Restoring Rubens' Cain Slaying Abel

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

An epic campaign of restoration of Rubens' masterpiece is underway at the Courtauld Institute of Art. The Independent Online talks to the restorers and reveals the progress in pictures

Peter Paul Rubens’ Cain Slaying Abel is one of the most important works in The Courtauld Institute of Art’s pretty staggering collection. But after 400 years of being admired on walls, the famous picture was in a sorry state with warped panels, scratches and scuffs, splitting joins, paint loss and areas of raised craquelure.

The picture, which was donated to the Courtauld by Count Antoine Seilern in 1978, suffered most from a backing of latticed wood known as a 'cradle' which had been applied to it sometime in the 19th Century.

The cradle’s purpose was to keep the painting’s panel and dowel board surface flat. Sadly, it produced the opposite effect and the surface bowed against the rigid structure, splitting away from it in a damaging way known as 'dish boarding'.

Another evil enacted by the cradle was that it attracted woodworm. Kate Stonor and Clare Richardson who began the painstaking restoration six months ago showed me the devastating results; small holes chomped into picture’s reverse side which (after sawing up and removing the nasty cradle) the restorers have lovingly filled with cellulose fibres.

“The cradle was made from a softwood which is particularly delicious to woodworm,” Stonor told me. “The panels held together with dowels and animal glue were standard for Antwerp artists of the day but the sapwood boards would also have been delicious to insects.”

Other bits of previous restoration had also compromised the painting with the degradation of multiple varnishes causing de-saturation of colour and, most obviously, raised clumps of paint along the panel joins where the movement of the boards has pushed up the surface. These had been filled by previous conservationists using pigments aged differently from the originals.

“We think that there have been three previous campaigns of restoration,” Richardson said, showing me where the discoloured filler had been chipped away to reveal the joins between the five panel pieces which make up the painting. “However, it can sometimes be difficult to tell as a sign of good restoration is that it wouldn’t show.”

The job of Stonor and Richardson in carefully removing the areas of varnish, chucking out the cradle and finding precise matches for the pigments, glazes and grounds which will wear appropriately is not to future-proof the painting indefinitely but simply to “stabilise” it for the next hundred years.

This is not the first time Stonor and Richardson have worked together on a Rubens for the Courtauld. The gallery’s permanent collection has just been re-jigged and there’s a spot in the Rubens room above an impressive fireplace which has been earmarked for Cain Slaying Abel once it is finished, just across from Moses and the Brazen Serpent which the duo beautifully restored previously.

Their careful handling of Cain Slaying Abel has thrown up several interesting things, which helps to put the painting in historical context. Using dendochronology they dated it at between 1600-1612. This corresponds to its 1608 historical date and places the picture early in Rubens’ career soon after his return to Antwerp from studying Renaissance painters in Italy and Spain.

“We have a theory that because the painting is one of Rubens’ early works and is on a cheap board – which would have been paid for by a patron if it was a commission – that he made it to showcase his skills,” Richardson said.

Ultra-violet photographs and X-rays of the painting also show that Rubens amended the composition of Cain’s club-wielding arm and the position of one of his eyes. But most importantly the infra-red imaging revealed line drawings beneath the tree painted in the background.

This is very unusual “for a painter famous for not drawing” according to Stonor and Richardson who suggest it may be the work of a landscape specialist of the time. This means that Rubens may have already established a workshop at the very early juncture at which the painting was made.

The restoration is funded by the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Art Conservation Project which last year awarded sponsorship to ten international restoration projects including Picasso’s Woman in Blue for the Reina Sofia gallery, Madrid.

Click here or on the image above to see the restoration in pictures

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones