Case Study: how we tackled tears, full lining, past restoration and a lot of dirt
The restoration of Ms Wrightson’s family painting was a unique experience for our whole team.
It all started with Ms Wrightson enquiring via our website and disclosing fascinating details about her much admired painting. The painting is by 17th Century Dutch artist Aelbert Cuyp and has been in the family for many years through Ms Wrightson’s Grandfather. Unfortunately, over time, the painting had sustained substantial damage and had most recently been sitting alone in a farmhouse.
To properly find out the painting’s current condition and what needed to be done, we arranged with Ms Wrightson to collect the painting and complete an in-depth assessment in our studio. It was during this stage that we made some fascinating finds and receiving an unusual request from our clients…
Once in our studio, our team were keen to investigate this painting thoroughly and see what restoration work needed to be done.
The first thing that became apparent was how dirty that painting had become. Due to it being kept in a farmhouse, there was dirt, cobwebs and insects on the front and back of the painting.
As well as the significant build up of dirt and dust over the painting and frame, the painting had perished varnish which caused the discolouration to the overall appearance.
Our conservators observed that the painting had signs of prior restoration. The previous campaigns of restoration undertaken on the painting did not use techniques that were conservation friendly (including the use of wooden blocks to repair holes).The repairs were very visually apparent, with large unsightly patches on the back of the painting from previous repairs to numerous tears and punctures.
With regards to the condition of the canvas, it was very brittle and weakened. This as a result, along with the past restoration, contributed to causing unstable paint, flaking and losses of the paint layer.
There was also evidence of prior in-painting in a number of areas, which was not in keeping with the artist’s intention.
The condition of the frame had fared much better, and did not have any major damage. Our clients expressed a wish to clean the frame, remould some areas of lost decoration and gild the frame.
As this painting is very special to Ms Wrightson’s family, they had an unusual request for their artwork and asked if they may be able to assist in any part of the restoration. It would be a unique moment for their family and we were happy to oblige.
Due to the extensive nature of the repairs required on the painting, there were some aspects it would not be possible for Ms Wrightson and her partner to assist with, particularly those involving solvents (our conservators wear custom fit masks for this work) and the complex repair work. But we were happy to accommodate our clients where possible and involve them in a variety of processes to make the restoration an interesting experience.
After a discussion with our conservators, we formulated a plan for our clients to assist with cleaning to remove dirt and surface contaminants. We had already conducted a series of cleaning tests to determine the best cleaning agent that could be used, and no solvents would be needed.
The painting was first removed from its frame, and an initial dry clean removed the cobwebs, insects, dust and dirt for the frame and back of the painting.
The wooden blocks wedged in between the stretcher bar and the painting were also removed.
Our team firstly ensure that the paint layer was fully consolidated. Some of the paint layer had already been lost, and we checked to make sure no more was lifting and starting to become loose. Once we could guarantee the paint layer was intact, we could then remove the varnish from the painting. As this normally requires solvent use and health and safety equipment, it was not something our clients would have been able to assist in. However, our talented team made a water-based gel to remove the varnish that was safe to use and required no safety equipment.
After a demonstration from our conservator Lito, our clients were well supervised while helping to remove the varnish and surface dirt. It was a very pleasing and beneficial experience for them, being able to see the difference.
Ms Wrightson and her partner had a wonderful time visiting our studio and learning more about the restoration of their painting. Once they had helped with varnish removal and cleaning, we turned our attention to the structural side of the restoration.
The first task was to remove the large patches on the back of the painting. These patches were holding the tears in place – they had not actually been repaired underneath. It was a time consuming process to remove these patches as they had been heavily stuck down with adhesive. Once they were removed it was possible to see the tear in full and how extensive it was.
Because the tear had not actually been previously repaired, we needed to complete a thread-by-thread repair to re-align the fibres. The tear covered a large proportion of the painting, and as previously mentioned the canvas itself had weakened. The best solution for this painting was to complete a full line of the canvas. A second canvas would be added to the original to provide the strength and stability it lacked.
After lining, the painting was structurally stable once more and we could then reattach the painting to the stretcher bars.
To complete the tear repair, we applied filler to the areas of exposed canvas where the paint had been lost. Any excess filler was removed and then we carefully retouched the area to sympathetically match the existing pigments.
While Ms Wrightson and her partner visited us, they also assisted with the cleaning and gilding of their frame. Although we completed a preliminary clean before arrival, the dirt was so ingrained in the corner decoration, a more intensive clean was required.
Our frame conservators also guided them through the gilding process, demonstrating how to carefully apply gold leaf to sections of the frame. As you can see below, the difference is remarkable.
Our team also applied shellac and pigments once the gold leaf was secure to appropriately age the frame.
The final step of the restoration of the painting was to re-varnish to provide a protective and lasting finish for the painting.
It was a very enjoyable experience for our team having Ms Wrightson and her partner join us in the studio for a special couple of days. It was a pleasure to be able to share in the restoration project and share in such a special experience for our clients.
The painting was returned after completion and our clients were delighted to receive it back home and celebrate its return with their family.