Scratch beneath the surface

...and you'll open up the perennial debate on whether or not to restore old masterpieces to their pristine glories. By Jonathan Glancey

Today, The Ambassadors, a life-size painting of the young French diplomats Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selves by Hans Holbein, fashioned in London in 1533, is rehung in Room 4 of the National Gallery. The event promises to be as revelatory as it is controversial; Holbein's work is back, fresh from a 1,500 hour wash and brush-up by Martin Wyld, the gallery's chief restorer.

What gallery-goers will see today is Holbein's palette of vivid colours returned to glowing life from behind obfuscating clouds of yellowy brown varnish. This was applied to preserve the painting in 1891, the year the National Gallery bought it, for pounds 55,000, from the Earl of Radnor.

Over the decades, the varnish aged, robbing Holbein's colours of their intensity and hiding entire details, including a lute-case under the table and, more significantly, the curiously elongated skull, a memento mori, that rises in spectral fashion between the figures' feet.

Holbein's colours will surprise those used to seeing them through a gauze of Victorian varnish. The celestial globe that stands on the table, for example, and which we took to be a grungy green colour, is now azure blue. The lynx fur edging of Dinteville's robe is dazzling white rather than the tobacco colour we mistook it for.

These revelations have not, however, been entirely popular. Michael Daley, representing the pressure group ArtWatch International, claims that The Ambassadors has been subjected to an "ordeal by swab, solvent and scalpel".

Neil McGregor, director of the National Gallery, denies the claim. "Our duty," he says, "is to present to the public as much as we can of what the artist intended us to see. The first priority is to preserve pictures for the future, the second is to make the experience of looking at them as enjoyable as possible for the present."

This seems fair enough, although it is clear, from as far back as 1891, when The Ambassadors was coated in varnish, that preservation is a questionable business. What makes Mr Daley and art-watchers like him so angry is the belief that we should not tamper with history and the process of ageing. The Ambassadors is 463 years old and what history has done to it is something we ought to recognise and accept. The patina that a painting, or indeed any work of art, acquires over the years is surely a fascinating and, in many ways, a lovely thing.

A fondness for what John Piper memorably called "pleasing decay" is rooted deeply in the nostalgic British psyche. There are as many people who rail against the restoration of a Holbein ("over-restoration", say the accusers) as there are those who say great buildings should not be cleaned. Surely the layers of soot and urban grime that give, say, Nicholas Hawksmoor's Christ Church, Spitalfields, its romantic chiaroscuro appearance should never be scrubbed or sandblasted away?

Classic car buffs can feel much the same way; they will go Ferrari-red in the face if they spot, say, a great Thirties coupe-de-ville stripped of its patina of road-induced age, over-groomed, over-polished and coated in modern varnish.

The same thinking applies to preserved steam locomotives, vintage aircraft, furniture and fabrics. Each of us, it seems, has an ideal picture in our mind's eye of how a particular Persian rug, Ming vase, Great Western locomotive, "Blower" Bentley, Baroque church or renaissance painting should look. Very often these ideal images are formed in childhood, or when we first encounter and fall in love with a favourite painting, sculpture, yacht or car. From then on, we want to preserve that particular image, and if this means a Holbein first spied dark and brooding, then that is how we will always want that painting to be.

Those working in the uncertain field of conservation will always debate the respective vices and virtues of alternative methods of restoration; and each new generation will be delighted or appalled, depending on what it has been brought up to see, by a grimy London parish church on the one hand, or by a sparkling Holbein on the other.

The Ambassadors is a painting that celebrates the intellectual and artistic riches available to renaissance man. It is also a reminder that, however hard we may try to hide it, death is never far away. Both life (colour, texture, sheer vibrancy) and death (that abstracted and disturbing skull) have been restored to their full significance in Holbein's great painting.

Perhaps, though, these are the very things those who like their art crusty do not want to see or to face up to. In its latest guise, The Ambassadors no longer peers out of its frame to a small audience of connoisseurs as if through a glass darkly, but confronts us all as directly as it must have done in 1533.

All we can say with certainty is that the debate between "pleasing decay" and immaculate restoration is a hardy perennial, for there is a lover of the romantic ruin and a begrudging fan of the groomed and polished in each of us.

National Gallery, London WC2 (0171-839 3321) PICK OF THE WEEK Contemporary Print Show Part II

For the second half of this now annual printselling extravaganza, another 10 galleries, including Marlborough Graphics, Curwen Press and the little- known but highly rated Greenwich Printmakers Association, wheel out their wares. Prices go from as little as pounds 50 to pounds 5,000, but even if you don't want to buy, this modest art fair is an interesting free exhibition of some of the country's best printmakers.

Concourse Gallery, Barbican, London EC2. To 8 May (0171-638 4141)

Soccer City

You may think it's all over, but David Trainer knows better. For the past two seasons, Trainer, himself a keen footie fan, has - with their permission - been photographing his fellow enthusiasts across the capital. Now their mug shots have been assembled into an uncompromising exhibition probing our national obsession. Highly emotive, deliberately posed photographs that give the term "swagger portrait" a whole new meaning.

Museum of London, London EC2. Today to 7 July (0171-600 3699)

Arts and Entertainment

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Metallica are heading for the Main Stage at Reading and Leeds Festivals next summer

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain is making a new documentary about his life

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp

TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp

Arts and Entertainment
TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital