Nicola here! I’ve recently become obsessed with a BBC TV programme called Lost Masterpieces. In it, art detectives Bendor Grosvenor and Emma Dabiri track down lost paintings from local museums and art galleries. Whilst Bendor delves into their background and oversees their restoration, Emma tells us more about the history of the collection and the people behind it. It’s a wonderful combination of detective work, conservation and history, exciting because so often the pictures have been attributed to the wrong painter or there is a hidden masterpiece waiting to be discovered amongst the racks of pictures in the museum’s store. In the most recent series they discovered a lost portrait by Reubens of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, and a painting by Mary Beale, a 17th century professional artist which had been attributed to Peter Lely because it was felt that a woman couldn’t possibly be able to paint as well as she did!
One of the most fascinating aspects of the programme for me – apart from the way in which Bendor Grosvenor was able to identify the artist from the tiniest clues in style – was the way in which the paintings were so meticulously repaired and restored. In some cases they were very badly damaged and needed the most painstaking work, wiping away layers of varnish, even repairing those that had water damage, for example.
I was able to see this process for myself last Friday when we had a tour of the conservation studio at the Ashmolean Museum. Newly built a few years ago, the studio is on the top floor of the museum with natural north light and a view across the city’s rooftops. The Chief Conservator stressed how important both the light and space were to enable them to do their work.
First we had a talk from the painting conservator. He was working on two very different projects, the first of which was a pair of painted wooden trays that had been donated to the museum by a family who had lived in Oxford. Putting together the story behind the donation had been a piece of detective work in itself; the trays were 19th century origin from India, brought back by one of the sons of the house who had been a soldier with the East India Company. They depicted a story told in a series of images, a moral fable that dated from a much earlier era which told of a virtuous prince who gave away all his possessions to those in need. Apparently the trays had been mass-produced as souvenirs for soldiers in the early 19th century. One of the pair was damaged and the conservator explained the judgement needed to decide how much repair to do to a historical object and how much to leave as natural wear and tear, part of its story. For example they had decided to mend a broken corner but to leave a slight discolouration in the white paint that had occurred through the ageing process. He was also working on an amazing portrait of Mary Tudor, dated from before she had become Mary I, which had been very badly damaged. It was absolutely bursting with colour and vivid life but was in dire need of sympathetic restoration with some patches faded and discoloured and peeling. I can’t wait to see what it will look like when it is finished.
Part two of the tour involved the conservation of material objects, ranging from a 16th century ceremonial sword that was about five foot long to the most exquisitely painted Tudor sweetmeat trenchers. The conservator was fascinating on the different ways of cleaning the objects – tiny special sponges! – and the way precious objects were packed for storage or for transfer from museum to museum and especially the difficulties of wrapping a long, pointed object with sharp side and knobbly bits! I found the trenchers in particular to be fascinating as I had always imagined them to be bigger; these were about three inches square and made of sycamore wood. The sweetmeats were served on the plain side and when you had finished you turned them over to see the picture and read the verse on the other side!
Finally we had a tour with the fabrics conservator and here I realised how much ingenuity was required in the display of the items. Not only did she need sewing skills, she also needed to be very good at creating ways to display items in a way that reminded me of craft lessons in a primary school! A gorgeous piece of three hundred year old Persian silk was wrapped around a model to create a wraparound skirt in the style in which it would originally have been worn, but because it couldn’t be fastened with a belt as that would crush the delicate old material, she had pinned it to foam pleats to help it hang as a skirt would. I thought this showed such wonderful ingenuity! She also showed us how they would sew clothing to the back of upright panels in order to display it so that it wasn't crushed by the glass of the display case. One example she showed us was an embroidered 19th century dress that had been adapted to wear as a jacket in the 1930s! This dual purpose was all part of the story of that item of clothing and for someone like me who had no experience of conservation work, the whole tour was a revelation. All the conservators explained that their work mainly consisted of responding to the items that the curators brought in to them when a new exhibition was planned, or when the museum acquired a new item. I think that if I was let loose in the place though I would be rummaging through the stores looking for an exciting lost painting or researching the stories behind so many fascinating objects!
What about you? Would you be more interested in the paintings, the swords or the fabrics? Have you ever restored or repaired something precious (to you) or are you more like me, not very good at the craft side of it but fascinated by the background?