BAPCR 2016 Conference Review

Wallace Collection © Chung

The BAPCR (British Association of Paintings Conservator-Restorers) conference on nineteenth-century painting practice and conservation took place at the Wallace Collection on the 7th of October, 2016.

The keynote speaker for the first session was Sally Woodcock (Hamilton Kerr Institute), who is currently undertaking doctoral research on the Charles Roberson archive and the supply of painting materials in Britain between 1820 and 1920. The archive is currently housed at the Hamilton Kerr Institute. The findings shared by Ms Woodcock opened our eyes to the less familiar materials that nineteenth-century painters ordered and used. In some cases, these materials could easily be misinterpreted as later restoration campaigns, such as panel backed stretchers and double-lined canvases. In addition, it was also interesting to see documented evidence of the extent of the restoration services provided in Britain during this period, exemplified by procedures such as the enlargement of artworks during painting, which was surprisingly a regular request for colourmen at the time.

Sally Woodcock starting her presentation © Chung

Jacob Simon (National Portrait Gallery) shared his recent research on the increased employment of conservators by the growing public collections in the nineteenth-century. Mr Simon provided case studies of major galleries in London at the time, which helped demonstrate the growing recognition of paintings conservators in the museum sector. The expanding interest and importance of environmental conditions in relation to the care of artworks was mentioned by Mr Simon and was later discussed in depth by Nicola Costaras.

Nicola Costaras (Victoria and Albert Museum) addressed a number of nineteenth-century documentary sources, which provide insight to the early views of museum curators and conservators regarding the environmental conditions at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). During the nineteenth-century, the Head of Collections was observing and monitoring drying crack patterns in paintings in order to determine whether heat and light contributed to their development. The talk gave us an understanding of the various views and concerns that existed in relation to the premature formation of drying cracks in paintings. Furthermore, we were able form an appreciation of nineteenth-century conservators’ curiosity and desire to understand this phenomenon, as well as the most efficient ways to prevent it.

Dr. Leslie Carlyle (author of The Artist’s Assistant and Associate Professor at the New  University of Lisbon) shed light on the importance of her new research, which could lead to changes in the ways we observe paintings. Dr. Carlyle presented the main findings of a thirty-year long research project, which were published as a part of the MOLART Fellowship project (1999), which draws upon evidence found in historical documents, painting case studies and historically accurate reconstructions.

Nineteenth-century paintings are notorious for the difficulties they present during varnish removal. Lidwien Speleers (Dordrecht Museum) shared her experience in treating a painting by Jacob Maris which displayed solvent sensitivity. Drawing upon documentary evidence and empirical testing, Ms Speleers was able to predict the solvent sensitive passages within the painting and achieve successful treatment.

Artists’ reworkings represent another difficulty when it comes to the treatment and interpretation of nineteenth-century paintings. Rosalind Whitehouse (private conservator) shared a series of observations she made during the treatment of a nineteenth-century equestrian group portrait. The painting showed complicated layer structure consisting of dirt layers between painting campaigns, indicating that the painting had been worked on over a long period of time. Roxane Sperber (Yale Center for British Art) discussed the treatment of a painting by the British artist John Linnell, with particular focus on the artist’s practice of ‘retouching’ his own paintings. Ms Sperber found documentary evidence recording Linnell’s practice of reworking his paintings in order to please his patrons. Such reworkings have previously been interpreted as restoration campaigns, signifying the importance of understanding the methods of artists when undertaking conservation treatments. Michaela Straub (Hamilton Kerr Institute) also shared her research and experience of treating two paintings by the Royal Academy artist Alfred East. Ms Straub was able to detect areas that had been reworked by the artist through a thorough technical study. The research was also aided by literary references in the form of a treatise written by East himself, as well as the artist’s account in the Roberson Archive.

Michaela Straub presenting her talk on East © Chung

The volume of artists’ writings and contemporary documentary sources referred to throughout the conference served as a reminder of the Victorian painters’ desire to document their observations and thoughts on painting processes. For example, Adele Wright (Tate) gave us a close look at the writings of Eugène Delacroix and his immediate contemporaries in order to understand the innovative thoughts that lead to his specific painting technique. During her time as a student at the Hamilton Kerr Institute Ms Wright produced a reconstruction of Delacroix’s The Lion and the Snake, which provided insight into the artist’s technique and also helped inform the treatment of the painting.

The remaining speakers presented technical studies, which showed the varying painting techniques of the time. Nienke Woltman and Suzanne Veldink (Rijksmuseum) presented a technical survey of thirteen paintings by the nineteenth-century Dutch painter George Hendrick Breitner. The paintings form part of Breitner’s famous ‘kimono’ series, which was exhibited for the first time at the Rijksmuseum in 2016 (Breitner: Girl in a Kimono, Feb 20-May 22 2016). Fabio Frezzato (CSG Palladio s.r.l., Vicenza) and his colleagues presented the technical findings of a study involving forty-eight artworks by the Italian painter Giovanni Boldini, who was active in London and Paris during the mid-nineteenth century. In addition, Nele Bordt and Katy Sanders-Blessley (Royal Collection Trust) carried out research on the unique collection of portraits by the Austrian painter Rudolf Swoboda. Another talk focused on the research conducted by Gabriella Macaro et al. (The National Gallery), which involved revisiting existing technical research on paintings by the Barbizon School artists at the National Gallery, London. Ms Macaro’s research built upon previous findings by Ashok Roy, whilst also taking advantage of the more advanced analytical equipment now available at the National Gallery. Her talk was completed by Mrs Hayley Tomlinson, who spoke about the manuals on the practice of painting written by Ernest Victor Hareux, artists and teacher in the late 19th century. Since he was close to the artists of the Barbizon school, he had prime information on their practice and painting techniques.

