Art conservation and re-touching of paintings at the Sainbury Wing of the British National Gallery, and the great Stephen Conroy

Two kids and a cat


Watteau at the Wallace


It wasn’t until I was on the tube that I began to think back on the paintings that I had just seen.
The Sainsbury Wing of the National gallery that Friday evening was busy and buzzy, with an acoustic band playing in the

Botticelli_1483-85-Magnificat-Madonna1foyer – perfect – yet… As the tube rocked side to side on the district line and I looked at the bright fun advert posters on the train, I began to think about the paintings on display. Funnily enough it was not the ones by Gainsbourgh and Reynolds that worried me,  it was many others in the gallery and how bright they were.  I had recently been to the Louve and the painting there seemed be somewhat muted, which gave an appropriateness to their age. So too the Uffizi where I always check out the Madonna of the Magnificat – just to make sure it’s still there, and although it is quite bright, it is not the colour of the Beano. Over at the Wallace Collection this re-touch practice does not seem to have caught on either. The paintings there do appear a little more muted than those Sainsbury’s, yet still the subtle beauty of the work is intact.

(c) Stephen Conroy; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Stephen Conroy

I know there is a extensive restoration programme that is ongoing, in which I applaud the cleaning and meticulous care of the paintings, but it’s the over cleaning and ‘re-touching’ that concerns, and I wondered if it could be at the expense the original work and perhaps a bit [in my view] heavy-handed.


Stephen Conroy

I can’t say if the paintings I felt that were unrealistically bright and ‘perfect’, were originally that tint and tone when they were painted, perhaps so. However, I came to the conclusion that they were probably not so pristine, and also that I wouldn’t have cared if there were discoloured or faded.abd_aag_ag008092_large

It seems that if a painting is deemed to be dirty and the varnish has become discoloured over time it should be cleaned. Plus there seems to be a worry to do with the acceptability of a less than perfect image, and should it be hung in this highly respected and popular gallery/museum? – which I love visiting, I must add.I remember visiting the Vatican back in the 70’s and God some of those paintings were dark, but it didn’t stop me seeing how great the work was, it was just that the paint was a bit ‘muffed’. Even Gombrich was getting a bit worried about the National’s restoration methods back in 1950. He cited the master painter Apelles who would finish off his pictures with a thinly spread dark coating of varnish to give a subtle tone and shadow of the gentlest kind.  Gombrich wrote to the National asking:GMA%203039

 ‘How could we be sure, that no Renaissance masters had ever emulated the great painter of antiquity by applying similarly toned varnishes to their own works?’   – He received no reply.This is a worry of mine, as I consider Stephen Conroy to be one of the finest painters alive today, and a true master of glaze. I was lucky enough to meet up with the wonderful Sylvia Stevenson who did a great interview with Conroy for Apollo magazine, catching him at that great blossoming stage, and like me –absolutely loved his work. She told me of his technique, and like Apelles the wonderful glazing, building up thin layers of varnish to add gradient tone, softness and contour, creating added shadow and depth. (c) Stephen Conroy; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationI had seen the wonderful paintings that included this skill at glazing, and Sylvia knew that this was important to Conroy, and fundamental to his technique. To many of us who love his work it is the genius composition, subject and exquisite light, along with his special rendering of glaze that really breathes life into the painting that gives the work a spiritual glow. In short, I would hate to have all that striped off because it looked dark or dirty. Furthermore, I believe it would be a loss to future generations to have someone else re-colour Conroy’s paintings because they didn’t look bright enough.  Although I can’t see what all the fuss is about the Mona Lisa, it would be a shame to have that smile wiped off her face because it looked a bit shady.It may be that it is a universal common practice to restore and re-touch/colour paintings with something of a heavy-handed vigor, which is bad enough. Yet for it to happen in your own capital city and in such a respected place is saddening. It is even worse when it seems that there is a commonality of paint colour used on different paintings by different painters spread around the gallery. (c) Stephen Conroy; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThis gives rise to the awful thought that there may be a bank of paints in the store, that is used on many of the galleries works.With these great paintings, does it matter that they are a bit faded or a little dark?  I have seen some pretty dark stuff – The Vatican being the darkest, yet the art was still able to shine through the painting.