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FIXING A VERY DAMAGED PAINTING, PART 1

Posted 17 May 2010 by Hannah

Remember Sarah from Conservation? She’s starting a really big job at the moment, and we’re going to be following her progress as she and her colleagues try to restore a VERY large, VERY awesome painting . . .

John Martin’s Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum is a really dramatic picture showing the great volcano, Vesuvius, erupting over the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The painting was completed in around 1821 when people were very interested in big landscape pictures showing the destructive forces of nature.

Here’s what Vesuvius looked like when it erupted in 1872.

So perhaps it was fate when the painting itself also became the victim of a great natural disaster! On January 7 1928, the Thames got especially high and burst its banks (read more here). Water flooded into the basement at Tate Britain where the picture was being stored, completely submerging it. This isn’t at all good for paintings and the work was badly damaged. Many flakes of paint became detached from the surface and were lost. Parts of the canvas on which the picture was painted became really weak and tore apart, leaving a big gap in the image right where the heart of the volcano should be:

Not surprisingly, people at the time thought the painting was completely destroyed, so it was rolled up and forgotten about for many years. However, when a big exhibition of works by John Martin was planned, the remaining fragments of the painting were unrolled. As conservators looked at it more than 80 years after the flood they thought that perhaps the work could be restored enough for it to be displayed. Conservators are people with special training that try and prevent artworks from getting damaged and fix them when they do. Repairing paintings can take a long time and conservators have to be very careful and patient when working with the fragile artworks.

The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum is certainly a big job! The painting looks very dark because it is covered with layers of dirt and yellowed varnish which have to be carefully removed. All the loose paint has to be stuck back down and all the little losses will have to be ‘retouched’ with special paint (which is a bit like really careful colouring in!). But the really big task will be re-creating the missing section. Using original photographs of the damaged painting and another version of this same work as a guide, conservators are working out how best to fill in the gap so that the artwork can be displayed for the public.

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ABOUT US: CONSERVATION

Posted 13 May 2010 by Hannah

Sarah from Conservation dropped by to answer our questions about what she gets up to at Tate! Sarah’s got some interesting news for us coming up soon, so watch this space . . .

What’s Conservation?

In an art gallery Conservation is the department dedicated to ensuring that artworks are preserved for the future. Conservators make sure artworks are able to safely travel or be put on display. We examine, document and treat artworks that have become damaged or deteriorated so that they do not get any worse and we may restore their appearance so they look their best for display.

For more information, visit the Conservation department here.

How long have you worked for Tate?

Just over 4 months.

What do you do every day?

That depends on what’s going on in Tate Britain. If an exhibition is about to go up or down I may be condition checking works to ensure that there are no signs of damage and nothing that makes them vulnerable for travel or display. Alternatively I may be treating Tate works in preparation for a display. Right now I’m spending most of my time treating a large and dramatic John Martin painting called The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

What’s your favourite thing about working for Tate?

All the amazing pictures that I get to work with! I really have to get up close to the paintings that I treat or examine so I get to know them very well. It’s extremely satisfying to do that with such a wonderful collection.

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ABOUT ART: PAPER CONSERVATION

Posted 13 April 2010 by Hannah

Have you ever drawn a picture that faded to nothing after being pinned to the wall?

Paper is very delicate – it’s easily torn and changes colour in direct sunlight. Try it yourself with a newspaper – leave one out for a week and watch it turn from grey to yellow. Even the brightest colours on the most expensive paper will fade! Imagine if you were an artist who liked to work with paper. It would be very be hard to keep your artworks for a long time!

This is why Tate has a special team of people who look after all the works we have that are on paper. They’re called PAPER CONSERVATORS. They have two very important jobs: they try to preserve the paper that the artworks are on, and also preserve the images on the paper.

They have lots of ways to do this. Tate has thousands of artworks on paper which are displayed at all four of our museums, so first of all we rotate what we have on display, making sure that no artwork is exposed to sunlight for too long.

Next it’s very important to make sure that the artworks don’t get wet, and this doesn’t just mean keeping them away from glasses of water! The amount of water in the air is very carefully controlled so the artworks aren’t exposed to harmful levels of moisture. Clever!

They’re even trying to invent a way to store paper artworks in frames that don’t have any oxygen in them – because it’s thought that the presence of oxygen in the air makes the inks on most papers fade faster. Wow!

Next time you draw a picture to put up on the wall, maybe you’ll pick a wall that’s not directly in the sun, or by the kettle, so it will last longer!

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