The speakers highlighted the need for finding patterns by collating more information on nineteenth-century paintings. Methods of how conservators could share information, and the importance of funding for research projects were also discussed .

Wallace Collection, view from Manchester Square © Chung

It is very exciting to think of the years to come, as more nineteenth-century paintings will be coming into our conservation studios for treatment, providing a great opportunity for in-depth research. The postprints of this conference are expected to be published during the summer of 2017 and will contain the papers that the researchers presented.

Jae Youn Chung – 1st year Post Graduate Intern at the Hamilton Kerr Institute

Ms Jae Youn Chung recently graduated with a Postgraduate Diploma in Conservation of Easel Paintings at The Courtauld Institute of Art. She moved to London in 2013 after graduating from Ewha Womans University (Seoul, South Korea) the same year, with combined degrees of BFA in Paintings and Ceramic Arts, BA in Art History and Professional English.

To contact Jae Youn Chung:

Rood Screen Conservation at St Matthew’s, Ipswich

Six panels forming part of a rood screen housed in the medieval church of St Matthew’s in Ipswich, Suffolk, were the subject of a week-long in-situ in September 2016 by Christine Braybrook and Sarah Bayliss.

Medieval rood and parclose screens are decorative partitions that separate the chancel from the nave in a church, and were usually decorated with painted panels depicting saints or donors. Few of these screens survived the destruction and damage from iconoclasm during the Reformation and Civil War in England, but in East Anglia there are a significant number of them left which allows meaningful study and comparison of their construction and painting. This research was the focus of Dr Lucy Wrapson’s PhD thesis, Patterns of production: a technical art historical study of East Anglia’s late medieval screens (2013, University of Cambridge). The in-situ project was a direct result of this body of work as it was noted upon examination that the St Matthew’s rood screen was in need of consolidation in order to stabilise flaking and vulnerable paint.

(Click to enlarge photos)

Like many medieval churches, St Matthew’s has had several phases of building and re-building. The south arcade (where the rood screen is present) is late 14th century, the chancel, north arcade and west tower 15th century and the aisles and part of the tower 19th century. This medieval building continues to function as a modern day church and was warm with excellent tea making facilities – so top marks from the conservators, St Matthew’s!

The St Matthew Rood Screen

The six painted panels of the St Matthew’s rood screen depict four bishop saints and one male and one female group of donors (fig. 3). The panels have suffered a lot of damage during their history including significant iconoclasm to the faces of the bishops, accidental damage and ‘refitting’ to more modern tastes. The six panels are all that remains of the original rood screen as they have been set into a 19th-century screen, and it is probable that it was during this intervention that the colourful backgrounds were scrapped down to the plain wood. However, it is possible to see the shape of the original upper and lower dado tracery from the ghost shapes of the gilding on the paintings (fig. 4). A comparison of these tracery shapes with other parclose and rood screens (notably at Southwold and Woodbridge) ascribes a date range of c.1448-70 for the St Matthew panels.

Fig 3. The St Matthew’s rood screen, before treatment. The order of the panels from left to right show (possibly) St Thomas Becket, unknown bishop saint, unknown bishop saint, (possibly) St Erasmus, group of male donors, group of female donors. (© Bayliss)

Unfortunately, the four bishop saints have few iconographical features to allow them to be easily identified. It has previously been suggested by A. Baker that the first and fourth saint in the sequence are St Thomas Becket and St Erasmus respectively. This is based on the vehemence with which the first panel has been defaced (literally and metaphorically), as St Thomas Becket was a particularly hated figure during the Reformation (fig. 13), and the windlass held by the fourth saint is the attribute of St Erasmus. As the panels have been removed from their original structure and context, it is unknown whether the panels would always have been set out in this sequence.

Fig 4. Detail of the current wooden tracery and underneath the ghost of the original tracery shapes from the remains of the gilding. This photo shows the gilding on the right with the varnish removed, and the gilding on the left with the old varnish remaining. (© Bayliss)

Condition and Treatment of the Rood Screen

Upon examination, it was clear that some of the paintings had vulnerable raised and tenting paint, which could easily be knocked off and lost forever. They were also obscured by surface dirt and an old and very discoloured brown varnish, which had the effect of camouflaging the figures against the wooden backgrounds and dimming the original gold and bright pigments.

The first stage was to consolidate and secure the flaking paint, an important step in helping these rare paintings to survive as it limits further paint loss from these already damaged paintings (fig. 5). The paintings were then surface cleaned using Blitzfix™ sponges soaked in deionised water, pH adjusted with ammonia to pH 8-9 (fig. 6). While a lot of dirt was removed from the surface of the paintings, there was little aesthetic improvement.

(Click to enlarge photos)

Next, tests were undertaken to remove the dark and disfiguring varnish. Rood screens often have multiple layers of aged resin and/or oil varnishes, making varnish removal on-site extremely challenging, away from the comforts of a fully equipped conservation studio. However, in this case a small miracle occurred and the varnish was readily soluble using free solvents, revealing the beautifully preserved original paint film and gilding (fig. 7-9). After much rejoicing, we begun what turned into one of the most satisfying cleans I’ve ever done. The thick, brown varnish was removed, revealing the figures in all their remaining glory. The change was stunning as the gold regained its lustre and the pure colours of the robes were revealed. But what I enjoyed the most was seeing the faces again, no longer a dull shadow of the wood, but standing out against the background with their black drawn features and pale skin.

(Click to enlarge photos)

The varnish removal also allowed us to see more clearly aspects of the panels’ making. In some areas the underdrawing, which had previously been only visible in the IRR photographs of the paintings, became apparent through the paint and gilding. We were also able to find remnants of the coloured backgrounds (fig. 11). It was previously thought that, like many paintings of this time, the backgrounds would have been alternating red and green, but in actual fact all of the backgrounds were green. It also became evident that the robes of the bishop saints had been gilded completely and the decoration painted on top of the gold, rather than the artist/s leaving a reserve to reduce the amount of gold used (fig. 12).

