Paul demonstrating cleaningPaul demonstrating cleaning

Art Happens ‘Behind the Scenes Conservation’ Reward

Today donors received their reward for donating to our successful Art Happens campaign this summer which raised funds for the conservation of our 15th century Flemish Altarpiece. They were treated to an afternoon in our conservation studio with The Bowes Museum’s Conservation Manager, Jon Old and Painting Conservation Intern, Paul Turner. The afternoon began in the early picture gallery to discuss the central sculpted panels which are still on display but have been temporarily divorced from the painted panels. Jon and Paul have moved the panels to our conservation studio to begin documenting them, whilst furniture restorer Rupert McBain will move the central sculpted section to his studio next week to begin work on the new casing. We discussed the history of the altarpiece and the conservation work that has been done to it since it joined the Museum’s collection in March 1860.

Carvings by the Brussels Sculptors' Guild
Carvings by the Brussels Sculptors’ Guild

We then moved upstairs to our conservation studio to examine the painted panels. Jon and Paul have not started conserving these yet as they are currently assessing the extent of disrepair and damage that has occurred over time so as to plan the programme of conservation. The panels have not warped because it has painted decoration on either side so the panel has only expanded across its width. This has caused some splitting of the oak support which has been exacerbated by the effects of modern central heating. There is also some bubbling and cracking of paint which our visitors were able to examine closely under an ultra violet light.

In the conservation studioIn the conservation studio
In the conservation studio
Close examination under ultra-violet light
Close examination under ultra-violet light

In the scene of the Agony in the Garden a heavy varnish has obscured the bright blue sky and as a result appears very stormy and dark. Jon described how they intend to clean this up so that it matches the lighter skies in the other panels. Donors were also able to see St Jerome on the back of one of the panels, a painting which has not been seen for many years. We then examined another panel flat on the table under a very bright light so as to see in detail the flaking paint.

One of the four fathers of the church
One of the four fathers of the church
Examining St Jerome
Examining another panel
Art Happens 'behind the scenes' conservation reward
Art Happens ‘behind the scenes’ conservation reward

Jon and Paul then presented a number of other items from the Museum’s collection to demonstrate the extent and variety of their work in the studio. Paul demonstrated how he is currently cleaning away an old and discoloured varnish from a painting using a solution with cotton wool which will eventually return the painting to its original state. We then went down to the Music Room to enjoy tea and cake.

Other conservation work
Other conservation work
Paul demonstrating cleaningPaul demonstrating cleaning
Paul demonstrating cleaning

By Becky Knott, MA Student, University of York

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