to the fact that we had to apply the chalk ground over two days and so the initial layers had been allowed to dry, and though I wetted the ground before applying the next layers, perhaps it were still too dry. I ended up rubbing the chalk ground with my fingers, using quite a lot of force, filling the holes and as a result the pin-prick holes disappeared. This also got quite a smooth layer, but wouldn’t be very practical over a larger area.

Anna: Most of the sources on early Northern painting discuss doing the underdrawing prior to an oil-priming layer, however the other way around was also possible. We did the latter, and applied an unpigmented layer of lead drying oil. Our reasoning for not pigmenting this layer is that there was no evidence of it in a cross-section taken from the painting. Accounts of early Northern technique mention the fact that these priming layers can be a thin layer of oil alone or possibly an oil layer often mixed with lead white pigment. Later a beige coloured priming layer, similar to the one Karel van Mander mentions in his early 17th century book Het Schilder-Boeck discussing the technique of early Netherlandish painters, was found to be helpful in providing a mid-tone. During the process of painting I realised there was a transparent beige tone coming through in some areas perhaps due to the oil layer making the ground more transparent, possibly more through ageing. This is especially visible in the fur worn by the Virgin (Fig. 3).

Elisabeth: Yes, a warmer priming layer would have helped bring life to the flesh tones. I felt we had to compensate a little with additional paint layers to try and achieve the same effect.


Anna: Underdrawings could be carried out in a range of materials, either wet or dry. Although underdrawings in dry materials, such as black chalk or charcoal, were less common, Joos van Cleve was known to work with these. Infrared images of his paintings reveal a distinctive style of underdrawing (Fig. 4); the drawing attributed to van Cleve’s hand is very free and sketchy, often carried out in a dry material, while the underdrawing style of his assistants is much more precise and contained, and executed in a wet material, for example a carbon-based black in a medium.

Fig. 4. Infrared Reflectography (© Titmus)

Elisabeth: This was a compromise for us when approaching the underdrawing. We did use a melinex transfer to get the proportions of features like the hands but this meant losing the fluidity of the original sketch. I decided to apply most of the underdrawing freehand directly with carbon black in gum arabic, applied with a brush, and although this was not applied dry to try and recreate the style of van Cleve’s composition.


Anna: Another nuance of Joos van Cleve’s underdrawing is the absence of drawing in the landscape. Joos van Cleve frequently had a landscape specialist carry out these areas, for which a model drawing was used.

Although it is difficult to tell between wet and dry underdrawing materials in infrared, as the method of application can affect the result, the underdrawing of Virgin and Child has an appearance closer to that of a dry material. The outlines of the strokes are indistinct and rounded, and look distinctly not liquid (Fig. 4). This observation is stated with the benefit of hindsight, as after placing the image on the panel using willow charcoal (Fig. 5), I reinforced the lines using carbon black in gum arabic, and couldn’t achieve the thick, even, dry-looking lines that are visible in the underdrawing (Fig. 6).


Anna: After applying the priming layer and the underdrawing, we started to model the flesh in monochromatic hues (Fig. 7 & 8). This stage is referred to in some sources of Early Northern painting technique, and serves to create the impression of volume. This exploits the properties of oil, by approaching the painting as a layered system. The transparency of oil allows these underlayers to contribute to the final image.

Fig. 7. OVERVIEW OF UNDERLAYER STAGE OF RECONSTRUCTIONS – Elisabeth’s reconstruction (©Petrina)

Anna: Although we only applied this on the flesh, it perhaps would have been beneficial to use this technique on the drapery as well, to help create form. In the flesh, this monochromatic underlayer shone through the layers above, creating a blue-ish, turbid medium effect for the shadows. For the highlights, the luminosity of the white ground plays a role, so the paint is built up from light to dark.

IMG_1661 copy

Elisabeth: I agree that a monochromatic underlayer in the drapery would have been very beneficial.

There are a lot of different types of fabric in Joos van Cleve’s painting, and both Anna and I chose areas of the painting that allowed us to explore this lush variety. As well as the heavy richness of the Virgin’s cloak, and the sumptuous dark blue/black of her dress, we could also experiment with the crisp whiteness of her head dress and the wispy, delicate translucency of her veil. While this variety of fabrics does add a depth and realism to the painting, it was also likely to showcase the skill of van Cleve’s workshop. This made it ideal to try and reconstruct as we got to really explore a variety of techniques used by Northern artists at the time. Our approach to these techniques often varied which made for some interesting comparisons.

Elisabeth: To try and recreate the very intense red of the Virgin’s cloak I used a layer of pure vermilion and then added modeling by working into the wet layer with lead white for the highlights and dark earth pigments with a little finely ground azurite for the shadows. During application it became apparent how much vermillion, which was not the cheapest pigment, was being used. The red underlayer may have been more modelled and a more economic approach to applying the upper layers would make sense in a commercial workshop environment (Fig. 9).

Elisabeth: Joos van Cleve’s paint layer overall appears to be quite thin, this is consistent with a workshop piece of the time that would have needed the optimum of economy in materials and a high speed of production. The paint layer also appears very smooth and it took quite a large and very soft brush to try and recreate a similar effect. The only noticeable brush strokes are in details in the foliage and golden decorations.


Anna: The layer structure of early Northern paintings began to be simplified in the 16th century, and after this point the flesh could be built up in very few layers. Artists could exploit the reflectance of the white ground, and sometimes would apply only a layer of lead white on top and then scumble over vermilion and earth pigments for the flesh tones, working into the wet paint. Although Joos van Cleve’s assistants in his workshop have been found to use a similar technique, applying minimal layers, the pieces painted by Joos van Cleve himself seem to have been built up with more layers.

Anna: In terms of building up the flesh tones on the reconstruction, there are two factors that in retrospect I would like to have approached differently. Firstly, I would have not started with using titanium white (which was used for health and safety reasons) as a substitute for lead white, as even at this early stage I found this pigment gave the flesh quite a sickly pallor that was difficult to rectify, and secondly, I would have mixed up a paint that had a much higher pigment to medium ratio for these initial layers, as from the outset these layers were quite transparent.  I ended up carrying out the flesh in many layers, not only in order to cover the carbon black underdrawing, which even after multiple layers was still visible, but for the possibly more significant reason that I just could not achieve sufficient depth and life in the flesh tones with such minimal paint. I find it amazing the results that artists could create while working so economically. I found it was difficult to get any subtlety with titanium white; when mixed with other pigments it was either very cool and slightly grey, or made a very un-naturalistic pink or yellow. When I switched to lead white, this greatly improved the handling properties (it brushed out more smoothly), the colour and the vibrancy (Fig. 10).


Elisabeth: When it came to the short fur on which the Christ Child is sitting, Anna and I once again differed in our approach. Anna, carefully and meticulously applied each hair in the fur individually, in much the same style as you could work with tempera. I was keen to exploit the long drying time of the oils and used a large, coarse bristled brush, nearly dry, to very quickly apply a facsimile of a very fuzzy fur.

Anna: I think this was a really valuable aspect of doing our reconstructions from similar areas. It was great to see the effects Elisabeth produced by experimenting with different tools, and comparing our approaches (Figs. 11 & 12 & 13).

Elisabeth: The other main deviation in our approach to this reconstruction was in the velvety black of the Virgin’s sleeve. Anna and I disagreed on whether a warm red was visible through the black. For my reconstruction I just used two layers of lamp black to create a rich, opaque black (Fig. 14).


Anna: It took a long time to become sensitive to the nuances of working with oil, from the initial stages of mixing up our pigments with the right amount of linseed oil, to manipulating the paint on the surface to achieve certain surface effects. Early on, Elisabeth and I both experienced working with layers that were too medium rich; we propped our panels upright to dry (to avoid dust settling in the wet paint) and found the next day that the paint layer had deformed and slightly dribbled down. But it was a lovely and very forgiving material to work with. Carrying out this reconstruction has left me in awe of the effects these artists can produce in this medium (Fig. 15).

Early northern reconstruction copy

Anna Don and Elisabeth Petrina, 1st Year Students

About the Authors:

Anna Don is a first-year student at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, studying for a Postgraduate Diploma in the Conservation of Easel Paintings. She previously attended City & Guilds of London Art School, graduating with a First Class BA (Hons) in Conservation Studies. She has undertaken an internship in painting conservation at Restauratie Atelier Marjan de Visser in the Netherlands, and has been involved in projects conserving frames, objects and historic interiors. Most recently, Anna took part in a four-month internship researching George Stubbs’s wax painting techniques at the National Maritime Museum, London, the results of which were presented at the George Stubbs and Wax Painting symposium in 2016 in London.

To contact Anna:

Elisabeth Petrina is a first year student at the Hamilton Kerr Institute. She received a Fine Art Foundation Diploma from Exeter College and BSc (Hons) in Chemistry from the University of Liverpool before disappearing to Croatia for several years to set up a forensic ornithology unit and grow vegetables. She has undertaken a project to establish a pigment garden at the Hamilton Kerr Institute that can be used as a research aid in future years.

To contact Elisabeth:


[1] Leeflang, Micha. 2015. Joos van Cleve: A Sixteenth Century Antwerp Artist and his Workshop. Brepols, N. V. pp. 29

Conference Review The 35th Gerry Hedley Student Symposium, Courtauld Institute of Art, 5 June 2017

On 5 June the students, interns and staff of the HKI attended the 35th Gerry Hedley Student Symposium, hosted by the Courtauld Institute of Art. This annual conference provides an opportunity for the students and interns of the three contributing conservation training programs (the Hamilton Kerr Institute, the Courtauld Institute and Northumbria University) to present their current research projects. This year, the HKI was proud to share the research of two third-year students and two second-year interns.

Amiel Clarke (third-year student) presented her work on the conservation and technical analysis of a painting that was recently re-attributed to the Bolognese artist Marcantonio Franceschini (1649-1729). The painting, entitled Hagar and Ishmael in the Wilderness, is currently undergoing treatment at the HKI and over the last three years, Clarke has had the opportunity to examine the details of the artist’s technique in full. Particularly interesting were the findings offered through x-radiography and infrared reflectography of the painting, which showed significant compositional changes exemplified by alterations made to Hagar’s headdress and neckline. Clarke’s research serves as a textbook example of how the technical analysis of paintings can enhance our understanding of the artist’s process, whilst also aiding in the attribution of artworks.

Our second representative from the HKI, Michaela Straub (third-year student), further demonstrated our tradition of art technological study at the HKI through presenting her work on a fifteenth-century English retable, housed at Leeds Castle, Kent. In her talk, Straub showed us how the practice of reconstruction contributed to her understanding of the panel’s physicality and stages of painting. She reflected on the difficulties she faced when trying to carve and smooth the oak boards that she used for her reconstruction of the painting, whilst also detailing the process she adopted for the application of gold stenciling to the red-painted background. It was easy to see how the trials and errors of reconstructing an old master painting can contribute to a greater appreciation for the level of skill and mastery employed by these medieval craftsmen, and hopefully without sounding biased, I feel that Straub has done exceedingly well with her reconstruction.

The two interns representing the HKI were Camille Polkownik and Sarah Bayliss. Polkownik presented her research on how the physical structure of different qualities of lead white affects the handling of the pigment in oil paint. For her research Polkownik went so far as to make her own lead white through referencing historical recipes. Her success, along with the difficulties she faced in this task, demonstrated the considerable variety in the quality of lead white that is produced using these methods. Polkownik also reflected on the ways in which artists distinguished between the different grades of the pigment, noting that the painters’ scrutiny would have depended largely on empirical knowledge and experience, as opposed to any understanding of the pigment’s crystalline structure.

Sarah Bayliss was the final HKI representative to share her research, which involved the treatment and technical analysis of two panel paintings attributed to the esteemed Tudor period miniaturist, Nicholas Hilliard (c. 1547-1619). The two portraits appear as a pendant pair, featuring Queen Elizabeth I and her ambassador to the French court, Sir Amias Paulet. Bayliss presented the main findings of her in-depth technical study, including the results of dendrochronological examination of the two panels, which pinpoints their origin in France. Through comparing specific painterly traits seen in Hilliard’s miniatures, as well as  in the large-scale Pelican and Phoenix portraits of Queen Elizabeth also thought to be by Hilliard, Bayliss was able to put forward a convincing argument for the authorship of these previously unstudied paintings.

The symposium also included talks by five students in their final year of the Postgraduate Diploma course in the Conservation of Easel Paintings at the Courtauld Institute of Art, as well as two students from the MA Conservation of Fine Art programme at Northumbria University. The research presented by the remaining speakers ranged from a study of the influence of metal stearates on the water sensitivity of modern oil paints (Donatella Banti, Courtauld Institute) to the use of gamboge in nineteenth-century watercolour pigment mixtures (Alice Woodward, Northumbria University). Several talks focused on the material study of paintings. Cerys Fry (Courtauld Institute) and Diana Jaskierny (Courtauld Institute) presented their research on selected groups of paintings housed at Knole House in Kent, while Martha Swabey (Northumbria University) shared her study of a series of marouflaged, oil on canvas  wall panels in the Music Room of the Brighton Royal Pavilion.

