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:

 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.

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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:

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: