Volume 16, Number 3, Sept 1994, p.17

Art in the Public Eye: Conservation in the 19th Century

by Elizabeth Darrow

The nineteenth century brought with it a new philosophy which would forever change the pattern of private and religious art patronage and collecting.[1] Democracy emancipated art from the audience chamber and princely galleries, and placed it in public collections where authorities and committees were empowered to oversee its condition, rather like what the forward thinking Venetian restorer, Pietro Edwards (1744-1821), had attempted. However, the committees were often totally ignorant about restoration techniques and consequently the positive effects of this watchdog mentality were questionable.[2] Technical expertise had grown, but there were still no reliable institutionalized methods which were consistently effective. The restorer's role continued on as it had for centuries. It was highly individualized, with self-styled professionals and amateurs who surrounded themselves with an aura of specialized knowledge. However, they were without formal training, and often subjected the art to pseudo-scientific experimentation.

Sir Charles Eastlake, Director of the National Gallery in London, brought his immense technical and historical knowledge of Italian art to his position at the Gallery. He was not bound by the ethical rules which inhibit museum officials today and was himself a major collector of Italian art often purchased on his trips to Italy for the Gallery. He represented the gentlemanly avocation of connoisseur, and elevated it to a professional vocation as the Keeper, Cleaner, and later Director.[3] He encouraged the expansion of British private collections by example, and through the exchange of mutual interests within his class.[4] Although he was instrumental in nurturing the fledgling awareness about the necessity of preservation of art, he had his own priorities and prejudices. For example, he refused to hire a chemist as part of the permanent staff of the museum, even against his own Keeper's wishes.[5] Perhaps as a gentleman-scholar of the Old School, he intended that his technical researches were to culminate in a supreme connoisseurship and not reflect a completely scientific approach to art. The cleaning controversies at the National Gallery in 1850 and 1853 found Eastlake and some of his employees and policies under attack. Although the hearings were refreshingly illuminating regarding treatment and exhibition of public art, they were still shockingly ineffective regarding any revolutionary institutionalized approach to expert art restoration.

Some modern conservators have remarked that all the controversies about restoration basically have to do with one thing; to clean or not to clean.[6] This dilemma includes the equally complex dispute about the removal of varnishes, glazes, and patina.[7] The growth of the Italian collection in the National Gallery in London during the nineteenth century exposed the difficult and controversial responsibilities regarding restoration and exhibition of art in a public institution.[8] The gallery traditions inherited from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, still imposed their own aesthetic on how a painting should look. Tinted varnishes were still accepted because they achieved the unity of tonality so prized by private and public collectors. The widespread aesthetic conviction, attributed to the artist Sir George Beaumont that "A good painting, like a good violin should be brown", had its adherents.

In London in 1850 and again in 1853, a Select Committee appointed by the House of Commons and comprised of the Trustees, restorers and artists in London, inquired into the restoration of art at the National Gallery. The subject of both inquiries was primarily the condition of the paintings at the Gallery and the means and methods by which they were preserved. There had been complaints about the "dirty and obscure state" of the pictures; a hasty cleaning of nine paintings in six weeks by the Keeper, John Seguier in 1852, finally brought intense governmental scrutiny of the Gallery policies.[9]

There were some important revelations after an intensive interrogation of staff restorers, administrators, and artists compiled in over one thousand pages of testimony. The mysterious agent which was hastening the decay of the pictures was attributed, in part, to the execrable environmental conditions of the location of the Gallery. Windows were open on major industrial sites nearby which covered the whole area in grime. The increase in visitors to the gallery was huge and the floor space was small. Families on their artistic outings were known to picnic right on the floor of the rooms in the Gallery while men smoked cigars. It was said to be the dirtiest art gallery in Europe.[10] Some suggestions for the improvement of conditions included a proposal about putting all the art under glass or installing an air conditioning system with humidification, recently invented by a Dr. D.B. Reid, author of Illustrations of the Theory and Practice of Warming and Ventilation (1844). Eastlake, as Director would wholeheartedly support this revolutionary technology in theory, at least.[11] The ventilation system, like many of the intended enhancements discussed during the investigation, was not installed until over one hundred years later.

The trade of restorer or "Cleaner" as it was called in 1850 was flourishing. In England it was typical that whenever a picture exchanged hands, it was sent to a Cleaner who generally came from an artistic background, but had no scientific training.[12] Those employed in this capacity at the National Gallery had their methods and materials closely scrutinized at the hearings. Their practices were then compared with those of other experts and restorers throughout the city. Among the materials and techniques were countless recipes for cleaning which comprised the secret stock-in-trade of a restorer. Some used combinations of paste and water while others cautioned that only a paste of pea meal was effective. One restorer claimed that, "there is only one thing proper to wipe pictures with, and that is urine; there is something in it which prevents the varnish turning white." A questionnaire was sent to other galleries in Europe and only the state gallery in Naples responded, saying that they applied, "almond oil with pure water only."[13]

Meanwhile, in London, fearsome methods were related to the Committee; these included dipping the painting in nitric acid and "damping the picture and exposing it to a frosty night." The usual caustic soda and fat mixtures were mentioned with the horrifying addition of scrubbing with a brass brush because the caustic would destroy a natural bristle. Faced with these prescriptions, the proverbial recommendation to rub the picture with a potato or onion seem a welcome relief.[14]

