Conservation – a real dilemma

When confronted with artwork that has been severely compromised by previous intervention, we are faced with careful planning and explanation of our own intervention as to what is necessary to preserve the work, and what is actually cosmetic restoration. This dilemma is what all conservators face when deciding what treatments are essential to the preservation and what is actual our arrogance in believing we need to recreate what is not there. Some often use their own initiative thinking recreating what they believe the work of art should look like.

As the artist completes his or her work, many factors set in that will alter the aesthetic composition in perpetuity. For example the pigments alone depending on whether they are mineral strong pigments or not, the quantity used and the way they have been ground has a considerable influence on the alteration of the composition, not to mention the binder and the quantity which varies from colour to colour. Hence some colours darken, some fade and the balance of the whole work is distorted a few years after a painting is completed. relined-damaged-portraitTo this we add the structural problems such as weakened support and crumbling ground which causes other deformation. If this were not enough, other painters in the past intervene on other artist’s work thinking that repainting, cutting, expanding would improve the final composition. This is where we now try in the 21 century to preserve foremost our world heritage for future generations without adding our own interpretation. It is a very difficult task because in the art world dealers and collectors want the artwork to look at its best while museums will concentrate on what is there and how best to preserve it, which means that the composition may look disjointed (big areas that are not filled, colours are not replaced, surface imperfection are not flattened and so forth…)

Having said all the above it is easy to criticise previous restorers and colleagues, but what is done is done, and we must learn from past experience and modern technology. Now we can be selective as to the treatments chosen, exchange information on analysis and techniques and work solely with the aim of preserving what is there.

It has been a difficult and bumpy road but I am quietly confident that our interventions have been done with immense care considering the past intervention of the portraits, the challenging environment and the restricted time available not to mention the incredibly generous support of all the volunteers and last but foremost the trust that His Grace the Archbishop has bestowed on us.