Our conservators work wonders with artworks, ceramics, furniture and many other specialist contents and items. As each conservator has their own specialism, they bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the team and ensure the highest standards of conservation for our clients.
We are pleased to introduce Martha, one of our Easel Painting Conservators.
Martha began her career as an artist, completing a degree in Fine Art Painting from Manchester School of Art in 2010. After working as a practising artist she returned to do a Masters degree in the Conservation of Fine Art specialising in easel paintings. Since graduating, Martha has worked on a variety of paintings and projects requiring a multi-disciplinary approach and broad spectrum of knowledge, including at Windsor Castle, Brighton Pavilion, Spencer House, and the National Portrait Gallery before joining Fine Art Restoration Company.
Q. What was your route into conservation?
I grew up painting and drawing and helping out at my mum’s upholstery workshop and my dad’s wood workshop so was always working with my hands and making things. I then went to art school and did a degree in fine art painting. This fuelled my interest in art history and how it has influenced painting today. I decided to focus my interests and conservation was the obvious choice. I was accepted onto a course to do a masters degree in the conservation of easel paintings – only three of which run in the UK.
Q. What makes you a conservator rather than a restorer?
Conservation and restoration are similar but conservation takes a much more sensitive approach. Conservation courses teach students to respect the original intent of the artist as much as possible when fixing a painting – for example, if the artist hasn’t varnished a work, the conservator shouldn’t either.
A good example is a painting I recently completed that came to us with loose, friable paint and paint flakes that were coming off as a result of being in a property that had a fire. As a conservator, it is important for us to retain the flakes, try and replace them in the right area, and re-adhere the flaking paint gently and as close to the original as possible. A restorer may remove that area completely and any loose sections and begin again.
One of the main jobs of a conservator is to also ensure that all treatments they carry out on a painting are as reversible as possible – a conservator is taught that nothing lasts forever and therefore, the upkeep of a painting is an ongoing thing. We use materials that can be removed by conservators in the future and won’t alter the integrity of the piece. As an example, if a conservator is repainting a lost passage of paint, they will use a removable, resin-based conservation paint instead of oil paint or any paint that creates a permanent layer once dry – the reason being, it can often cause problems down the line like discolouration or a distracting texture alteration that then wouldn’t be able to be removed. This can also impact on its value further down the line.
Q. What is your most enjoyable painting or treatment?
I absolutely love a good historic portrait (especially for the lavish costumes) – such as Tudor and Stuart era artworks. We recently had a painting of a beautiful Tudor lady with an amazing green dress and big pearl earrings who had a tear from accidental damage – she was a joy because the tear repair was entirely seamless and, once I started removing the varnish, I realised that her dress was actually blue/turquoise and that the aged varnish had discoloured her and hidden details of her costume. She cleaned amazingly well and I would’ve loved to take her home for my walls!
Q. How crucial is art conservation?
Obviously I’m biased but I’d say very. Art is a window into the past – without it how would we know exactly how people lived? To let artwork fall into disrepair and be damaged means depriving future generations of vital knowledge and enjoyment in years to come. On a more contemporary level, art is a way of expressing feelings and thoughts that may not be understood in other ways. If we let paintings deteriorate it invalidates the work of the artist and says that, as a society, visual media doesn’t matter. We fix buildings and cars and furniture, why not paintings?
Q. What is the most challenging part of being a conservator?
Aside from certain treatments that are difficult (retouching contemporary pieces can be rather challenging due to the presence of large expanses of singular colours), I think it’s probably managing client expectations. I love that programmes like Fake or Fortune and The Repair Shop are shining a light on what we do and raising awareness of the importance of conservation, however, not every painting is a lost Leonardo. We often get artworks that have been severely damaged from an escape of water or fire, many of which include ancestral paintings which have great importance and meaning to families. It is sad to see the impact of such incidences and the great distress it can cause clients.
Q. What do you enjoy most about conservation?
It’s fantastic to see the level of actual, visible difference we make day to day. It is extremely rewarding to work on projects like those I mentioned where collections such as ancestral paintings that have been damaged due to incidences, are brought back to how they were (or better) and with seamless restoration so that they still continue to be important historical pieces and enjoyed.
It’s incredibly satisfying to know that you’ve completely transformed a painting and brought a piece back to something the original artist would recognise too. Knowing that you’ve made a piece of art safe for future generations to enjoy is pretty great. I love seeing the before and after results – comparing the piece that arrived worse for wear with the conserved artwork that is returned to the client is always hugely pleasing.