Jan 2000 Volume 22 Number 2

Book Review

The Restoration of Paintings

by Knut Nicolaus

German edition: 1998, Konemann Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, Bonner Str. 126, D-50968 Cologne. English edition: 1999, same publisher, translated from the German by seven translators in association with First Edition Translations Ltd, Cambridge, UK. 422 pages, ISBN 3-89508-922-2. Eight-page glossary, 14-page bibliography, index, numerous B&W and color photographs, diagrams, and charts.

What contribution does this book make to the field and to the literature? How does it differ from other books of its type? Just before 1968, when I began the study of painting conservation at New York University, we really had only the published results of the 1930 Rome Conference as a text in book form on the practical aspects of the conservation of paintings. However, in 1968, The Cleaning of Paintings: Problems and Potentialities by Helmut Ruhemann was published. (Ruhemann was a German working in Great Britain. His book is 360 pages long with the addition of a 120 page bibliography by Joyce Plesters.) Since then, the following somewhat similar books have appeared:

--1973, Restoration of Paintings by Luitsen Kuiper of The Netherlands. (This is quite short, 55 pp., and basic.)

--1976, The Restorer's Handbook of Easel Painting, by Gilberte Emile-Male of France. (About 130 pp, good illus., practical-but-brief survey of treatment techniques used in France, with by a section on examination techniques by M. Hours.)

--1985, Paintings: Genuine, Fraud, Fake: Modern Methods of Examining Paintings by R. H. Marijnissen of Belgium. (Focuses on examination techniques, but at 400+ pp. is quite thorough.)

--1985, The Ravished Image, or How to Ruin Masterpieces by Restoration by Sarah Walden, an American working in Great Britain. (A highly personal view of philosophies of conservation and artists' techniques, 174 pp..)

--1995, Conserving Paintings: Basic Technical Information for Contemporary Artists by Allan Byrne of Great Britain (In spite of its title, this is really about constructing paintings in a more preservation-minded way. It could be considered an update of Pomerantz's 1962 paperback, Is Your Contemporary Painting more Temporary Than You Think?)

--1997, Conservation of Paintings by David Bomford of Great Britain. (This is my personal favorite. It is solidly grounded in technical art history and emphasizes how the practical aspects of treatment must vary according to artists' techniques. It is well illustrated but brief at 78 pp..)

(The 1965 Caroline Keck book A Handbook on the Care of Paintings for Historical Societies and Small Museums, and the George Stout book, The Care of Pictures, 1948 and 1975, are aimed more at the preventive care of paintings.)

It appears that the book most commensurate with the 1999 Nicolaus book is the 1968 Ruhemann book. Both could be used as practical textbooks for the teaching of painting conservation. Both are written by apprentice-trained German paintings conservators who themselves trained many pupils. Both are grounded by the authors' many years of experience treating European Old Master paintings.

However the Ruhemann book has much discussion of philosophical approaches and the techniques of certain artists and uses x-radiographs and infra-red photographs to illuminate details. The Nicolaus book is more like a cook book for painting conservation moving up through the physical attributes of a painting from wooden and textiles supports to the paint layer and varnish, with minimal mention of artists and their varying techniques. The Nicolaus book does not mention examination by x-radiography, infra-red, or ultra-violet light in the text (although a few UV photographs and an x-radiograph are reproduced). X-rays are mentioned only in the context of killing insect larvae in wood panels. Cross-sections are mentioned only in a brief section discussing cleaning materials suggested by Richard Wolbers (pp. 356-59).

If we think of conservation as defined by George Stout as resting on the "three-legged stool" of art history, science, and practical treatment, this book focuses almost entirely on the practical leg. The second longest leg covers basic scientific concepts such as the Teas diagram, refractive indices of pigments, and equilibrium moisture content of wood. The art history leg is absent.

The author's foreword says his aim is "to show how complicated and sensitive conservation and restoration work on paintings really is" and that "restoration should only be undertaken by qualified restorers." He notes that he hopes the book will help to remedy the situation that "the complexities of modern picture restorations are not yet as well known as they should be." However, one wishes that he had done more to illustrate this point by discussing basic techniques of analysis used by most practical conservators (cross-sections, U.V., I.R., and x-ray) or research into artists' techniques through publications, letters, diaries, etc. Sophisticated analytical investigation of artists' methods and materials is now widely practiced and published by conservators and scientists in many major museums; mention of this would certainly strengthen his thesis.

Strengths of the Nicolaus book include an enormous number of truly excellent photographs and macrophotographs. One could shoot marvelous teaching slides to illustrate wood grain, insect holes, clamping systems, surface changes due to transfers, stretcher joins, crackle patterns, tear mending, inserts, vacuum and suction table linings, ingrained dirt, crazed varnish, etc. The reader is truly impressed by the high standard of fill texturing and inpainting illustrated by the photographs and described in the substantive text devoted to compensation. However, artists' names are rarely supplied in the captions.

The book could be considered the diary of an intensive internship in Germany at the elbow of Professor Nicolaus. Due apparently to his particular experiences, there are unique sections on how to treat paintings that have been attacked by vandals wielding either acids or paint strippers. Procedures that were new to me included tying together feathers to remove dirt from behind stretcher bars (p. 94), inserting an actual enlarged photograph of a missing area of a damaged painting into the loss and then toning it (p. 295), inpainting onto an intentionally dark fill in order to be able to incise it to create dark crackle lines (p. 299), and spray varnishing smaller paintings while they are flat on a table (p. 323).

Much interesting information is given on historical practices of conservation with footnotes to (usually German) publications. Unfortunately it is sometimes unclear which methods the author considers outdated. For instance, one must read carefully to determine whether white lead as a lining adhesive or carbon tetrachloride as a solvent are accepted current practices or not. The author appears to favor oil retouches, noting that time must pass for them to age and harden before they can be safely varnished. Much bibliography is cited within the text, particularly publications by Hans Althofer, Gustav Berger, and Christian Wolters.

Major weaknesses of the book are the overall editing and problems in translation. The copy I have is called "Restoration" of Paintings on the dust jacket and "Restauration" of Paintings on the inside. There are problems with subject verb agreement, missing parentheses, etc. Lining is called "lining" in the first part of the book and "doubling" in the second part, and "doubling" is not in the glossary. "Frame" and "stretcher" seem confused as terms and are absent from the glossary. Inpainting directly in one layer is called "additive" retouching, and inpainting in multiple translucent layers is called "subtractive" retouching. What I think must be a suction table is called a "low pressure" table in one section and a "downward pressure" table in another. It does not appear that an English-speaking conservator was asked to read the final product.

In some areas the book seems to have been written by several different people who did not communicate. On page 118 the first hot table was built in 1949 followed by the heat/vacuum table in 1950 and on page 136 the hot table is dated at 1948 with vacuum added in 1953. On page 328 "all varnishes darken or turn yellow," but by the next page some are graying. Animal glues are referred to as "glutoline glues" and are sometimes listed as a current acceptable choice and other times dismissed entirely as outdated (for similar uses). Reversibility and documentation are mentioned as concepts only sporadically. There is an appendix on documentation that is never mentioned in the text.

I was slightly disconcerted by the assertiveness of some of the statements in the text that I would think might be considered more debatable. Examples: glass-fiber fabrics "do not look appropriate" (p. 135); regarding loss of opacity, "none of these phenomena can be prevented or reversed by means of restorative techniques" (p. 163); "Drying cracks often have a pale appearance . . . . In contrast, aging cracks can be identified by their fine lines, which are always dark" (p. 178); "If one supplements the mixture of egg yolk and egg white with paints and a drying oil or wax, the resulting paint is called egg tempera" (p. 278). [Egg tempera retouching is the author's preferred technique for retouching Old Master paintings.]

I was particularly looking forward to reading this book as Knut Nicolaus was, along with John Brealey and Hubert von Sonnenburg, a pupil of the German conservator Johannes Hell. Hell was known for infecting his students with a great love for art history, connoisseurship, artists' techniques, and discussion of the degree to which a painting should be cleaned. In a 1996 FAIC oral history interview with Stephan Schaefer our Fulbright Fellow from Germany, Professor Nicolaus generously discussed his heritage from Professor Hell, and Hell is one of the teachers to whom he dedicated this book.

I would welcome a future book in which Knut Nicolaus discusses philosophies of conservation combined with the consideration of different artists' techniques to contextualize his practical approaches to the restoration of paintings.

Joyce Hill Stoner

Turner's Later Papers---A Study of the Manufacture, Selection and Use of his Drawing Papers 1820-1851

by Peter Bower

Tate Gallery Publishing & Oak Knoll Press, 1999

This is a wonderful book focusing in depth on the papers used by Turner in his drawings and watercolors during the later part of his career. It is undoubtedly the authoritative book on the subject.

The book approaches the subject from artistic, historical, technological, and scientific points of view. Peter Bower's lifelong involvement with papermaking makes him the ideal author. He understands and appreciates paper in a way that only a papermaker is capable.

The contents are broken into a catalogue section of categories including: Paper and its Changes During Turner's Lifetime, White Papers, Coloured Papers, Boards and Other Papers, and Papers Used by Other Artists (putting Turner in context among contemporaries: John Sell Cotman, Peter De Wint, David Cox, John Constable, Samuel Palmer, Clarkson Stanfield, Samuel Lawrence, and James Harding). There is an excellent glossary of papermaking terms which includes many fascinating period descriptions as they would have been defined during Turner's lifetime. There is an extensive bibliography.

The book is beautifully illustrated with 28 colour and 230 black and white illustrations. Images illustrated include paper, papermaking equipment and processes, Turner drawings and watercolors, notebooks and sketchbooks, and some artworks on paper by other artists. There are numerous details illustrating transmitted light photographs, watermarks, photomicrographs of paper fibers by scanning electron microscopy, and close-ups showing paper texture and illustrating the interaction of paper and design materials.

There are photographs of drawings in the Tate Turner Bequest that Bower has been able to reassemble into their original whole sheet configuration through his careful study of the works. This reassembly has facilitated the identification of some of the sites involved in the drawings and has helped towards dating many of the works. This is an excellent reference book about papermaking during the mid-nineteenth century which was a very significant period in British and European papermaking history. During this time the small scale craft based papermaking industry was beginning to evolve into a heavily industrialized factory system. This era of change and experimentation in the industry coincided with and fostered the work of a group of great British watercolorists, providing them with a broader range of papers specifically designed for their use.

As an art lover and paper conservator, I have found this book fascinating reading and highly recommend it. It is an excellent resource for conservators, curators of works of art on paper, artists, and students of all sorts. It sensitizes the reader to the subtleties inherent in paper in artworks and our need for understanding them. Although the book is specialized in nature, it is well written and very enjoyable reading. The author's passion for the subject matter translates itself into a great book.

This is the companion volume to Turner's Papers: Study of the Manufacture, Selection and Use of His Drawing Papers, 1787-1820, also by Peter Bower, pub. in 1990.

Theresa Fairbanks

 [WAAC]  [WAAC Newsletter]  [WAAC Newsletter Contents]  [Search WAAC Newsletter]  [Disclaimer]

[Search all CoOL documents]