(Click to enlarge photos)

Once cleaned, the paintings were brush varnished with Paraloid B72, a stable, synthetic varnish which will not discolour anywhere near as much, nor as quickly as the previously applied natural varnish!

(Click to enlarge photos)
Fig. 16 The rood screen after treatment. (© Bayliss)

This project was immensely satisfying and it was also wonderful to hear the surprise of members of the church at how changed their paintings looked. It was also a very pleasing change for us, as in-situ work tends to be more concerned with stabilising paintings and frames rather than transforming them. So to leave behind the rood screen glimmering gently, rather than lost in the shadows, was certainly an excellent end to the week.

Sarah Bayliss, 2nd year Post-Graduate Intern (2015-2017)

About the Author:

Ms Sarah Bayliss is a graduate of the Post-graduate Diploma in the Conservation of Easel Paintings at The Courtauld Institute in London. She also has a Master of Chemistry from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK.

To contact Sarah Bayliss:

A Year in Cake

One of the traditions at the Hamilton Kerr Institute is to bring in a cake for every occasion, like birthdays or unbirthdays, departures etc, to the extent that even first time visitors know how to win our favour. This academic year (2015-2016) there has been an explosion of cake, ranging from full-blown novelty to classy affairs. This blog post aims to give the reader a flavour of the Institute, through looking at the highs and lows of the year in cake. And as the icing on the cake we will end with our favourite recipe, Lemon and Poppy Seed.

Farewell to our friends Carlos, Sven and Kari, you are missed! And the gauntlet is thrown down for our new students and interns, Anna, Elisabeth, Emma, Jae and Lieve!

Camille & Sarah


Lemon-Poppy seed loaf

You will need:
– 190g unsalted softened butter (7oz)
– 190g plain flour (7oz)
– 190g caster sugar (7oz)
– 3 large eggs
– 1 tsp baking powder
– 1/4 tsp salt
– 4 tbsp of poppy seeds or as much as you want
– 2 tbsp lemon zest = about 3-5 lemons. The more the better !
– 25ml whole milk (1oz)
– 80g of greek yogurt (original recipe calls for ricotta cheese but yogurt makes it moist and tender)
FOR THE SYRUP: I usually don’t put it on, as I feel this is moist enough.
– Juice of 1 lemon
– 50g caster sugar

1. Preheat oven to 170 degrees and grease and flour your loaf tin. Cream the butter (it needs to be soft obviously. 10 sec in the microwave can help) and sugar together.
2. Add the eggs one by one and mix in between, push the sides down with a spatula. In a separate bowl measure the flour, baking powder, salt, poppy seeds and lemon zest.
3. You have to add these dry ingredients in thirds, mixing well each time on a low speed. After the second batch, add in the milk. After the last batch, add the yoghurt. The less you mix, the better. You don’t want lumps, but you don’t want to overmix as it will make it dense.
4. Pop it all into your loaf tin and level it out. Put it into the oven for 40-50 mins, until your skewer comes out clean through the middle and its nicely browned on top. If the cake starts to turn a bit brown, do not hesitate to cover it with foil and put it back it until it is fully baked.
5. About 10 minutes before it’s all cooked make your syrup by putting the sugar, lemon juice and 100ml water into a saucepan and bring to the boil and let it reduce by half.
6. Once the loaf is cooked, prick a few holes with your skewer and pour your syrup over while the cakes still hot. Leave the loaf to cool a bit and then turn out onto the wire rack to cool it.

NB: You can also make it into muffins: this recipe makes 12-16 muffins.

(recipe from the Hummingbird Bakery cookbook)

Madrid Study Trip

At the beginning of June, the Interns, students and two staff members of the Hamilton Kerr Institute travelled to Madrid for the annual study trip, visiting the cultural highlights of the Spanish capital and some of the major conservation studios. We enjoyed the hospitality and refined culinary traditions of Spain, guided by second year HKI intern Carlos González Juste who lived in Madrid before moving to Cambridge.

Casa de las Conchas

The day after we arrived in Madrid, we travelled out of the city to visit Spain’s oldest University Town, Salamanca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the city’s most remarkable buildings is the House of the Shells, or Casa de las Conchas, a late gothic palace covered with stone carved shells. Hidden away in Salamanca’s back streets is the Museum of Art Nouveau and Art Deco that houses a collection of remarkable glassware, furniture, dolls and paintings by Ignacio Zuloaga.

The Crown of thorns

Our first studio visit took us to the headquarters of the Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural de España (Cultural Heritage of Spain), located on the outskirts of the city. The circular building is one of the most remarkable architectural structures of the 1960’s, and is nicknamed “the Crown of Thorns”. After visiting the entrance hall, library and rooftop terrace we were guided around the sculpture and painting conservation departments, as well as the laboratories. We were introduced to the materials and techniques used in the making of traditional Spanish baroque sculptures, like the laying-in of glass eyes, use of ivory teeth and genuine hair in the representation of saints.

Hidden studios

In one of the narrow streets in the centre of Madrid lies the private conservation studio ICONO I&R S.C. We were guided around by co-owner and conservator Rafael Romero Asenjo, specialist on 17th century Spanish still-lives, some of which we admired while touring the studio. At the end of this exciting day, we walked to another hidden gem, the rooftop of the Círculo de Bellas Artes to enjoy a panoramic view of the city.

