OBITUARY: David Skipsey

Click to follow
The Independent Online
David Skipsey was as much at home restoring paintings by old masters as he was in the pub, but it was through his work in museum laboratories that he made his mark. He was considered one of the finest art conservators of his generation, working on masterpieces by such as Botticelli and Van Gogh.

"He was a prodigy in our field," according to Carl Grimm, head of paintings and conservation at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where Skipsey worked. "We had entrusted him with our masterpieces and he did beautiful work."

Raised in North Shields, Skipsey took a visual arts degree at Lancaster University which led to training in art restoration at the Courtauld Institute, in London. His graduation project - the restoration of a painting by the Renaissance master Giovanni Bellini - was featured as a special exhibit at the institute's galleries.

A desire to practise his burgeoning talent at the highest level took him in 1990 to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Among his most important work was a successful restoration of two panels from an early Italian altarpiece of Santa Maria Maggiore by Masaccio and Masolino, dating from 1428. For this he designed a frame, arranged for proper placement and lighting in the museum and scripted an award-winning video on the work.

He combined his conservation expertise with investigative skills to good effect on Fra Angelico's Saint Francis of Assisi (c1425-33). This bust- length portrait had been removed from a silhouette Crucifixion group around 1900, then added to and overpainted by a restorer in order to make it into a framed panel, and sold in the United States. With an acute grasp of the ethical and practical difficulties presented by this curious problem, Skipsey removed the imposed frame, oil paint and varnish to reveal the original egg tempera paint.

As a measure of Skipsey's ability in this complex field, Joseph J. Rishel, curator of European paintings at Philadelphia, wrote in 1994 that Skipsey had "developed a unique flair for particularly complicated problems of refined reconstruction . . . probably unmatched by any his colleagues in the United States". He also restored the museum's celebrated Madame Rolin, by Van Gogh, and works by 18th-century masters such as Canaletto and Goya.

Skipsey was a prized asset at Philadelphia but in February he moved to California for a mixture of career and climatic reasons. There he worked on a collection of European masters and had just finished a still life by Oudry at the time of his death in a bicycling accident.

This year Skipsey had applied for a green card. He had a marvellous sense of humour and would have been amused by his description during this process as an "alien of distinguished merit and ability". More seriously, the curator of European paintings at his new workplace, Lynn Federle, said that Skipsey had emerged as "one of the most accomplished and skilled professionals" available to the museum.

There was a certain contrast between his work and his off-duty activities. He loved a pint and his great intelligence and savage wit made him made marvellous company. Life in the US suited his love of popular music, especially blues and country, but he managed to keep track of the fortunes of Newcastle United.

Martin Farrer

David Skipsey, art restorer: born North Shields 7 February 1966; Mellon Fellow in Paintings Conservation, Philadelphia Museum of Art 1990-91, assistant conservator of paintings, 1991-95; painting conservator, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 1995; died San Francisco 22 August 1995.