WAACNewsletter
May 1998 Volume 20 Number 2


Book Reviews


Studies in the History of Painting Restoration

Christine Sitwell & Sarah Staniforth, Editors

Archetype Publications in association with the National Trust, 1998. Archetype Books, 6 Fitzroy Square, London W1P 6DX UK, Tel. 0171 380 0800, Fax 0171 380 0500, archetype@netmatters.co.uk

In 1996 a one-day symposium on "Studies in the History of Painting Restoration" was held at the National Gallery, London. Nine speakers presented papers on the history of painting restoration in Europe between the early Renaissance and the Nineteenth Century. Emphasized in particular were the last two hundred years, as formerly private collections were increasingly made accessible to the public. A relative wealth of documents from that period was a result of the necessity of developing policies for the care and maintenance of the collections.

The quality of the presentations, and the interest in the subject they generated were responsible for the idea to make the proceedings available to the public in the form of a book. One additional paper, originally not part of the symposium, was included in the book. Well structured and intelligently edited by Christine Sitwell and Sarah Staniforth, it provides fascinating glimpses at the often sad history of the not so old profession of painting restoration.

In Restoration or Renovation: Remuneration and Expectation in Renaissance 'acconciatura', Anabel Thomas talks about the common practice of 'acconciatura', a term for 'adjustment' or 'rearrangement'. Not only were paintings overpainted or 'improved', Thomas describes how they were often partially destroyed, removing the paint film to make room for new compositions. She uses well documented examples to shed light on that practice, usually done by well known painters, and she emphasizes the implications for current treatments in her conclusion.

Lorne Campbell draws a somewhat different picture in The Conservation of Netherlandish Paintings in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. He illustrates the concern for paintings and the efforts to guarantee their longevity. Diligent preparation of the supports, to recommendations by the painters on how to 'maintain' them properly, and finally the care taken by custodians and restorers, outweighed the few incidents of willful destruction of paintings. Campbell's examples about the protection of paintings with covers, curtains and elaborate boxes for transit show that possibly, for the first time, the term 'Conservation' seems appropriate.

In Miscreants and Hotentots: Restorers and Restoration Attitudes and Practices in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century England, M. Kirby Talley, Jr. examines conservation practice and approaches now and then, and gives various examples that illustrate the differences as well as the parallels in restoration 'ethics'. The quote about Sir Joshua Reynolds attempts to uncover the secrets of the Old Masters, rubbing off all the paint, down to the bare panel, never fails to horrify the reader, making you laugh and cry, in that order. Other incidents with serious, though less grave end results are described, and in the discussion of the role of patina, golden glow and 'scientific' approach, the author raises serious questions about the conservation profession then and today.

The Restoration of Paintings in the Spanish Royal Collections, 1734-1820 by Zahira Véliz is a well documented account of the events that led to an organized conservation and restoration effort, when a fire destroyed over five hundred paintings of the Royal Collections. The paintings saved from the flames now form the nucleus of the Prado. Drawing from various documents, the author describes an impressive 'tour de force' conservation marathon during which an incredible number of paintings were treated.

Ann Massing's Restoration Policy in France in the Eighteenth Century gives fascinating insights in the conservation and restoration practice then, and her paper focuses on the lives and careers of four eminent conservators and their historical background. The description of commonly practiced transfer techniques are guaranteed to make your hair curl. Massing follows the development of policies for conservation at the Louvre, and her conclusions show the similarities in approaches and the mechanics of decision making today.

Ian McClure's The History of Painting Conservation and the Royal Collectiontakes us on a voyage to the early days of the Royal Collection. The well documented nature of the treatments together with the identification of the paintings whenever possible, gives us an excellent idea of the thinking at that time, and allows us to follow these paintings through the sometimes turbulent, but often very conscientious times.

