Friday, September 4, 2009

Cleaning paintings – surprising discoveries

I have blogged before on the subject of cleaning paintings, but there comes news this week of an unusual discovery whilst a painting undergoes conservation treatment. In summary a painting being cleaned in Sao Paulo, Brazil by a private paintings restorer turned out to have an erect penis that had been overpainted some centuries ago in what is termed 'an adjustment for modesty'. Almost as much a revelation is that the restoration has cost 150,000 euros ($257,500), no doubt partly because it is a large canvas, being 3.7m by 1.6 m. Here is the post restoration image.

But it reminded me of one of the great conservation revelation stories, which is told in the very readable 'The Art of the Conservator' edited by the former head of conservation at the British Museum, Andrew Oddy ( 1992 Trustees of the British Museum). A 1610 portrait of Henry Prince of Wales on horseback by Robert Peake the Elder, was sent to the Hamilton Kerr Institute at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge for cleaning. It’s no secret that it was privately owned by one Mrs Tritton, who in six degrees of separation fashion, turned out to be the aunt of one of our clients. The painting presented as per the ‘Before Treatment’ photo.

Before Treatment

However upon examination it became clear that the entire background had been overpainted with a landscape, quite at odds with the original background (see After Treatment photo). Amazingly the original background was in reasonable condition and was able to be recovered and conserved, in the process revealing a far more interesting and detailed painting, not least because of the presence of Father Time walking behind the horse, and the wonderful feathers on the Prince’s hat. The conundrum remains as to why it was overpainted. Despite the Prince dying soon after the painting was created, it is not thought that the figure represents Death stalking him. Rather the painting appears to have been altered ( not by Peake) to give it a similar feeling to van Dyck’s famous portrait of Charles 1st on horseback.

After Treatment

Conservation is an immensely satisfying profession to be involved in (almost all the time), but projects like this are the icing on the cake.

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