From the 6th to the 8th of April 2016, Senior Painting Conservator Christine Slottved Kimbriel and I (Carlos González Juste, 2nd year postgraduate Intern) worked in-situ treating an altarpiece in a parish church in the south of England. The altarpiece is an Italian tryptich dated to the second half of the 14th century, and currently attributed to Pietro Nelli, a Sienese artist working in the tradition of Giotto.
Like with many art objects not kept in a museum environment, this altarpiece has to face typical church conditions, including changes in temperature and relative humidity, the occasional birds droppings, and also the effects of the presence of bats which frequent the building.
Frequent and uncontrolled changes in relative humidity have an adverse effect on panel paintings, as wooden supports tends to respond with expansion and contraction. These movements affect not only the panel (- which may split if it does not have space to move in the frame) but also the paint layers and gilding, producing cracks, flaking and subsequently paint loss.
Bats are common in churches and their roots are protected by legislation. The damage produced by the corrosion of their urine and guano can be considerable, especially on the painted surface where it damages both the varnish and the paint.
The in-situ work on the altarpiece started with a full visual examination of the three panels, their structure and frame. In spite of its overall sound state of preservation, the altarpiece required consolidation of loose and vulnerable areas of paint and gilding, both on the panels and on the 19th century gilt frame. After consolidation with Lascaux© Medium for Consolidation, surface dirt and several bird droppings were removed, some areas of deteriorated varnish saturated with new varnish application and losses filled and toned. The project required us to work from a scaffolding in order to reach all areas of the panels. The surface cleaning removed a considerable build-up of surface dirt and produced a significant improvement to the general appearance of the painting, allowing the astonishingly well-preserved bright colours of the robes and the delicate flesh tones of the faces to come across once again.
Some minor technical investigation was undertaken, and in spite of the challenging conditions of working in-situ and under a time constraint, close optical examination and local infrared photography was accomplished, providing some interesting results.
It is quite common that members of the Institute have to travel to work in-situ in churches, country houses or local museums. The reasons for choosing to work on site, rather than bringing the work to the studio, vary. It may be the right option when the painting is particularly heavy or large, or when its absence is considered unacceptable, as may be the case for an altarpiece that plays a vital part in daily worship. A painting can also be in a particularly delicate state of preservation that necessitates work being undertaken prior to moving the object, or conversely, one or more paintings are in need of only minor, preventive or aesthetic intervention that can be done more cost-effectively on site.
In-situ jobs are always very interesting and useful opportunities for interns, as they give us the opportunity to visit and discover different parts of the country, and especially their works of art. It also helps interns to develop their abilities when they have to face treatments in challenging circumstances and under time pressure, far away from the well-equipped studio. In-situ jobs not only provide the gratification of a job well done, but it also sometimes includes the privilege of seeing how conservation work can have positive repercussions on the daily life of the surrounding community, as was the case here. Having the opportunity to work on a magnificent altarpiece in a beautiful location was truly a pleasure, not least thanks to the helpfulness and interest of the church community, who were eager to see this beautiful work of art to which they feel attached preserved and safe for the foreseeable future.
Carlos González Juste – 2nd year Post Graduate Intern at the Hamilton Kerr Institute.
About the author
Carlos González Juste has a B.A. in History from the Complutense University in Madrid and a Degree in Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage from the Escuela Superior de Conservación y Restauración de Bienes Culturales in Madrid. He has interned in the Museo Nacional del Prado (Madrid) and other Spanish institutions. He is currently completing his second year as a postgraduate Intern at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, University of Cambridge, where he has been working on a wide range of projects, from early Italian paintings, such as the Master of the Castello Nativity, to early C20th Russian artist A. Harlamoff, besides paintings by J. Reynolds, W. van Mieris and the C17th English painter R. Buckett.
To contact Carlos González Juste: firstname.lastname@example.org