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

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The Independent Online
Sir: Bryan Appleyard's article on conservation at the National Gallery ('Old Masters vanish before our eyes', 8 April) contained a selective and misleading account of his long conversation with my colleague Nicholas Penny and myself.

One specific error is so important that I must correct it. Mr Appleyard says: 'I asked Martin Wyld, chief restorer, to identify any mistakes in that gallery's huge post-war restoration programme. He could think of none.' This is not true. Mr Appleyard's question was on the narrow but important point of whether original paint had been removed during cleaning from pictures at the National Gallery. I replied that it had not.

Dr Penny and I took Mr Appleyard around the galleries, showing him the paintings that were distorted by discoloured varnish and repainting, but which it would be too dangerous or difficult to clean; pointing out where we had decided to leave the reconstructions of previous restorers; and noting that in some cases it was our policy to reconstruct old losses, whereas in other cases we left them. Yet he presents the National Gallery policy as one of single-minded militancy.

Far from being disrespectful of the craft tradition Mr Appleyard invokes, we actually discussed its breakdown with him, citing Sir Joshua Reynolds as an example of a painter who had already lost touch with it in the 18th century.

As for Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne, it may look wrong to Mr Appleyard. I expect that, were it to be seen in its original condition, it would look even more wrong to him and, indeed, wrong to all of us.

There is something worrying in the certainty that great art of the past should never be surprising or puzzling. But some things can be verified, and Titian's 'startling' blue sky is no less brilliant in the reliable enamel reproduction of the painting by Bone, made almost 200 years ago and exhibited beside the picture in 1969. This, too, we explained to Mr Appleyard.

Yours faithfully,


Chief Restorer

The National Gallery,

London, WC2

14 April

(Photograph omitted)