Thursday, August 5, 2010

Conservators discovering the picture

There is a view amongst conservators that virtually all of the world’s great paintings have now been cleaned and conserved and their secrets revealed, and we are moving to a stage of care and maintenance of these paintings, whilst falling back on the generally less exciting grade two paintings to ply our active conservation skills.

So it is heartening to come across no less than three recent stories of conservation treatments which show we can still get excited about what is being undertaken or revealed.

The first is the discovery of a lost Velazquez in the basement of Yale University Art Gallery, as reported in The Art Newspaper and interestingly, even pictured in the Sydney Morning Herald (everyone loves a story about a lost treasure turning up in the metaphoric attic). Long thought to be by an unknown 17th Century Seville artist, entitled ‘The Education of the Virgin’, conservation revealed the distinctive long brush strokes and sophisticated naturalism of the Spanish master Diego Velazquez.

The second is a good news story about the 1546 panel painting ‘The Last Supper’ by Giorgio Vasari, which was severely damaged in the great Florence Flood of 1966 (also reported in The Art Newspaper). Underwater for 12 hours, the panels absorbed water and swelled, only to crack up as they dried out and shrank. Now thanks to a Getty Foundation grant, a team of panel painting conservators, including those learning these specialist skills, are working in Florence to secure the flaking areas, and remove the legacy of the flood, which includes mud, mould, diesel oil and waste from the overflowing Florentine sewers.

And the third story, as reported in The Guardian, like the first also relates to conservators unlocking a hidden masterpiece. In this case, it is a painting by Renaissance superstar Tintoretto, which hung in a filthy state for decades in Kingston Lacy, a National Trust pile in Dorset, UK. Of doubtful provenance and so dirty the figures could hardly be made out, it hung on the back stairs until finally its turn came for conservation.

Interestingly, whilst the conservation revealed it was definitely a Tintoretto, it also raised an issue as to what the image was about. Known for years as ‘Apollo and the Muses’, experts are puzzled about what is going on. It is currently on its fifth name in the last few months, namely ‘Apollo (or Hymen the Greek God of Marriage) crowning a poet and giving him a spouse’.

The reality is, whatever the title, it’s the artist whose name really matters and the vital role of conservators in revealing and authenticating this is once again confirmed. Great work, folks!

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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