The Art of Restoration

Jim Mullin of Irish Art Restorers on the pleasures and pitfalls of his vocation, and how easy it is to get it wrong

The famous French restorer and author Horsin Deon had this to say in 1851 about the policy of the Louvre.

'It is understandable,' wrote Deon, 'that the romantic amateur loves the rust and haze of the varnish, for it has become a veil behind which he can see whatever he desires; under this grimy crust I shall perhaps find a masterpiece. But in our museum, the finest in the world, the pictures must be shown clean and full of light; Show them openly.'

The French Impressionists changed taste in paintings forever. At that time, paintings were deliberately darkened to imitate the old masters – but the masters' paintings were full of light and colour, they just had never been seen cleaned. Indeed, had they been cleaned over the centuries, some argue there would have been no Impressionist movement at all.

We must remember that artists at the time didn't make their pictures and then think, 'Now this will look great in 40 years when it has absorbed some atmospheric pollution, nicotine, chimney smoke, radiated dust from centrally heated houses, bright sunshine, extreme cold, perhaps a few pinheads of white paint from a lazy decorator, some flyspots, and maybe a few woodworm holes'.

We are sure artists wanted their work to be viewed. Of course older paintings were usually protected by at least two layers of varnish, which, when removed, brings the artwork back to its original state. With the onset of Impressionism and post-Impressionism, and through to abstractionism, the methods used by artists changed dramatically.

Less care was taken with materials, so we have, at a local level, artists such as Markey Robinson, Gerard Dillon, Charles McAuley, Colin Middleton, Daniel O'Neill et cetera, painting on a wide variety of materials – canvas, board, paper, linen, cardboard, glass, masonite and oilcloth.

Dealing with all this can be challenging for a restorer charged with bringing a painting 'back to life', so to speak, but experience is the most useful tool in restoring any painting: something that 80-year-old Cecilia Gimenez, who recently infamously attempted to restore 'Ecce Homo (Behold the Man)' by Elias Garcia Martinez, perhaps did not have. (See main image.)

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I have experience, for example, of artists who used little tricks to quicken the sale of their work – like applying chimney soot by thumb, lipstick instead of red paint, sand for texture or lard as a substance to make the painting shine. Others mixed varnish with paint to create a hazy effect. Removing all of this would completely alter the painting (for the worse).

Now we move on to the secondary damage caused by careless handling or deliberate attack. We at Irish Art Restorers have had portraits from public places where the eyes of the sitter were burnt through with a cigarette, a very important Irish landscape hit with a flying champagne cork, a mobile phone dropped onto a canvas, and, believe it or not, canvases attacked by jilted spouses with knives.

Paintings inevitably get put in storage for one reason or another. The worse case scenario, for me, would involve a large family portrait which has shared a loft with at least one family of pigeons for a number of years. This is the type of cleaning and restoration job that anyone in possession of an ounce of sanity would pass up on.

We once got a call to a house 60 miles outside Belfast to see what was described as a 'damaged' painting. It was a canvas that had been eaten by mice and was in a thousand pieces and impossible to repair. Oddly enough, woodworm frequently attack canvas and they seem to love plywood more than any other material.

After all this bad news, however, all is not lost. In the majority of cases, we can rescue most of the works consigned to us. Some will take longer than others. Some, however, will be returned to their owner untouched due to being too excessively expensive to repair, and one must always remember that it takes the same time and materials to clean or restore an item worth £50 as it does one worth £5,000.

Finally, the picture frame must not be forgotten. Remember, whatever pollutants are on the painting will also be on the frame, and it is a pointless exercise to have the painting cleaned and fitted back into the uncleaned frame. Another inevitable outlay.

Most decorative frames are not carved from wood but are made from gilded plaster attached to a wooden base. This plaster, when damp, will crumble and turn into mush. We can see the fine decorative gilded frames from the Victorian era now with corners broken and damaged and these should be cared for, as they are in many cases, as an artwork in their own right.

Irish Art Restorers