John Seguier was chief Cleaner at the Gallery from 1843-47 and was one of the few restorers of his period who did not use varnish tinted with pigment.[15] He also claimed that he tried to never bare the actual surface of the original master's work by leaving behind a thin film of varnish in order to protect the work and satisfy the public's desire for a "mellow tone." However, this respectful treatment of Old Master surface was called into question because it was revealed that Seguier relied on the notorious "Gallery Varnish" to cover much of the collection in the National Gallery. He claimed ignorance about the exact composition of the mixture because a varnish maker outside the Gallery devised the concoction. It appears by its effects, that it probably consisted of mastic resin mixed with boiled linseed oil and litharge. The high cost of mastic at the time makes it probable that there were cheaper fillers added such as colophon (distillation of turpentine with sulfuric acid) and Venice turpentine(Larch balsam resin).[16]

Seguier was one of the few restorers of his day who admitted using oil in varnish, even though it caused discoloration and degradation over time. The public criticism of this practice may have caused him to lie about the proportions, 1:1, in his Gallery Varnish. Others in the Gallery staff defended Seguier and described certain experiments he had undertaken to determine the smallest quantity of oil that would prevent mastic from blooming. The property of oil treated with lead to prevent bloom has been confirmed by modern research, but Seguier's stated recipe once applied, should have dried fairly quickly to a hard finish. However, the "Gallery Varnish" seemed to stay sticky much longer, yellowed to a kind of tobacco color, and attracted dirt and grime like a magnet. Although Seguier continued to use the same mixture in his private practice he was ordered by the Trustees to stop using the "Gallery Varnish" in the National Gallery and to revert to the use of mastic alone.

The cleaning procedures at the Gallery also came under scrutiny. Seguier claimed that he preferred to merely clean and overvarnish, and that when it was imperative to remove old varnish he always would leave a layer of the original.[17] It is very difficult to distinguish between original and later varnish layers even with today's advanced technology, so it is dubious that he was very successful in this.[18] He informed the Committee that he only used rubbing or friction method for a partial removal, but the Keeper, Unwins denied that Seguier ever used friction. Seguier testified that his cleaning solution contained spirits of wine which he would apply, followed by turpentine which acted as a neutralizing agent. This approach made the solvent harder to control in some people's estimation, and could allow damage to occur. Also Seguier did not perform cleaning tests because "he knew the pictures so well he didn't need to."[19] Eastlake denied this and said that when he was Keeper, Seguier himself suggested making tests. There was no general policy towards removing old accretions, inpainting losses, and overpainting. Seguier felt that certain fine retouching was beyond his skill, and so left it to Eastlake.

The National Gallery appears to have been rather conservative compared to some countries regarding the inpainting of losses. In Venice, "mere workmen" were responsible for the task often allowing heavy overpainting which meant covering original paint. The Florentine restorers were more circumspect about cleaning, but they also extended retouches onto the original artist's surface. The Naples museum admitted that "flesh and drapery were left untouched by the brush, but the inferior landscape portions are restored with color when necessary."[20] In Rome and Berlin, the philosophical approach was to do as little as possible to art works on principle that the original should be preserved.

In reading through even this brief discussion, it becomes obvious that, despite the deficiencies of the nineteenth century watchdog Committee as an effective agent of conservation management, it did make significant contributions. Never since the demise of the workshop tradition had there been such an intense interest in truly understanding the materials and techniques of the Old Masters. For example, many of the technical and theoretical manuscripts which we primarily rely upon today were translated in the nineteenth century. And supplementing their investigations was the increasing understanding of chemistry. The problems they grappled with surrounding the preconceptions about how art "should" look are the same we struggle with today, perhaps slightly more easily because of the inquiries they encouraged.

1. Francis Henry Taylor, The Taste of Angels: A History of Collecting from Ramses to Napoleon, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1948, p.591

2. Norman Brommelle, "Materials for a History of Conservation," Studies in Conservation, Volume 11 #4, Published by the International Institute of Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, Amsterdam: October, 1956, p. 176.

3. Denys Sutton, "Ottley to Eastlake," Apollo Magazine, London: August, 1985, p.92.

4. Denys Sutton, "The Age of Robert Browning", Apollo Magazine, London: August 1985, p.101

5. op. cit., Brommelle, p. 185.

6. Joyce Hill Stoner, "William Suhr", Museum, November-December, 1981, p.33.

7. Ernst Gombrich, "Controversial Methods and Methods of Controversy", Burlington Magazine, #105, London: 1962, pp.90-93.

8. op.cit., Brommelle, p.176.

9. op.cit., Brommelle, p.177.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., p.178.

12. Ibid., p.184.

13. Ibid., p.178.

14. Ibid., p.182.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., p.180.

17. Ibid., p.181

18. E Rene da la Rie, "The Influence of Varnishes on the Appearance of Paintings," Studies in Conservation, #32, London: May 1986, p.3

19. op.cit., Brommelle, p.179.

20. Ibid., p. 180.

Elizabeth Darrow is doing her doctoral research at the University of Washington in Seattle on the History of Art Conservation. She welcomes any comments or observations by conservators.

She can be reached at:

Department of Art History DM-10,
School of Art,
University of Washington,
Seattle, WA 98195.
Telephone: 206/284-2263,
EMail: darrow@u.washington.edu

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