Back to School

On our third day we visited the Escuela Superior de Conservación y Restauración De Bienes Culturales, where our colleague Carlos trained as a conservator. We were introduced to the four year BA- and one year Master program and guided around the studios housed in a 17th century palace. In the wall-painting conservation studio , a monumental canvas painting was currently being treated. The numerous bullet holes that perforated the painting were a reminder of the violent civil war that raged through Spain in the 1930’s. Other highlights of our visit included a roman pillar with ancient graffiti, traditional Spanish fans, paintings on glass supports and the challenging support treatments in the panel paintings studio.

In his Majesty’s service

Inside the magnificent Palacio Real de Madrid are located the conservation studios and Royal workshop of the King. We walked through a long corridor with a seemingly infinite amount of doors on either side. Behind every door was housed a different studio: clocks, paper and book, painting, metal…

The first room we entered was the studio responsible for the maintenance and repair of the ca.700 clocks, tower bells, music boxes and organ pieces dispersed over the Royal palaces. The specialist skills required for this work takes many years of practice, and has unfortunately become a dying trade.

In one of the studios, we saw a rare piece of royal transport history, the litter used by the elderly Emperor Charles V. After visiting paper and book conservation as well as frame conservation, we arrived at the studio designated for the treatment of small scale paintings. On the easel stood a delightful Madonna and Child by Quinten Massys which was in the process of having its varnish removed. The conservators often work on location for larger pieces, like the treatment of the monumental Crucifixion by Rogier van der Weyden kept at the Escorial Palace. Just next to the Royal Quarters, right on the first floor of the Palacio Real, a painting conservator was finishing the treatment of several large pieces by the neoclassical painter Anton Raphael Mengs, a favourite of Charles III of Spain.

The surface of Guernica 

Spain’s national museum of 20th century art, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, houses a world renowned collection of modern art. The most enigmatic work of its collection is Pablo Picasso’s magnum opus: Guernica. A team of conservators and computer technicians have recently completed an imaging project, scanning the monumental canvas in high resolution. This makes the monitoring and studying of the painting’s fragile surface much easier for conservators and art historians. The team of 22 conservators are mainly involved in the loan requests the museum receives, preparing paintings for transport and assessing their condition. Most treatments are limited to stabilising the artwork and minimal intervention, as modern and contemporary artworks present challenges the conservation world has not fully mastered yet.

Garden of Earthly Delights

The Museo Nacional del Prado is a true garden of delights for the art lover, where the walls are adorned with works by Titian, Van der Weyden, Rubens, Velázquez and Goya. The conservation studios have recently been moved to the museums new extension, the former monastery of San Jerónimo el Real. We were shown some of the panel support systems that were developed by the Panel Painting Initiative, a project that was conducted with the help of the Getty Conservation Institute. After discussing some of the treatments, we moved to the museum’s laboratory. The imaging facilities and analytical techniques employed by the scientists are tailored to answer specific questions asked by curators and conservators. In recent years, the laboratory has conducted ground-breaking work on the analysis of historic materials used in Spanish paintings, especially the composition of ground layers.

*For security reasons, no photos were allowed to be taken during the tour*

Following the studio visit, we went to see the blockbuster exhibition on Hieronymus Bosch, better known in Spain as El Bosco, and an exhibition on the French baroque artist Georges de La Tour.

The Hamilton Kerr Institute at the Bosch Exhibition (© Page)

The ghost of El Greco

On Friday we took the train to the nearby city of Toledo, a medieval stronghold which history goes back to Roman times. The astonishing buildings and structures across the city are a reminder of Toledo’s complex cultural and religious history. The Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo houses many 15th century altarpieces and the recently restored Disrobing by El Greco. The artist lived in Toledo for most of his life and many of his paintings have been preserved in Toledo’s churches and monasteries. In the Santo Domingo el Antiguo, the local nun pointed out a hole in the floor, where the artist is supposedly buried. Before we travelled back to Madrid we acquired a few bags of the famous Toledo marzipan, in the hope to make it last until we were back to England.

Our study trip to Madrid, on top of being sunny and full of delicious food, was an absolute delight as there were so many beautiful artworks and buildings to enjoy. The Bosch exhibition was everyone’s favourite, and we would like to encourage people to kill two birds with one stone by going to see it when you visit Madrid, as many of the paintings belonging to the Prado, such as the Earthy Delights, will never travel in order to preserve the condition of these masterpieces.

Sven van Dorst – 2nd year Post Graduate Intern at the Hamilton Kerr Institute

About the author

Sven Van Dorst graduated magna cum laude at the Artesis University College Antwerp (Belgium) in 2012, majoring in painting conservation and restoration. The following two years he worked on several projects at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp and as a freelance conservator and painter. Sven commenced a two-year postgraduate internship at the Hamilton Kerr Institute in 2014. Working on several Dutch and Flemish paintings by Rubens, de Fromantiou and van de Cappelle, as well as an Italian cassone and a quattrocento panel painting.

Recently Sven published an article on the technique of Antwerp flower painters for the catalogue of the exhibition Power Flower: Foral still lifes in the Netherlands at the Antwerp Rockoxhuis Museum. At the moment the results of his research project on the flower painter Daniel Seghers are on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, and will be published in the upcoming Hamilton kerr Bulletin 2016. The author has previously contributed articles to Openbaar Kunstbezit Vlaanderen (OKV), CeROArt and the BRK/APROA –bulletin.

To contact Sven:

Eton College In-Situ

In late May 2016, fellow Post-Graduate Intern Camille Polkownik, Director Rupert Featherstone, and I worked on a number of paintings at Our Lady of Sorrows Chapel on the campus of Eton College, located near Windsor Castle.

Our Lady of Sorrows Chapel at Eton College (© Polkownik)

Over the course of three days, we treated eight paintings on site. While this in-situ project involved a number of procedures routinely carried out under such circumstances, including consolidation, surface cleaning, minor tear repair, minor filling and retouching, varnishing, and conservation-standard re-framing, we encountered a number of slightly unusual challenges that warrant mention.

