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.


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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. 

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