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What's Up Magazine

The Art of Restoration

Dec 11, 2012 07:26PM ● By Anonymous

It took eight months to rescue Frederick Dudley Robinson, or “Dudley,” but the mission was a success. Now, it is nearly impossible to tell that his face was once discolored and partially disfigured, damaged by water and stained by oil and dirt.

“This portrait is on paper made from wood pulp, similar to newspaper,” says Cynthia McBride, an Annapolis art gallery owner. “It’s very acidic. The paper turned from yellow to brown and began to disintegrate, and the sun and visible light accelerated the burning.”

McBride was first introduced to Dudley in September 2011 through his son, David, who was hoping the extensive damage caused to the aged rendering of his father could somehow be reversed. The portrait is one of two painted by an art student in England, where Robinson lived for most of his life. He graduated from Cambridge University and joined the British Royal Air Force as World War II consumed most of Europe. While stationed in Singapore, he was captured by the Japanese and spent four years as a prisoner of war. The war ended, and he was released. He returned to England and eventually secured positions at St. Catharine’s College of Cambridge, as both a college fellow and an engineer.

One of the portraits was lost after Robinson’s death in 2008, and the other was stored first in a damp garage and then in the archives of St. Catharine’s, where it remained until David reclaimed it last year.

“I was absolutely delighted to find it, and very angry with my sister, who was in charge of looking after it,” David says.

David brought the portrait to McBride upon returning to the United States, and after assessing the damage, she transferred it to a conservator. The restoration process was very complex; the delicate paper required a careful hand and a gentle touch.

The paper was first steam-washed from the reverse side to rebalance the pH, and an alkaline reserve was added for additional protection. To counteract the deterioration, the fragile material was mounted to a Japanese vegetable-based paper. Solvents were then used to remove adhesive residue left from improper placement of masking tape, and the soiled areas were dry cleaned with a powder suitable for use on gouache paint.

In May of this year, the process was at last completed. Extremely pleased with the result, David plans to mount the portrait in his Sharptown home on a wall that proudly displays the past three generations of the Robinson family.

“I first looked at it [after the restoration] and thought, ‘It’s bigger than I remember,” David says. “All the creases came out. It’s great. The guy who did it obviously spent a lot of time straightening it out.”

McBride was just as pleased with the final result.

“We had a discussion about other means of stabilization, but we like to do no harm,” McBride explains. “We do just enough to preserve and conserve the art.”

The concept of minimal intervention has become a widely recognized ethical guideline in the field of conservation, which has evolved greatly since its initial development in Germany in the late 19th century. At that time, conservation techniques were derived mainly from scientific and chemical advancements that could be applied to museum artifacts and works of art. By the early 20th century, chemists were employed at the Fogg Art Museum in Massachusetts, marking the establishment of the conservation field of study in the United States. After the creation of the first vacuum steam table for relining paintings, invented in New York in 1920, the conservation field rapidly expanded to encompass both scientists and artists interested in the preservation and restoration of all artistic media. The advent of removable varnishes and other fully reversible conservation methods led to an increased ethical focus within the industry that remains strong today.

“In the past, varnishes were very difficult to remove and often yellowed with age and discolored and disfigured the paintings,” says Ken Milton, a conservator in Chestertown who often restores artifacts in the Naval Academy Museum. “In large part, restoration is what we undo, and then we use more modern materials that are easy to reverse.”

Today, the field of conservation is highly specialized, for restoration methods vary greatly between media. Even when working with media of their specialty, conservators may have to employ a wide range of techniques for every piece of art presents a unique set of problems. Conservators must also take into account the age of the artwork and past restoration attempts, if any, before beginning treatment.

“Depending on the artifact, the process of restoration is a complex question,” says Hanna Szczepanowska, who has worked as a conservator at several Smithsonian museums. “Maybe there is dirt on the paper because someone didn’t protect it properly in the frame or in storage. Maybe it wasn’t stored flat. Maybe it was affected by condensation of water. Causes of damage can really vary.”

The most common causes of damage to artwork—exposure to water, sunlight, visible light, and household grime—can be avoided by storing or displaying art in a controlled, relatively dry environment. Attics and basements, often prone to fluctuating levels of heat, humidity and dust, are particularly hostile to art of all sorts.

Light, both natural and artificial, can damage the fibers and fade colors in most two-dimensional art, so it is important to keep display lights low. Spotlights and sunlight should never be trained direct on an object, but pieces on display near direct sunlight may be coated with an ultraviolet protective sealant or varnish, generally applied by a conservator.

It is important to dust artwork of all kinds, but it must be done carefully. Feather dusters are safer to use than rags, which might wipe away more than just dust.

Proper framing also contributes enormously to the longevity of any two-dimensional artwork; for pieces with ill-fitting frames are more likely to sag or bend over time. Three-dimensional art must also be properly stabilized and stored in an environment suited to the material.

But when a piece of your personal collection begins to show signs of wear, it is best to employ the services of an expert. Home remedies may seem like a quick, inexpensive fix for minor problems, but some may actually exacerbate the issue. Although cost depends largely on the size of the artwork and the severity of damage, restoration services are often moderately priced. The cost of restoring a piece of art may begin as low as $145, but may rise to more than $1,000 if the necessary services warrant such a price.

Conservators typically maintain an average turnaround time of a complete restoration within two or three months. Restoration experts often work on several pieces at the same time and advance them together.

As art owners become more aware of the benefits of restoration, such services are rising in popularity.

“We are seeing an increasing interest in caring for valuable items and family heirlooms,” McBride says. “Every day we get requests.”