Two of the paintings, upon closer inspection, were found to consist of paper adhered to canvas, which was in turn attached to keyable stretchers. These paintings appeared to have been executed in an oil-type medium and had darkened coatings, possibly tinted to make the paintings look older. Extra caution was taken during surface cleaning as a result of the potential sensitivity of the paper supports to water. After some testing, the solution settled upon was to use a lightly dampened “Blitz-Fix” sponge and dry the surface immediately with Kimwipes (acid-free tissues).

Additionally, while saliva or deionized water at pH 7 or 8 on cotton swabs would generally suffice for surface cleaning varnished paintings, two paintings – one varnished, one unvarnished – were found to warrant the use of a cleaning solution with a low percentage of an added chelator on cotton swabs due to the significant amount of tenacious grime present. These paintings, previously appearing rather dull and grey, underwent dramatic visual improvements after surface cleaning. Re-varnishing these paintings was also necessary and provided aesthetic benefits.

For health and safety reasons, the choice of which varnish to use while on an in-situ can oftentimes be limited to the synthetic varnish requiring the least harmful solvent. Fortunately, we were able to time the progress of our treatments such that we could varnish at the end of the second day prior to leaving the building, preventing human exposure to solvent vapours. This allowed us to use Paraloid® B72, for example, which we found particularly beneficial to employ on paintings with uneven gloss.

Framing and hanging presented a few challenges as well. We needed to consider several special modifications when re-framing the paintings, including enlarging the rebate of one of the free-standing frames, since the painting didn’t quite fit. The college staff also took the opportunity to modernise the hanging hardware.

Polkownik cleaning a frame (© Rayner)

It was a privilege to participate in this project at Eton – not just because we were treated to Eton College behind-the-scenes, or because we managed to fit in a few strolls in the evenings to see the incredible number of swans on the river! It was a pleasure to work in such a lovely space, and it was a valuable learning experience to encounter such a range of conservation issues on site.

Many thanks to the welcoming and supportive staff at Eton College for inviting us to work on site. We hope that the congregation of Our Lady of Sorrows appreciates the aesthetic improvement of the paintings and that our efforts have added to an enjoyable experience of the chapel.

Kari Rayner – 1st year Post Graduate Intern at the Hamilton Kerr Institute

Ms Kari Rayner graduated with a Master of Arts in Art History and gained an Advanced Certificate in Art Conservation from New York University, USA. She also has a Bachelor of Arts in Art History, Art Theory and Practice from Northwestern University, USA. During her graduate studies, Kari interned at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne and worked at Modern Art Conservation in New York, NY. Her final-year internship was undertaken at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and she will be returning to the NGA in fall 2016 to begin an Advanced Fellowship in Paintings Conservation.

To contact Kari Rayner:

Reconstructing a 17th century Flemish flower painting

In 2014, I started a research project at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, studying the painting technique of the seventeenth century flower painter Daniël Seghers (Antwerp 1590-1661).[1] One of the master’s flower pieces kept at the Fitzwilliam Museum was studied in depth using modern imaging techniques and paint analysis. These findings were used to paint a reconstruction of the painting, emulating the original materials and techniques as faithfully as possible. When painting the reconstruction, the ageing that has affected the paint and varnish on the original painting was disregarded. The result of this step-by-step reconstruction shows how the painting was created and how it would have looked when it left the artist’s studio. The reconstruction will be on show at the Fitzwilliam Museum in June as part of the Hamilton Kerr Institute’s 40th anniversary display.

Painting the reconstruction in the HKI studio’s (© van Dorst)

The original

The Vase of Flowers, kept at the Fitzwilliam Museum, is a beautiful example of Seghers’ colourful flower arrangements. When the painting was examined, an unfinished flower piece was discovered on the reverse of the copper support. This is possibly the only surviving flower painting of the period that is left in the dead-colouring stage, it is therefore an invaluable source for the study of the genre. The dead-colouring is the first step of the painting process, when the artist defines the composition. These abstract looking shapes are also present underneath the finished flower piece, and can be seen with the naked eye to a certain extent, or more clearly with the use of infrared imaging techniques.

(Click on photos to enlarge)


The range of pigments Seghers employed fall firmly into the mainstream of painting practices in the Low Countries during the seventeenth century.[2] The artist’s pallet contains natural earth pigments, manufactured colours like lead white, and a few precious pigments like ultramarine blue, made from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli. In preparation for painting the reconstruction, a range of historic pigments were ground in oil; the dry pigment powder was placed on a glass slab and the required amount of drying oil was added. This was mixed into a paste and ground with a glass muller to form a homogeneous paint. The consistency of the paint could be altered by adding some chalk or boiled linseed oil. The paint was kept in glass containers and used throughout the whole process of painting.

(Click on photos to enlarge)

Support and ground layer

Like the Fitzwilliam painting, the reconstruction is executed on a thin copper panel. The smooth surface of the copper support allows fine detailing, characteristic of seventeenth century Flemish and Dutch flower pieces. Following historic practices, the surface of the copper plate was roughened and rubbed with garlic thus achieving better adhesion between the smooth support and the paint layers. The support was covered with a ‘ground’ or preparatory surface; the grey colour was applied quite thickly, with brushstrokes running in different directions. The preparatory layer consists of a mixture of lead white, charcoal black, raw umber and some chalk.

The dead-colouring

After the ground layer had dried the most important flowers were positioned using coloured plains, this stage is called dead-colouring. IR images of the Vase of Flowers made it possible to look through the paintlayers and see the shapes the artist laid in during the dead-colouring stage. The unfinished composition on the reverse of the painting helped to interpreting the IR images. First the flowers were positioned in bright colours; pink, red, white and yellow. Then a thin green scumble was applied in the centre and finally the dark background and tabletop were painted in. Whilst the paint was still wet, the edges of the different elements were blended in with a brush to create soft transitions. The paint mixtures are not complex, the reds consists mainly of red lead and vermillion, whilst the yellow is made up of lead-tin-yellow and some lead white. The pink colour was achieved by mixing lead white, madder (red lake) and a small amount of red lead.

