David Bomford: There is nothing new about restoring great art

From a lecture by the senior restorer at the National Gallery

Share
Related Topics

If we comment on the cleaning and restoration of paintings, it is important to remember that the conservator of today is on the end of a very long chain of events. When a cleaned painting is put back on the walls of a museum, or returned to its owner from the restoration studio, our rush to judgement should be tempered by the fact that this work may have been through the cleaning process a dozen times - and that its present condition may have little to do with the last hand that touched it.

If we comment on the cleaning and restoration of paintings, it is important to remember that the conservator of today is on the end of a very long chain of events. When a cleaned painting is put back on the walls of a museum, or returned to its owner from the restoration studio, our rush to judgement should be tempered by the fact that this work may have been through the cleaning process a dozen times - and that its present condition may have little to do with the last hand that touched it.

Ever since paintings have been made, they have been cleaned and repaired. Archives and other documentary sources record numerous examples of paintings washed and restored within little more than a century of being finished - when the paint would still have been relatively soft and vulnerable. The first restoration of Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece was carried out by Jan van Scorel in 1550, just 110 years after it was painted, and that of Rogier van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross, after only 130 years, was done by Philip II's court painter, Navarrete the Dumb.

Nor were these restorations immune from criticism. When Signorelli's Circumcision was damaged by damp, the child was repainted by the painter, Sodoma. Giorgio Vasari, the chronicler of Italian Renaissance art, tells us Signorelli's painting had been of great beauty, but the child was now "much less beautiful than before."

Until the 17th century, restorations were carried out by practising painters in their spare time. Rubens and Velazquez are probably the two most celebrated painters to have been involved in restoring paintings, stepping in when disasters struck the pictures in their care.

It was all pretty haphazard. Then, in the 18th century, something significant emerged - the specialist commercial picture restorer. Paintings were suddenly in greater peril than ever.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Maths teacher require...

KS1 Teacher

£21500 - £31500 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to work...

Java Developer - web services, XML and API

£330 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Lond...

Maths Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Reading: Maths Teacher required to teach Furthe...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Cyclists v the rest of the world – can we please call a truce?

Philip Hoare
Brooks Newmark  

If Brooks Newmark is ‘sick’ what does that say about the rest of us?

Simon Kelner
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style