Two talks in particular stood out. Annie Cornwall (Courtauld Institute) presented her informative and original research on the possible methods for cleaning wax-containing paintings by George Stubbs. Cornwall’s study included producing samples based on traditional methods described in eighteenth-century treatises, followed by cleaning tests using free solvents, solvent emulsions, as well as aqueous cleaning solutions developed by Richard Wolbers. The various cleaning reagents were also further tested using agarose gels and Evolon® microfilament textile. After graduating from the Courtauld Institute in July 2017, Cornwall will continue her research into the cleaning of Stubbs’ wax paintings through a postgraduate fellowship at the Yale Centre for British Art. It will be interesting to see the results of her future research, which will no doubt be of use to any practicing restorer aiming to clean a wax-containing painting.

The last presenter to receive mention here is Molly Hughes-Hallett (Courtauld Institute), who shared her research on the applicability of Micro-RTI (reflectance transformation imaging) as a tool for the documentation and conservation of modern and contemporary paintings. RTI is a non-invasive method of analysis that can be used to document and visualize the surface texture of art objects. Hughes-Hallett’s project focused on the applicability of the micro-RTI system developed by Paul Messier, which uses a digital microscope and miniature lighting array to study surface textures in detail over small areas. Case studies were used from the modern and contemporary collection at the Yale University Art Gallery, as well as the Courtauld Gallery and privately owned works in London. The study provided yet another new and interesting example of how advancing technology can be used as an aid to understand and document the condition of paintings. In September 2017, Molly will be joining us at the HKI as a post-graduate intern! We all look forward to hearing more about her research and past experience in person.

All of the research presented at the symposium served to showcase the talented young professionals that emerge from the various training institutes each year. As always, the standard of research was high and showed the ambition and dedication of the students and interns who presented it. The 36th Gerry Hedley Student Symposium will be hosted at Northumbria University in May or June  2018. I look forward to seeing what exciting new research will be presented then.

Emma Jansson, 1st year Post-Graduate Intern

About the author

Emma Jansson graduated from the Courtauld Institute of Art in 2016, having completed the three-year Postgraduate Diploma in the Conservation of Easel Paintings. She also holds a BA in History of Art/Archaeology and Japanese Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Emma has experience working in both private conservation studios in London and public institutions. Her most recent placements include internships at the Victoria & Albert Museum and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, as well as an in situ project at the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Palace. She is also involved in the technical analysis of artworks. Her final-year thesis at the Courtauld Institute focused on the materials and technique of the Impressionist artist Alfred Sisley. Emma is continuing her interest in technical art history at the HKI, where she is involved in several research projects, including a study on the uptake of artificial ultramarine by British artists in the nineteenth century.  

To contact Emma:

The grass is always greener on the other side: conservation of the Portrait of Elisabeth de Valois

This oil painting on oak panel representing Elisabeth de Valois is a copy of the famous portrait originally painted by Anthonis Mor (c. 1517-1577), a Netherlandish portrait painter active mid-16th century (Fig. 1). The painting belongs to the Fitzwilliam Museum, and came to the Institute for assessment before the exhibition: Degas: A Passion for Perfection (3 October 2017 – 14 January 2018).

Fig. 1. Portrait of Elisabeth de Valois, copy after Anthonis Mor by unknown artist, late 16th century, Fitzwilliam Museum. (© Titmus)
Fig. 1. Portrait of Elisabeth de Valois, copy after Anthonis Mor by unknown artist, late 16th century, Fitzwilliam Museum. (© Titmus)

Elisabeth de Valois (1545-1568) was the eldest daughter of Henry II of France and Catherine de Medici and married Philip II of Spain as his third wife when she turned 14. The original portrait was painted by Mor in 1565, when she was 20. Elisabeth died at 23, after miscarrying for the second time in 1568.

The Fitzwilliam portrait, although not by Anthonis Mor, is a faithful copy in a style extremely close to that of Mor. The original portrait has been copied many times by different artists with varying degrees of accuracy. The copies highlight her importance and maybe her popularity, and were likely made to be sent around Europe to the various Royal Courts. The copies of the original portrait (Fig. 2) show her in this exact costume, but the formats vary: portraits only, full length, half length… you name it! The Fitzwilliam version was acquired in 1909, along with a full length portrait of her husband on canvas.