(Click on photos to enlarge)

Final painting

Seghers only needed a single paintlayer on top of the dead-colouring to model his flowers. The large flowers were painted on top of the bright underlayer, while the small flowers were painted directly on top of the dark background. The bright underlayer plays a key role in the final result. The vibrant colour of the red rose, for example, was achieved by applying a semi-transparant red lake on top of the red dead-colouring. The egg shape underneath the tulip is still visible in the final result, it is placed on the lighter side of the flower, whilst the shadow side was painted on top of the dark background. This way it was possible to create astonishing pictorial effects in a limited amount of time. Because the painting was executed in only one layer, on top of the dead-colouring, the brushwork and paint handling had to be executed with great care. The brushstrokes follow the shape of the flowers, giving a feeling of three dimensions. This aspect of the painting was especially difficult to imitate during the reconstruction because the consistency of the paint had to be adjusted to improve the paint handling.

(Click on photos to enlarge)

Finishing touches  

In the last stage the artist added the insects to his flower arrangement. The confidence with which the butterflies were executed is astonishing. Some of the details on the wings were achieved by scratching into the wet paint, uncovering the dark colour of the background. I could only achieve a similar level of detail by using loups. Once the paint had dried a varnish was applied on top of the painting to saturate the colours.

(Click on photos to enlarge)

Reflecting on the effects of ageing

Comparing the original with the reconstruction makes it clear we look at Old Master paintings through a window of distorted glass, often without being aware of it.[3] The layers of fragile material that make up a work of art are all subject to change and decay. By painting this reconstruction I want to show how this work would have looked when it left the artist’s studio almost 400 years ago.

Sven van Dorst – 2nd year Post Graduate Intern at the Hamilton Kerr Institute

The finished reconstruction and original side by side (© van Dorst)

About the author

Sven Van Dorst graduated magna cum laude at the Artesis University College Antwerp (Belgium) in 2012, majoring in painting conservation and restoration. The following two years he worked on several projects at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp and as a freelance conservator and painter. Sven commenced a two-year postgraduate internship at the Hamilton Kerr Institute in 2014. Working on several Dutch and Flemish paintings by Rubens, de Fromantiou and van de Cappelle, as well as an Italian cassone and a quattrocento panel painting.

Recently Sven published an article on the technique of Antwerp flower painters for the catalogue of the exhibition Power Flower: Foral still lifes in the Netherlands at the Antwerp Rockoxhuis Museum. The author has previously contributed articles to Openbaar Kunstbezit Vlaanderen (OKV), CeROArt and the BRK/APROA –bulletin.

To contact Sven:

[1] van Dorst, S., “Daniël Seghers: Phenix of Flowerpainters”, in Hamilton Kerr Institute Bulletin, 2016. (Upcoming)

[2] The artists’ palette and materials were studied using several analytical techniques. Chemical elements were identified using X-ray Fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) and Ma-XRF scanning to indicate the presence of certain (mainly inorganic) pigments. The layer structure of the paint was studied using cross section analysis. Small paint samples reveal the sequence of paint layers and made it possible to see the individual pigment-particles that make up the various strata. The cross sections were analysed with scanning electron microscopy with energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDX) to enable more detailed identification of individual pigment particles in the paint mixture.

[3] For more information on the ageing of paintings consult Paul Taylor’s Condition: The Ageing of Art , 2015.

 Studio Visit to the V&A

The Victoria and Albert Museum attracts millions of visitors through its doors, but very few are afforded the chance to venture behind the scenes. Therefore, we felt very privileged to visit the V&A’s Painting Conservation Department on our recent trip to London, especially with Head Painting Conservator, Nicola Costaras, as our guide.

Painting Gallery at the V&A (© Polkownik)

Ranging from its well-known Old Master and Victorian paintings, to a growing number of contemporary works, the V&A has some 2000 paintings in its collection. Their preservation is a multi-faceted and demanding task. Aside from performing practical treatments and implementing preventative conservation strategies, the Painting Conservation Department carries out scholarly research into the collection and shares it through a number of platforms, be it in person, print or online through the V&A’s blog. In addition to caring for the V&A’s permanent collection, the department also takes responsibility for the many paintings which arrive as part of temporary exhibitions and displays. This is no mean feat, especially considering it is all achieved with only one permanent staff member, conservators hired for particular projects, and student placements, a fact which left us all the more impressed by the work we saw.

IMG_8190 - Copy
Conservation Studio, Painting Side (© Polkownik)

 As we walked through the studio Nicola showed us several paintings and discussed with us their diverse problems and the appropriate solutions that were fashioned to overcome them.

The paintings themselves were representative of the V&A’s scope and influence.

One of the first pieces we saw was a Constable oil sketch, one of ninety-two owned by the V&A. Hearing about these sketches exemplified the ever-growing role conservators play in understanding and sharing the physical art history locked within paintings. Through their various conservation treatments, these sketches have revealed Constable’s unique and thrifty use of materials. Sometimes he painted on both sides of his supports, which were themselves often cobbled together out of whatever materials he had close to hand. The sketch we saw had been mounted on paper then lined, by Constable, onto canvas. It was interesting to learn that many of his oil sketches were posthumously lined with canvas, deliberately recasting sketches intended as impressions into final works to bolster their desirability and sale value.

