To the Cleaners

Nicholas Penny

  • 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.

In great art exhibitions today on the Continent, a large display is often devoted to celebrating the achievements of the museum’s lab by means of perplexing diagrams and blinding transparencies of gargantuan ice-creams (which turn out to be blow-ups of tiny pickings of pigment). This book by Sarah Walden is an attempt to disturb the euphoria which publicity of this sort is designed to induce, although her villains are operating in this country and in the United States rather than on the Continent. The dust jacket combines low sensationalism with high authority. A thin-lipped, middle-aged, rubber-gloved, white-coated man is shown carefully sticking a needle into a young naked girl, who turns away in an attitude of despair (she is actually part of an oil painting suffering from blisters). Over the girl’s belly, in red letters, we read ‘Foreword by Sir Ernst Gombrich’. ‘Mrs Walden,’ Gombrich remarks, ‘clearly knows what she is talking about.’ But does she? The sketchy history of artistic technique which she provides is full of howlers. She describes Masolino as a ‘rather weak artist’, whereas what little is known of his work suggests that he was one of the greatest painters of his day. She claims that he completed Masaccio’s frescoes in the Brancacci chapel. This was in fact done much later by Filippino Lippi. She has Bandinelli burning drawings of nude women on a bonfire before he was born. She describes Correggio, who was consistently beloved and imitated throughout the 17th century, as coming ‘back into fashion’ in the early 18th. She emphasises that Raphael used pure fresco in painting the School of Athens when numerous secco additions are visible even in reproduction. She claims that the discovery of murals at Herculaneum stimulated the popularity of pastel drawings, but Rosalba Carriera, who employed this medium, had established herself as one of the most successful artists in Europe well before these murals were known.

Perhaps it is just as well that she does not attempt more in the way of a history of restoration, and yet we do have a right to expect this in a work of this kind. She describes the dangers of cradling panels clearly enough but does not date the practice. She doesn’t mention modern Italian fresco-lifting: indeed she suggests that high-risk technology applied to art is an Anglo-Saxon vice. She may be correct that the solvents available to the restorer today are more powerful than those formerly employed, but her claim that the modern methods are generally more drastic than the old ones is highly misleading. This is especially obvious when we consider re-lining – a process which has probably caused more irreversible damage to the surface of oil paintings than any other. In order to make the original canvas adhere to a new support – the lining canvas – it was ironed or put in a press. This flattened the relief of the paint and sometimes singed the picture. Often the glues or hot wax penetrated the original colours. Walden describes the horrors of ironing: readers will not guess that it was practised in the last century when picture restorers, according to Walden, made mistakes but ‘in general made them on the right side, and left pictures with a future’. She mentions the fact that cold-catalyst adhesives and vacuum pressure have recently made the process of re-lining far safer. She does not mention that these methods have been developed by the museum laboratories she deplores.

Many modern restoration practices are very worrying. So too, often enough, is the conduct of museums. But how accurate are Sarah Walden’s allegations? ‘One recent solution’ to the security problem in public galleries, she announces, ‘has been the burglar alarm pad, which presses on the back of the canvas, gradually producing circles of cracks in the paint’. Does she suppose that the pressure is intended to be on the back of the canvas, as distinct from the frame? Elsewhere she writes that the alarms ‘can come into contact with the canvas’ – which is rather different. Does she seriously think that pressure of this sort, or the risk of it, is approved of by the leading conservation departments of our national museums? How often has she seen such circles of cracks?

Sarah Walden’s chief anxiety – and apparently Gombrich’s – concerns the question of how deeply a painting should be cleaned. There certainly are many cases when the artist’s final glazes – the last thin veils of paint – and even the artist’s own repainting (which can, for example, be documented by contemporary engravings) have been removed. Museums have been as much to blame as dealers and private owners. Gombrich and Walden are right to say that caution should be exercised by restorers removing old varnish because of the evidence that toned varnish was sometimes employed and that artists sometimes painted on top of varnish. Such caution is not characteristic of all British restorers, but it certainly is characteristic of the Hamilton Kerr Institute of the University of Cambridge.

Walden also seems to believe that there is a crude populist policy shared by all restorers working for institutions in this country (amazingly, she depicts the dealers as being more responsible). The intention is to make pictures look brilliant and brash in order to ‘attract and startle the public and to teach it that even old art can be fun’. Gombrich also suggests that there is a desire to ‘pander’ to the ‘hurried tourists who want to take in every work of art in passing’. What evidence is there to support this? Both Walden and Gombrich are convinced that the cleaning, over twenty years ago, of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne by the National Gallery was irresponsible. Walden writes of the ‘fragile tonal unity’ the painting possessed before cleaning. What surprises me is the underlying assumption that this was the same as, or even close to, the tonal unity intended by Titian. The painting has been transformed, but no more dramatically than Andrea del Sarto’s Holy Family in the Louvre or the large canvases by Tintoretto in the Accademia in Venice – to say nothing of the entirely unexpected revelations made in the recent highly scrupulous cleaning of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. That a painting looks startling after it has been cleaned, or even seems alarmingly discordant, at first – or for a long time – is not in itself an indication that it has been over-cleaned.

Picture restorers should attend to historical as well as to chemical evidence. Since restoration often involves dealing with the damage done by previous restoration, historical awareness is, in any case, encouraged by systematic restoration. Such awareness can only induce caution, as well as scepticism of the equivalents of miracle drugs and transplant surgery. If picture restorers are serving the old masters, however, they should not be too worried about tact and good taste – or the prejudices of living connoisseurs, which are no more likely to provide a reliable guide than are the expectations of ‘hurried tourists’. It is easier to avoid such prejudices when cleaning than when repainting. Particularly tricky decisions have to be made when paint falls off a picture. In the case of frescoes, bare areas of plaster are now simply left. The policy for works in oil and tempera is quite different. Museum-based restorers in Italy have devised ingenious and discreet ways of repainting such areas so that, on close scrutiny, the patches declare themselves as unoriginal – by means, for example, of lines of tiny dots around the edges. (Walden mentions with qualified approval the practice of tratteggio, which consists of filling these areas in with minute hatched lines of pure colours, though I almost always find these obtrusive.) It is surprising, given Sarah Walden’s admiration for ‘the genuine craftsman’s humility before a great work of art’, that she praises the way in which the old masters repainted their predecessors’ work. An episode in this century which it is edifying to consider is the restoration by Roger Fry of Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar. Fry was a talented painter. He was also a man of remarkable taste. He made an appalling mess.