Fig. 2. Collage of all the portraits 
Fig. 2. Collage of all the portraits of Elisabeth de Valois


Dendrochronology analysis was done to find out an approximate date of usage for the panel. Dendrochronology (or tree-ring dating) is the dating technique that utilises the pattern of rings widths within a timber to determine the calendar period during which the tree grew. This is then matched to an existing database. The date of a tree-ring sequence must not be confused with the date of usage of a tree, as sapwood (which has the latest growth rings) is usually removed by panel markers. The analysis provides either a felling date range (when sapwood is present) or a terminus post-quem (when the sapwood is not present).  Between the felling of the tree and the start of a painting, a fair amount of time can go by, as the wood travels and is often seasoned. The results of the analysis indicates a usage date for the wood after 1552 [1].

Condition of the painting

Although the portrait had a number of areas where the paint was flaking and vulnerable (Fig. 3), which were consolidated with sturgeon’s glue, it was in good overall condition.

Fig. 3. Detail of lifting and flaking of the paint layer in raking light. (© Polkownik)

The varnish that covered the surface had slightly yellowed, dulling the colours and flattening the fabulous dress full of jewellery worn by the sitter (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Detail of the yellow varnish on the jewels (© Polkownik)
Fig. 4. Detail of the jewelled costume covered by yellowed varnish (© Polkownik)

However, one thing really drew the eye: the lime green background . One could see the background looked dubious and was likely to have been overpainted (Fig. 5). Some fake cracks had also been painted in the background around the face, to try and integrate the area better, and the overall surface was cracked, reminding crocodile skin. It was decided with the curators to do some testing and find out if it was possible to remove the overpaint, what was underneath and what condition it was in. 

Fig. 6. Detail of the background (© Polkownik)

After close observation under the microscope, we came to the conclusion that most of the surface was covered by overpaint (Fig. 6).

Fig. 5. Diagram showing the overpaint (in red). (© Polkownik)
Fig. 6. Diagram showing the overpaint (in red). (© Polkownik)


A paint sample was taken and set in resin (cross-section). The sample showed the original paint layer (2-3) was covered with two thick layers of overpaint (4-5) and non-original varnishes, tinted (6-7) and untinted (8-9) (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7. Paint sample set in resin (cross section) (© Polkownik)
Fig. 7. Paint sample set in resin (cross section) (© Polkownik)

Conservation Treatment

During testing, it was revealed that the overpaint could easily be removed. Three areas were tested; two showed an original paint layer underneath that appeared in good condition, and one test showed an abraded area. It is a difficult decision to remove such a large area of overpaint based on the three small test patches. But as the cleaning progressed (Fig. 8), it became clear that we were right to do this: the background was in good condition, apart from a small abraded area in the background close to the back of the head of the sitter. It seems astonishing that such a small damage warranted the overpainting of the whole background.

Fig. 8. During cleaning (© Polkownik)

The original background is a dark green/brown, showing variations in opacity and in brush handling. It looks vibrant and lively, and complements the sitter’s red dress and pale rosy carnation.

Fig. 8. After cleaning (© Polkownik)
Fig. 9. After cleaning (© Polkownik)

After the removal, the painting was varnished (Fig. 9), the losses filled (Fig. 10) and retouched (Fig. 11) with reversible materials, and the abraded areas in the background were lightly dotted in. Treating this painting stabilised the materials (through the consolidation of flaking paint)  and brought it a step closer to its original 16th-century style.

Fig. 10. After filling (© Polkownik)

Fig. 10. After retouching (© Titmus)
Fig. 11. After retouching (© Titmus)

Camille Polkownik, 2nd year Post-Graduate Intern (2015-2017)

About the Author:

Ms Camille Polkownik graduated with a Master’s Degree in the Conservation and Restoration of Paintings in 2014, from the École nationale supérieure des arts visuels de La Cambre in Brussels (Belgium). She also has a Bachelor degree in the Conservation and Restoration of Painted Works (2011) from the Superior School of Fine Arts, in Avignon (France). She has interned at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA, Belgium), the Royal Museums of Fine Art of Brussels (Belgium), the Museum of Fine Arts in Nice (France), the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney, Australia) and in private studios.

Her current research projects include the study of extenders added to Prussian Blue; the quality variations in lead white and how they affect paint properties; and the characterisation of Prismatic Lead White, an unusual form of lead white, through X-ray Diffraction analysis and Polarised Light Microscopy.

To contact Camille:

[1] Tyers, Ian, Dendrochronological Consultancy Report 907, pp. 1-4.