Nicola also pulled out three recently acquired (2009) North Korean paintings for us to contemplate. While their subject-matter, which extols the state’s leaders and military, did not come as any surprise, the Western, particularly Impressionist, style of the paintings did. Their presence in the collection grants a rare insight into the artistic output of a country shrouded in mystery, underlining the V&A’s continued role in bringing the art of far-flung parts of the world to a wider audience and to the attention of the British public.

Costaras showing us special paintings living in the drawers (© Polkownik)

Going around the studio, one was struck not only by the geographical breadth of the collection, but by the variety of materials on which the paintings were executed. Nicola neatly illustrated this by opening a plan-chest drawer to reveal a painted backdrop curtain from a marionette-theatre and an early 17th century oil painting on marble, mounted on slate, which depicted the baptism of Christ. The latter was especially attractive, as the artist had incorporated the natural patterns of the marble into the composition, with the veining forming a celestial kingdom populated by angels and cherubim.

The V&A is an active and enterprising global organisation. Consequently, preparation for loans and exhibitions forms a core component of the department’s workload. We were fortunate for our visit to coincide with the exhibition Botticelli Reimagined and see the fruits of their labours in the form of Botticelli’s Portrait of a Lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli, c.1470-5, which was restored especially for the exhibition. Nicola kindly armed us with the infrared and before and during treatment images, allowing us to visually trace its evolution from Botticelli’s initial sketched design to its current state via the twisted byroads of vandalism (her right eye and mouth were scored by an unknown hand) and historic restorations (including those done by the artist, and previous owner of the painting, Dante Gabriel Rossetti).

It was a pleasure visiting the department and hearing about the complexities and nuances of the V&A’s collection from the perspective of its conservators. Our sincere thanks to Nicola Costaras for being so informative and generous with her time. We look forward to hearing her and Clare Richardson’s talk ‘Botticelli’s Portrait known as Smeralda Bandinelli; a technical study’ at the V&A’s forthcoming international two-day conference ‘Botticelli: Past and Present’.

Amiel Clarke, 2nd year Student at the Hamilton Kerr Institute

Courtyard of the V&A (© Polkownik)

About the author

Amiel Clarke is in her second year of studies at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, where she is working towards attaining a Post-graduate Diploma in the Conservation of Easel Paintings. She graduated with an MA in History of Art from the University of Edinburgh in 2012. During her studies she has undertaken placements at the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre and the HKI’s Ebury Street studio.

To contact Amiel Clarke:

In-situ at Deene Park, Northamptonshire

Back view of Deene Park at the end of day. (© Polkownik)

On April 27th 2016, Carlos Gonzalez Juste (2nd year post-grad intern), Mary Kempski (supervisor and senior conservator) and myself travelled to Deene Park, between Corby and Stamford (Northamptonshire), to take care of 12 paintings that have suffered from mould and record their profiles in order to monitor changes to their panel support curvatures.

Deene House is a sixteenth century property incorporating a medieval manor and has been occupied by the Brudenell family since 1514 up until this day. The house has a grand style, with many paintings of ancestors as well as family heirlooms. As this house is lived in and not a museum, no photos of its interior will be published, only details of the paintings and the work done on them.

The twelve paintings are family portraits dating back from the seventeenth century. They are painted on oak panels by a British artist/studio and represent children and women at various ages. It is not known who they are but it seems likely they were members of the Brudenell family.

Detail of one of the family portraits. (© Polkownik)

The paintings had suffered from humidity and had developed mould on the reverse of the panels. Not all panels were affected: some of them had been restored in 1966, and the reverse had been impregnated with a mixture of wax and resin, which acted as a barrier. The restored panels were thus protected from mould. However, this wax mixture also acted as moisture barrier, and these panels were less affected by the recent lowering of relative humidity in the house, which caused the more sensitive panels to warp and adopt a more pronounced curvature.

The paintings with whitish reverse are coated with wax. (© Polkownik)

This in-situ had three objectives: remove the mould, take the curvature of the panels for monitoring and future comparison, and reframe the paintings to a conservation standard.

The paintings were first taken off the walls. All 12 could not be taken off at once since the space was restricted, which meant we could only work on 4 to 5 paintings at the same. As soon as one was done, it was put back on the wall and another one was brought in.

The mould was first removed using swabs and alcohol (click on photos to enlarge).

This enabled us to then unframe the paintings. A few of them had been restored by the Hamilton Kerr Institute several years before and already had proper framing. The rest were improperly framed, with nails holding the panels in their frames which were restricting their movements and could cause internal stresses. Luckily, no splits had developed or joints opened.

Once the paintings were out of their frames, the curvature profiles were taken on a piece of cardboard, and the current relative humidity and temperature of the room were written down. This will allow us to compare the curvatures at our next visit and understand the sensitivity of the wood to environmental conditions. Charlotte Brudenell (wife of the present owner of Deene Park)  is very committed to giving the paintings the best possible conditions in their setting and is hoping to improve the climate control for the panels and all the paintings in the house.

The frames that had not been recently restored had their rebates lined with acid-free paper and cork spacers to accommodate the panels. Once the paintings were laid down in their frames, they were kept in place with brass strips at the middle of the top and bottom edges, so as to enable the panels to still move across the grain according to the relative humidity fluctuations.  The paintings were then hung back on the wall.

This in-situ was a very good learning experience, as treating 12 paintings in a day was a great challenge, even with three people. It is interesting to see how one improves as the day wears on and how organisation evolves in order to be as economical as possible. Doing repetitive tasks, such as lining rebates and framing, greatly improves one’s skills and efficiency. The size of the artworks, as well as their location in the rooms and proximity to furniture, also required constant teamwork in order to move and re-hang them safely. The Hamilton Kerr Institute will soon return to Deene Park to continue the monitoring and preventive conservation of its artefacts.

