Art Happens – Conservation of our 15th century Flemish Altarpiece

We have had some fantastic news regarding the start of our redisplay and conservation of the 15th century Flemish altarpiece by the Master of the View of St Gudule. This summer we successfully crowdfunded £21,163 on Art Happens and last week the first stage of this exciting process began. The Museum Conservation Manager, Jon Old and Paintings Conservation Intern, Paul Turner removed the first two painted panels from the frames in order to start the delicate process of documenting the panels before the conservation of the paintwork will begin in early December. This full technical examination will hopefully shed light on the artist’s technique and choice of materials.  Despite the age of the panels they are in a remarkable state of preservation; however, changes in humidity have caused the oak panel support to contract and expand resulting in some flaking of paint. Over the next few months Art Happens donors will be invited to visit our Conversation studio to find out more about this process and get the opportunity to inspect these beautiful panels in closer proximity.

Altarpiece dismantle in the early picture gallery
Altarpiece dismantle in the early picture gallery

The conservation and restoration of the main carved section of the altarpiece will be undertaken by furniture conservator Rupert McBain and the altarpiece will be transferred from the gallery to his studio in December. The carving and panels are currently housed in oak frames and casing dating from the 1970s and part of the redisplay will include the construction of a new historically accurate oak frame. Rupert will also reassemble original carvings currently in store and introduce a new mechanism to allow the regular opening and closing of the panels.

Panels being moved to Conservation Studio
Panels being moved to Conservation Studio

John Bowes purchased this altarpiece in March 1860 from the Parisian antique dealer Monbro of 19, Rue du Helder, costing him 1500 francs. The exact provenance of the altarpiece is unknown. However, Kim Woods has suggested that it may have been removed from a Belgian religious institution during the French Revolution and subsequently taken to France for sale.[1] The altarpiece was shipped to England in 1872 and first housed at Streatlam Castle, the Bowes ancestral home, and was later moved to the Museum upon its opening in 1892. The altarpiece narrative describes the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ and was likely produced between 1460 and 1480. It has been reassembled more than once and thus this project is a fantastic opportunity to redisplay the altarpiece as close as possible to its original form, finally revealing the six paintings on the back of the altarpiece shutters.

I will be documenting this exciting programme of conservation over the next few months and the conserved altarpiece will be ready to be raised and displayed for visitors to view in our 15th-century gallery in April 2015.

By Becky Knott, MA Student, University of York

[1] Kim Woods, Imported Images: Netherlandish Late Gothic Sculpture In England c.1400- c.1500 (Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2007), p.294.

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