To the Cleaners
- The Ravished Image: Or, How to Ruin Masterpieces by Restoration by Sarah Walden
Weidenfeld, 174 pp, £12.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 297 78407 2
Do you remember when children’s tonsils were removed at the slightest pretext? Extraordinary reversals in official treatment have done little to shake faith in modern medicine. Forty years ago the approved, the ‘scientific’ solution for warping and splitting painted panels was to construct elaborate ‘cradles’ of wooden crossbars behind them to hold them tightly in place. This, it is now agreed, created far more problems than it solved and, at considerable cost, ‘cradles’ are being removed. Other processes cannot be reversed. In the second half of the 18th century (when picture restoration first obtained official status with the creation of the first national museums), specialist skills for transferring the skin of paint from a panel to a canvas support were developed in France, and some of the greatest paintings in the royal collection were destroyed. Most tragic of all has been the fate of stone sculpture and architecture submitted to chemical cures far more damaging than the diseases afflicting them.
Vol. 7 No. 15 · 5 September 1985
SIR: I write as a layman who has always found the cleaned Bacchus and Ariadne ‘alarmingly discordant’, in the words of Nicholas Penny’s review of Sarah Walden’s book on restoration (LRB, 4 July). Penny hasn’t the courage to defend the appalling results: to say that the transformation is no more dramatic than that of X or no more revelatory than that of Y is to say nothing at all but to use your precious column inches to say it. X and Y may be known to be in a parlous condition or may be restored and cleaned just as badly or insensitively as Bacchus and Ariadne. Does Penny like it? Does he think Titian would like it? Does he think a little more ‘tact and good taste’ in this case might have averted a minor tragedy? I think he should come clean.
Nicholas Penny writes: I do like it now. I cannot remember exactly what it looked like before it was cleaned but I remember liking it then as well. I hesitate to assume that my taste coincides with Titian’s now – or did so then. Probably Titian would be somewhat surprised by its present appearance – as also by its appearance before cleaning. Mr Collins is too cross to appreciate my point, which was that my liking it or his disliking it will not tell us how near it is to what Titian wanted it to look like.