Camille Polkownik – 1st year Post-Graduate Intern at the Hamilton Kerr Institute (2015-2017)

About the Author

Ms Camille Polkownik graduated with a Master Degree in the Conservation and Restoration of Paintings in 2014, from the École nationale supérieure des arts visuels de La Cambre in Brussels . 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 in the Royal Institute for Culture Heritage (KIK-IRPA, Belgium), the Museum of Fine Arts in Nice (France), in private studios and at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney, Australia).

To contact Camille Polkownik:


In-situ in Southern England

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.

Details showing the egg tempera technique and the scoring and punching embellishing the gilt halo and the crozier. (© González Juste)

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.

White garment of St Julian during surface cleaning. (© González Juste)

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.

González Juste undertaking surface cleaning. (© Kimbriel)

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.

Senior Painting Conservator Christine Slottved Kimbriel explaining the treatment and characteristics of the altarpiece to members of the community. (© González Juste)

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:

Studio Visits to the Guildhall Art Gallery and Tate Britain

One of the great advantages of the Hamilton Kerr Institute is its proximity to London and the opportunity for students and post-graduate interns to visit museums, view exhibitions, and tour conservation departments in various institutions. In April, a group from the HKI visited the paintings conservation studios at the Guildhall Art Gallery and Tate Britain.

Outside the Guildhall Art Gallery (© Polkownik)

Although I have to admit I had no prior familiarity with the Guildhall Art Gallery, I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to this grand building with a beautiful and sensitively-displayed, mostly nineteenth century collection of paintings. In conversation with the conservators, we learned that the gallery was conceived as a static hang, but that special exhibitions are now part of its remit. The space also frequently hosts various events and functions: this requires specific recommendations from conservators to cover all sorts of situations and requests – from using hair spray to garment steamers.

The conservation department consists of two paintings conservators and one frame conservator, who all work part-time. Most of the treatments carried out are generated by the needs of exhibitions or loans. In the paintings conservation studio, we had the opportunity to view a seascape by Scottish painter Peter Graham (1836-1921) being treated for an exhibition opening in September 2016 called ‘Victorians Decoded: Art and Telegraphy.’ This painting was brought into the studio because of its structural issues and potential for aesthetic improvement. A particular concern for the unlined work was the weakening of the turning edges due to the scale of the painting and thickness of the paint layers. Several members of our group from the HKI had prior familiarity with Graham’s work, which led to a productive conversation with the Guildhall Art Gallery conservators about the painter’s technique and tendency to rework his paintings numerous times.

In the frames conservation department, we had an equally stimulating discussion regarding the process of re-gilding frames and the ethics of frame restoration. We additionally came away with the surprising tidbit of information that gin (having the right proportions of alcohol and water) is the optimal solution to use during the process of water gilding.

Paintings Conservator Nancy Wade discusses paintings in the storeroom with the HKI group. (© Polkownik)

However, perhaps what I found most impressive, particularly given the small size of the institution, was the conservators’ involvement in exhibitions and dedication to research. For instance, the conservators from both the Guildhall and the Hamilton Kerr Institute (Sally Woodcock, Spike Bucklow) significantly contributed to the 2011 Sir John Gilbert exhibition, with articles on the technique of the artist and his frames in the resulting publication Sir John Gilbert: Art and Imagination in the Victorian Age. We were particularly delighted to see a number of watercolours created in the spirit of Gilbert to demonstrate the extent of fading due to negative environmental conditions.

Eating lunch with a view of St. Paul’s Cathedral (© Polkownik)

In the afternoon, after a lovely stroll along the River Thames, our HKI group visited the paintings conservation studios at Tate Britain. The department was absolutely packed with paintings being treated in preparation for installation at the new Tate Modern opening in June.

The paintings conservation department at Tate Britain (© Polkownik)

A common theme running between a number of the works we saw being treated was inherent vice and the unpredictability of modern materials. These works include some of the following cases: a painting comprised of crumbling, dirt-like material; a modern painting with sensitivity to water and susceptibility to burnishing; and paintings with layers of mixed media, possibly megilp, and varnish interlayers, causing extreme difficulty in varnish removal. In one work in particular, consisting of painted canvas and hanging burlap, there was the added concern of respecting the artist’s intention that the painting showed signs of age and that its history be visible.

Another painting we saw with condition issues stemming from material instability was a Gary Hume, with whom Tate will be working closely during conservation. In this work, fatty acid crystals have formed in some areas due to the oil component in the alkyd house paint that the painter used. The conservator treating the painting will be exploring how to best remove the efflorescence through a variety of tests and by working with conservation scientists at the Tate to measure any resulting gloss change and observe visual alterations. The aim is to publish an article dealing with the findings.

In addition to discussing these treatments with a number of conservators in the department, Paintings Conservator Annette King spoke with us about her research on Pablo Picasso and Francis Picabia, undertaken through the Clothworkers’ Conservation Fellowship. Her interest in paintings that have been significantly reworked or over-painted by the artists themselves has involved the study of several key paintings with various analytical and imaging methods such as X-radiography and infrared reflectography. Annette’s research will culminate in a symposium held at Tate on November 25, 2016.

It was an absolute privilege to hear about the current projects at both the Guildhall Art Gallery and Tate Britain, and we are extremely grateful to our colleagues for hosting our visits and for their generosity with their time.

Kari Rayner – 1st year Post Graduate Intern at the Hamilton Kerr Institute


Ms Kari Rayner graduated with a Master of Arts in Art History and gained an Advanced Certificate in Art Conservation from New York University, USA. She also has a Bachelor of Arts in Art History, Art Theory and Practice from Northwestern University, USA. During her graduate studies, Kari interned at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne and worked at Modern Art Conservation in New York, NY. Her final-year internship was undertaken at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and she will be returning to the NGA in fall 2016 to begin an Advanced Fellowship in Paintings Conservation.

To contact Kari Rayner: