Letter: New life for the Old Masters: careful restoration or careless destruction?

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Sir: At one time 'restoration' of easel-paintings referred to what was done by the trade to make them more saleable. The objective was to bring paintings into closer conformity with the fashion of the day. Among the crimes committed in this way were alterations to the composition, and application of dark varnishes to give an 'antique' appearance. Fortunately, modern conservators are able to reverse many of these changes; it is not clear why Mr Appleyard should be dismissive of this.

In comparison with those days, the techniques used by conservators today are as microsurgery is to the methods of the old barber-surgeons. Even more important, the object today is to bring the painting to as nearly as possible the condition in which it left the hands of the artist.

To this end there is an international code of practice, continually reviewed critically and followed by all reputable museums and galleries. Among the rules are that neither one square millimetre of surface, nor a fraction of a micrometre of depth of original painting must be interfered with; retouching shall never cover original paint but shall be used only to cover defects (such as paint losses) that would otherwise be distracting, and must be identifiable; and any such additions shall be done in such a way and with such materials as to be readily removable. Words such as 'frenzy' and 'fury' seem inappropriate to describe this dedicated and meticulous process.

A painting is, as Mr Appleyard agrees, a physical artefact, and as such is subject to the ravages of time. To make a painting, as he puts it, legible and accessible, and indeed in many cases to maintain it in existence at all, requires intervention. No conservator worth his salt will touch a painting until its detailed structure is understood in depth.

Mr Appleyard seems to assume that this makes for 'aggressive' intervention, but exactly the opposite is true; science is knowledge, and only through knowledge can damage to original paint be avoided. People familiar with the refinement of modern methods will know that for a restorer to remove accidentally, or unknowingly, a glaze, for example, is as likely as a farmer unwittingly removing a megalith with a hoe.

Through the care of modern conservators, Old Masters are not vanishing, but are appearing before our eyes.

Yours faithfully,


Bodmin, Cornwall

11 April

(Photograph omitted)