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:

Review of 2016 ENCoRE Conference, Cambridge

ENCORE Conference, held at Wolfson College, Cambridge. (© 2016 Polkownik)

ENCoRE is a network organisation of European higher education institutions operating in the field of conservation-restoration. It was founded in 1997 with the principal objective to promote and develop research and education in the conservation of cultural heritage. The conference held in Cambridge on April 13th 2016 was entitled “ENCoRE: On Practice in Conservation-Restoration Education”. Two more days followed, called General Assembly, where the different actors talked about the current issues in conservation education.

As the title says, education is a major focal point of ENCoRE. Another important point that was raised that day was the importance of research and its relationship to education. In many other fields, it is easy to imagine these two linked. But for us conservators, linking lab research to studio practice is not always easy.

A short summary of each talk follows:

Key-note speaker René Larssen, associate professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, stressed in his presentation the importance of doing research consistently, in small practical projects. Through two case studies, he showed how simple observations of alterations can be translated into hypotheses that can then be investigated by researchers and scientists. In short, early and systematic communication between conservators and researchers leads to a faster problem solving and thus a better understanding of the aging of our treatments on works of art. Another very important point he raised was the need to adopt standardized terms through the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), an idea that was backed up by Leslie Carlyle during the Q&A. She illustrated her argument with the need for standardisation of UV filters so that photos of artworks and cross sections can be compared between institutions.

Sebastian Dobrusskin, Professor for Conservation and Restoration of Graphic Art and Photography at Bern University of the Arts, described the structure of the conservation programme at his university and mentioned the difficulties of communication related to the three national languages of Switzerland: German, French and Italian, as well as new research programs more adapted to students needs.

Elisabeth Peacock, Professor at the University of Gothenburg, explained how she designed a Research Methods Course from scratch, after receiving complaints from students feeling unprepared for independent research. After attending an ICOM Summer Course in 2013, in four months she designed a structured course oriented towards problem-solving learning formats, so students can become familiar with research methods while benefitting from collaboration with students from different backgrounds and levels of ability.

Alison Heritage, ICCROM, talked about the importance of educators in promoting research. Heritage science creates cultural values and links various fields together, and in her opinion, collaboration is the key element to success as a discipline. She also acknowledges that teamwork can be challenging due to lack of trust between individuals with vast differences in personalities or culture.

Like Peacock, Lecturer in Conservation at the University of Oslo Douwtje van der Meulen put together a course package and worked with students to improve it. The course was centred around general skills such as problem solving and critical thinking, basic research skills and communication. Her teaching philosophy is called “active learning” as inspired by Confucius’ quote: “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I will learn, involve me and I will understand.” By teaching students how to gain knowledge through research, then discussing their results and using their findings in an essay, she noticed that the information was better assimilated since the students could see how to use it in their practice.

Key-note speaker Leslie Carlyle, currently Professor at the University of Lisbon presented case studies demonstrating the gap between the information available in conservation and the practice. She notably pointed out how long it takes for practices to be properly studied and written about, choosing the example of the nylon coating (used on everything and anything since it was so popular in the 1960’s) and diammonium citrate for the cleaning of paintings. She also demonstrated the passage of time between the publication of literature and its assimilation into practice. In a case study, she spoke of conservators ignoring the literature or not having access to it, and choosing to use products that were no longer recommended, creating long-lasting conservation issues for objects. Finally, she mentioned the latest conference on Lead Soaps, held in March 2016 at the Rijksmuseum. This conference was, in her opinion, the first one where conservators and scientists fully collaborated in order to get a better understanding of this degradation phenomenon and to find solutions to the problems created by these soaps. As conservators are doing more and more research, they elevate themselves to the level of scientists, which helps them better formulate questions to get faster answers.

Boris Kvasnica, Professor at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, explained the structure of the conservation programme and the importance of collaboration between different fields, illustrating his point with case studies of students in conservation, chemistry and art history successfully working together.

Finally, the last speaker was Silvia García Fernández-Villa, associate professor at the University of Madrid, stressed the importance of including students in research projects to help them get familiar with specific materials and analysis methods used in conservation science. She used, as an example, projects past and ongoing dealing with synthetic polymers and their ageing. Not only were the students improving their knowledge in chemistry and science, they could apply this newfound knowledge to practical cases, notably contemporary artworks.

Panel discussion at the end of the day. (© 2016 Polkownik)

The talks ended with a panel discussion, which raised questions like “what is conservation research” or “how much should research be stressed in the conservation-restoration curriculum?” but these questions will not be discussed in length in this article. Participants then enjoyed a glass of wine while gathering around the posters designed by students.

In conclusion, this conference, although oriented towards teachers and how to make their courses better, was very interesting for students and young graduates. This forum showed that teachers are constantly trying to improve conservation-restoration coursework, despite little means, little time and heavy responsibilities and expectations from schools and universities.

Camille Polkownik – 1st year Post Graduate Intern at the Hamilton Kerr Institute

The students posters will be soon posted on CeROArt (the link will be added as soon as it becomes available).

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 :