review

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
As an example of corporate diplomacy, Restoring the Ambassadors (BBC2) was peerless. And if that sounds a touch dismissive, it isn't intended to be. Patricia Wheatley's fascinating account of the cleaning and restoration of Holbein's The Ambassadors, was partly a study of the meticulous techniques used by modern restorers, but also an act of repair itself: a way of mending the reputation of restoration after some noisy recent debates over its methods and morality. For the first time, cameras had been allowed to follow the entire course of a restoration, an open-government response to the suspicions of those hostile to current techniques. This alone was a good move - it becomes frankly comical to argue, as a pressure group called ArtWatch International has, that the National Gallery is obsessively secretive about its restoration when we can all sit at home and watch it on television.

But even more cunningly, the critics had been enlisted to make sure that we would stick with the National's carefully mounted defence of its approach. Michael Daley, the founder of ArtWatch, appeared at the very top of the programme to describe the treatments involved as "very, very dangerous, disruptive and in my view, often extremely damaging," while Brian Sewell - gilded fly in the art world's ointment - compared the restorers to pathologists "stripping away the flesh" of the painting. These remarks both provided a hook for viewers - the catnip of controversy - but also gave you a white-hot example of the case against; it was virtually impossible for what followed not to look more temperate than those incandescent soundbites, and the cooling gradient naturally favoured the restorers - when you got to see them, neither Neil McGregor nor the gallery's chief restorer, Michael Wyld, had the appearance of aesthetic serial killers, flaying great art in pursuit of an obsession with visual hygiene.

Indeed, Michael Wyld looked like a man almost paralysed by caution, dabbing gently at the canvas with a cotton bud or peering through a microscope as he scraped away minute quantities of overpaint. Showing this process was not without its risks - there is nothing but pleasure in seeing Holbein's colours re-emerge from beneath a scurf of decayed 19th-century varnish, but the sight of the painting with all previous restorations removed is decidedly shocking - an image of a work in genuine distress, scabbed and damaged. Then, almost imperceptibly, the new restoration creeps across the canvas, erasing the evidence of decay. For Daley, this is a kind of abuse, a terror of ageing which replaces the work itself with a neurotically face-lifted version of it. He's right to raise the matter - some very bad restorations have been done, tidying away the evidence of art's perishability - but you couldn't feel that the anxiety was justified here. The cleaning of The Ambassadors reveals details which have been invisible for years, without appearing to have harmed a single hair on those painted heads. Brian Sewell was kept on hand as an exemplary convert: "I see the problem is more complicated than I thought," he conceded about half-way through, and by the end his change of heart was complete: "It's as perfect as can be," he concluded. Game, set and match to the Gallery, I think.

There was a similar sense of misplaced anxiety in the Omnibus film (BBC1) about Comic Relief, now 10 years old. Of course, the motives for this charitable fixture are mixed - anything from talent-spotting opportunism on the part of schedulers to career advancement on the part of the talent. It's true, too, that the organisation had to evolve towards an understanding of what it should be doing, a process affectionately charted here. But Comic Relief wasn't set up to do moral philosophy; it was set up to raise money for people who needed it, a function it performs in a consistently self-questioning and unpious manner. If this is an ethical problem, I wish we could have more of them.

Comments