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)

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

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable