Letter: How the science of restoration prevents tyranny of taste

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Sir: The alleged 'cleaning frenzy' (Bryan Appleyard, 8 April) is more a frenzy of attacks on conservation and conservators by a very small number of critics, and of journalists and other media people who naturally find it makes very good copy.

Mr Appleyard has been glancing at the National Gallery's Technical Bulletin (sorry, 'glossy' Technical Bulletin) and this seems to have roused him to a frenzy of resentment that there is more to the subject than he can understand or be bothered with. The resentment seems to be directed at the whole idea of there being a subject - a science of conservation - in which objective facts can be determined and used as a basis for carrying out necessary work. No; although acknowledging that 'they are no more than material constructions', he wants to see a great Mystery, as if there were, in fact - materially - something more. 'The surfaces of the Old Masters are complex membranes replete with clues we are not qualified to decipher.'

He ends: 'At their best the critics are simply arguing for a degree of honest humility towards these works and an admission of our own ultimate ignorance.' Very fine, Mr Appleyard, but what makes you believe that museum scientists and conservators, daily faced with the wonder of what great artists could do with a very limited range of materials and technical means, do not show a degree of humility and are not filled with love and admiration for their achievements? Surgeons and doctors, when called upon to operate upon the body, are not wilfully denying the existence of things of the spirit. It simply is not immediately relevant to what they have to do. And they certainly do not wring their hands and lament 'we can know nothing]' But Mr Appleyard seems to want to muddle these things up and to revert to an obscurantist approach; to base any action on what might not be known rather than what is.

His seeming belief that early (say, 18th-century) restorations might be closer to the original because they were closer to it in time, is nave, to say the least. In fact, such restorations were almost always based on the taste of their own times and of the client, and commonly resulted in virtual repainting of the picture. At a time when pre-Renaissance paintings were looked on as 'primitives', it is unsurprising that they were often 'improved' on. It is exactly so as to defeat the tyranny of taste that conservators now attempt an objective approach using all available evidence.

Yours sincerely,


London, NW8

8 April