The fireplace is often a central part of a room, with the space above appearing to be the perfect place to display important or much-loved painting. However, several factors should be considered when choosing a suitable location for an artwork, including the atmosphere.

grey living room art over fire

How does fireplace soot affect an oil painting?

Smoke and soot from the fireplace can build up upon the layer of a painting, visually disturbing the piece. This often shows up as a darkened or dull veil upon the surface of the piece, whilst build up of nicotine and decaying varnish will show up with a yellowing or brown tint, growing darker over time. Gradually over time this results in the loss of detail, reduced definition and impact of the vibrancy of colours. Paintings which we have restored at Fine Art Restoration Company following this type of visual obstruction have sometimes revealed new areas and features on the painting that were not known about, hidden for decades under layers of soot. 

17th Century Portrait fire damage

Restoration on oil paintings and frames following soot damage is a regular occurrence and if artworks have been displayed above a fireplace either in its current or previous ownership, it should be expected that cleaning or restoration will be required. 

Historically, houses would have had an active fireplace in most rooms of the house, as well as lighting from candles. Therefore, the build-up of soot on a painting may be decades or centuries old. If a painting is not currently exposed to a fireplace, it is possible that it has been in its lifetime and as such these threats are still present and will not improve without professional intervention. 

Fire damaged landscape

Fireplace soot and smoke cannot always be easily cleaned away with everyday house cleaning techniques. These particles can embed into the varnish layer, causing a widespread reaction and discolouration. It is not possible to remove oil painting varnish safely without professional treatment and specialist and tailored chemical solutions. When our conservators clean a painting they slowly remove the varnish, soot, and grime inch by inch, using multiple swabs over a course of hours. This ensures that there is no cross-contamination or danger to the artwork. Household cleaning agents and amateur techniques can result in widespread damage to the painting through their inappropriate ingredients and harsh rubbing or scratching of the surface. 

Atmospheric particles from a fireplace can also contain harmful and acidic elements which will deteriorate the varnish and paint layer over a period of time. The same is true for the frame, especially if it is highly ornate with many crevices for these particles to hide in. A gilded frame may lose its shine as the soot builds up, causing deterioration to the structure and decorative features. An unstable frame is a threat to the artwork, which could be at risk of falling from height if unsupported. 

Our team of conservators are able to clean and restore gilding to soot damaged frames, as well as bringing stability back to the structure in order to protect the painting and decorative details. Do not try to clean a frame at home, as some areas may be weak and require small and delicate cleaning techniques from a professional. 

smoke damaged oil painting

Does the heat of a fireplace harm a painting?

Soot damage is not the only issue facing paintings located above a fireplace. The fluctuation of temperature behind the artwork and the heat coming from below may also cause harm.

18th century portrait fire damaged

High temperatures may cause cracking, blistering and flaking to occur, a dry and brittle canvas or frame, a warping canvas, and possible chemical reactions in the paint. The same is true for paintings placed above radiators or heating vents. A steady and even temperature is best for the preservation of any oil painting. 

male portrait fire before

If a painting is affected by any of these conditions, our team of conservators is trained in sensitivity re-stabilising the paint layer, including the weight treatment for a warped canvas and consolidation of flaking or cracking paint.

Artworks on wooden panels may face the danger of drying out or undergoing constant expansion and contraction, leading to a brittle surface, cracking, and paint loss. Our conservation team also specialise in this type of artwork and can help in reducing this damage before it leads to further loss and decay by stabilising and restoring the deterioration.  

male portrait fire after

How can a painting be safely hung above a fireplace?

There are techniques that can be used to prevent damage from occurring to a painting that has been displayed above a fireplace. 

The first of which is to ensure that any inactive fireplaces are blocked off and insulated, to prevent rodent infestation and to keep an even temperature behind the wall and inside the room. 

Fireplace smoke page

If the room up until relatively recently had an active fireplace, ensure that the room is thoroughly cleaned, dusted, vacuumed and well ventilated before the introduction of the artwork.

If there is an active fireplace that is in use, ensure proper ventilation is available and consider glazing for the painting to protect the original artwork from soot exposure. As there is an active fireplace, this will increase soot and smoke exposure to the artwork. As such it should be expected that professional cleaning of the artwork will be required to keep on top of any build-up or contamination which occurs. 

If you have any queries regarding a painting that has been displayed above a fireplace, please get in touch with our team today via [email protected] 

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