The conservator speaks

Project update January 2007

Happy New Year! Here in the Salvaged gallery, 2007 sees the beginning not only of a new year but also a new phase in the project. Finally, after what feels like a very long wait, the filling stage is over!

In early December we varnished the painting. This is the first isolating varnish layer and serves two purposes. The varnish saturates the surface of the painting and the fills, making it appear richer and helping us to match the colours. It also keeps our retouching separate from the original paint.

So, now we start the visual restoration of the painting, the bit you’ve all been waiting for – retouching. Over the next few months the real transformation will take shape. Hopefully as the damage begins to disappear, the relationships between different areas of the painting will become clearer. You’ll finally begin to see the painting as Etty actually intended it.

Louise Hackett, Project Conservator, January 2007

Project update June 2007

Back in December we varnished the painting, ‘saturating’ the paint surface. This has given it the characteristic sheen that old oil paintings have, increasing the brilliance and depth of the colours. We do this to help us get an accurate colour match when we retouch the missing areas.

In early January we began the lengthy task of retouching. We started with the most obvious damage, painting over the top of the filling material. So far we have retouched around half the lost areas and the painting is looking increasingly dramatic.

We are using several painting techniques to replace the missing areas. Most of the lost paint can be reconstructed from evidence in the surrounding paintwork. But there are areas where the loss is too large or lies within abstract detail. In this case we fill the area with flat colour to match the lightest tone of the surrounding paint. This encourages your eye to ‘fill in the gaps’, but makes clear the extent of the damage when examined more closely.

So we continue with the retouching. We will move into the sky area soon which is tricky, as blues look different under different light sources. Once the major losses are retouched, it will be easier to judge how much of the abrasion damage can be repaired. We are now at the point where the question of how far we take the retouching is very important. We don’t want to obscure Etty’s original work.

We’re still hoping for the painting to be finished by the end of September, ready for the opening of the exhibition Art Treasures in Manchester,┬áso keep your fingers crossed. Only five months more to go.

Louise Hackett, Project Conservator, June 2007

Project update August 2007

I’ve been working on The Sirens and Ulysses for nearly a year and a half now, and I think we finally understand each other. After looking at it for such a long time, you do notice certain ‘problems’ with the composition, which suggest Etty had difficulty working on such a large scale. The Sirens’ legs are a good example – they don’t correspond clearly to the upper bodies.

Now we’ve entered the retouching stage, the painting is coming together quite nicely. The best bits? Bringing the faces back into focus – the right hand siren had lost some paint on her face and it’s been fantastic returning her features to her. The worst part is the sky. Blues are always tricky, and the stormy sky takes up half the painting which means there will be months and months of it.

It’s been a strange experience working in the public eye – getting used to people watching me. It’s quite spooky when you turn round and realise there are lots of people quietly standing behind you! But there have been many positive comments as well as challenging questions from visitors.

On the whole, it’s been great – I spend most of my day matching colours and having fun. Let’s face it, there are very few careers that involve nine months of colouring in.

Louise Hackett, Project Conservator, August 2007

Project update June 2008

The final restoration phase has taken longer than initially anticipated, as our team of painting conservators has gone from three down to one. However, finally we are delighted to say that the painting is now complete.

The lengthy task of retouching the painting ended in April of this year. Conservation grade retouching pigments were used to infill the areas of loss and damage across the painting. Where possible, imitative techniques were used to disguise the damage. On extensively damaged areas we chose to use neutral colours, as we have no early documentary evidence of how the painting originally looked. This technique allows your eye to fill in the gaps in the missing detail, but when viewed closely you will be able to see the extent of the damage.

The hardest part of retouching The Sirens and Ulysses has been deciding when to put the tiny paintbrush down. The sense of perspective is key to the composition of the painting, and this was severely affected by the damaged paint layer. I have taken full advantage of the public opinion in the gallery, asking numerous questions of the visitors about the look of the painting. Objective views from onlookers are, in my experience, an invaluable resource!

After retouching, a final varnish was required in order to seal and unify the surface of the painting. The varnish was applied with a spray gun, to achieve an even and flawless finish. Because spray varnishing creates fumes, we constructed a large tent from fire resistant polythene around the painting to contain the excess spray. The spray gun is powered by compressed air, which blasts liquid varnish on to the surface of the painting. For health and safety purposes, powerful extraction was used to clear away the fumes and full protective clothing and breathing apparatus was worn. The whole painting was sprayed in sections and received three coats of varnish in total. The addition of a synthetic wax to the varnish gives a soft sheen to the painting to reduce glare.

The final task in this project was to re-frame the painting. The original frame has been lovingly restored in our conservation studios over the past two years. The frame was dismantled into lengths and transported to the gallery in May 2008. The frame was reconstructed in the Salvaged gallery and the painting was secured and fitted. When the picture was hung on the wall we all breathed a collective sigh of relief! It seems strange to have finished this challenging restoration – and we are all very proud of the final result.

You can now view the painting up close in the gallery. Please let us know what you think of the painting now that it is complete.

We would like to say a very big ‘thank you’ to all of the followers and contributors to the Salvaged project. It has been a once in a lifetime project for all involved.

Verity Rowe, Paintings Conservator, June 2008

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