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.