A guest post by Hazel Neill. Hazel is a freelance painting conservator with over 25 years’ experience working in private practice and for national, local authority and independent institutions throughout Britain.
Before treatment: The painting hanging in the Gallery and my notes on the 24 March 2021.
Sometimes conservators must assess the condition of paintings whilst they are inaccessible, possibly hanging at a great height, in poor lighting conditions or so obscured by surface dirt and aged varnish that a clear assessment of the surface of the paint is not possible. With experience we can make educated guesses as to what is going on. It is only when the painting is de-installed that these initial impressions of condition can be properly investigated.
Such was the case with Gavin Hamilton’s ‘Hector’s Farewell to Andromache’ in The Hunterian. When I look at the notes I made during a visit in March 2021 to discuss the possibility of treating the painting, it is interesting to observe what my thoughts on the condition of it were and the order in which I have recorded them. They illustrate how a conservator approaches a painting when seeing it for the first time with a view to treatment.
Before treatment: Detail of altered texture of paint and detail of lower left quadrant – note diagonal stretcher bar marks.
It is the fragile paint that I mention first and the fact that small flakes had been lost since the last time the painting was varnished; checking the stability of a painting is the first thing to assess because it informs if and how it should be handled for examination.
Next, I made a very quick sketch of the major age cracks, surface deformations and obvious restored damages, before going on to make cursory notes on the nature of the open weave canvas, the colour of the ground, working up to the texture of the paint (I mention that ‘the paint appears to have been pushed through the weave’) and finally commenting on the ‘cloudy, discoloured, waxy’ appearance of the varnish.
Once the immediate level of stability is established, paintings conservators are trained to consider the condition of the lowest layers in the structure first: the primary support (e.g.- canvas) and the secondary support (e.g. – wooden, expandable stretcher), followed by the preparatory layers (size, ground, priming), then to the applied layers (paint) and finally to the surface coatings (varnish).
With regards to the historical treatments, my overriding feeling, after this first, short visit, was that the painting had been subject to a lining treatment in the past that had resulted in the alteration of the texture of the paint in isolated areas.
Intriguingly, shortly after my visit, when I read the most recent treatment records held by The Hunterian, there was no mention of an historic lining treatment. Apart from a strip lining around the edges and the insertion of a loose lining behind the canvas in 2006, the painting was noted as being unlined. All treatments that occurred before the painting was acquired by the University are unrecorded. So, the question was, why does the paint appear to have been altered by lining?
Before treatment: Whole front – annotations of forms of flaking, age cracks, drying cracks, restoration and damage.
Come the following November (2021) when the conservation project began, I was able to immerse myself in the painting. A thorough condition report was prepared, though the presence of the loose lining meant that examination of the back of the original canvas was still not possible.
Also, in this intervening period, the painting had been the subject of technical analysis at Kelvin Centre for Conservation and Cultural Heritage Research. Thus, to my initial impressions, I could add an understanding of the working practices of the artist and the materials he employed.
So, were my cursory first notes on the condition of the painting accurate? For the most part yes, but the causes of the textural, micro-blistering of the paint that follows the canvas weave remains something of a mystery. It is suspected that the most probable cause is related to structural treatment, possibly ironing to flatten out the painting after one of the many occasions when it was rolled for transit.
This illustrates why it is important for a conservator to always have an open, questioning mind when examining and treating a painting and not to make assumptions. As the structural treatment commences it is hoped that examination of the back of the canvas will reveal more evidence that may help to solve these interesting phenomena.