William Seguier and Advice to Picture Collectors is a portrait by Alastair Laing of a man who started out as a picture restorer, and eventually held three posts simultaneously: Surveyor successively of the King's and the Queen's pictures, Superintendent of the British Institution, and Keeper of the National Gallery. Laing draws a detailed picture of a man who's power was considerable, but used only sparingly. The author describes how astonishingly little the effects of his tenure were, even though his advice given to collectors should not be underestimated. The quotes of Seguier's colleagues and contemporaries about his qualifications are certainly devastating.

Giles Waterfield's contribution on Conservation at Dulwich Picture Gallery in the Nineteenth Century is a short but concise look at the history and development of a collection of paintings over a longer period of time, describing the conservative approach and the thoughtfulness that prevented the pictures from sustaining great damage. Waterfield also documents the difference in opinions that came inevitably over time with new administrators, but concludes that the collection has benefited from the remarkably cautious approaches throughout the years.

Christine Sitwell's Approach to Restoration in English Country Houses is a fascinating account of the well documented history of a collection of paintings in private hands, that focuses on one particular property. We learn about the materials and techniques that were used for the treatment of the paintings, the recommendations in manuals, by whom and how the pictures were to be treated (references to urine, and another favorite one: removal of varnish by friction). Mind-boggling also is the sheer number of paintings that received major treatment. In her conclusion Sitwell extracts the pattern that is now made visible as a result of a well documented history of one collection over the years.

An Investigation into the Domestic Care of Paintings in English Country Houses in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries by Jenny Rose is an excellent in-depth discussion of the treatment practices, concepts, literary sources, and materials - the urine has to be stale this time, and the beer used for cleaning should be warm - (particularly distressing to the Bavarian in me). Rose illustrates with various examples how the function of an art object influences its care and maintenance ('Then, as the number of gentry traveling abroad and fostering an active interest in the polite arts rose, the cultural objects themselves underwent a shift in emphasis; instead of being deposited in isolation in special rooms of the house, they began to assume a more integral role in the life of the house').

An asset to every (not just conservation) library, the book deals with several issues, and this overview of the history of painting restoration is not only informative but often hilariously entertaining. It also raises important issues for our own understanding and proper reading of paintings, and approaches during current treatments.

Ulrich Burkmaier

How to Save Your Stuff From a Disaster

by Scott M. Haskins.

Preservation Help Publications, Santa Barbara CA, 1996. 204 pages; $19.95

The great characteristic of this lively guide is that it is written with an understanding of the non-professional's point of view. It speaks to the average person who may be concerned with the usual range of personal and family possessions and collections. It does not assume the reader has any prior knowledge of the material, nor that s/he is better organized than the average household. Instead, it straightforwardly outlines potential problems for a wide range of materials, both in everyday use and storage, and when various disasters strike.

Each section begins with storage recommendations - an important effort to get people thinking and planning before the disaster happens. Each chapter also contains some how-to information on drying, cleaning, and other repairs. Several useful appendices include "Making Copies," "Personal Preparation," "Suggestions for Dealing with Insurance Companies," "How to Find a Conservator," and a bibliography. The book is written in a light-hearted style which will probably be appealing and non-intimidating to the non-professional reader.

Obviously coming out of good intentions, the book suffers somewhat from attempting to do too much. Some sections appear less extensive and complete than others, and some contain questionable, out-dated, or inaccurate recommendations. The approachable style of the book, with many cartoons, photographs, and comments in the margins, does not always work easily with the actual density of the information presented.

It seems the book would benefit from contributions from authors current in each of the specialties, as well as from more rigorous editing and expansion (though it is already rather lengthy) to improve readability. The book almost could be broken usefully into two publications, one focusing on proper storage and care, and the other on specific ways to respond to disaster situations.

Despite these problems, the book serves a necessary and often overlooked function by speaking to the average person about the care and preservation of their belongings. It contains many helpful and practical suggestions which even a professional conservator may find useful, especially when offering advice or trying to organize and protect his/her own possessions.

Laura Downey

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