Monday 7 July 2014

Art Surgeons

In the documentary The Art Surgeon, former Auckland Art Gallery conservator Leslie Lloyd takes us through the process of treating a painting. He looks very much the mad scientist in his white lab coat, with syringe and bottles of coloured chemicals. The patient – the painting – is fully sedated. It has been cut from the stretcher, canvas removed thread by thread, impregnated with wax-resin and lined onto a new support. Next is the cleaning, where everything will be revealed. The point that Lloyd is trying to make – in a rather theatrical fashion – is that his work was more than just fixing stuff. It requires expert knowledge and is highly skilled.

The Auckland City Art Gallery was the first art gallery or museum in the New Zealand to have a conservator and Lloyd was employed by Director, Peter Tomory, as ‘Restorer’ in 1956. The term conservator is more commonly used today, as the work involves both preservation and restoration. Internationally people have been restoring paintings since the 17th century, but the development of a theoretical and scientific basis for conservation is a modern concept, and relatively recent in Lloyd’s time. Before the late 19th century, permanent alterations as well as completions 'in style', were not clearly distinguished from conservation.

We are told in the documentary that Lloyd used both his training at the Victoria & Albert Museum and his experience as a surgeon’s assistant in the Second World War in his role at the gallery. Certainly his treatments appear fairly drastic to conservators today. Cutting and removing supporting layers is at odds with contemporary practice, where every effort is made to retain original material and keep treatments reversible. These days, conservation training is specialised and at tertiary level, and conservators abide by a code of ethics set by professional organisations.

Conservation at the Gallery is still going strong, nearly 60 years later. Now there are five conservation positions (paintings, works on paper and objects) and a part-time conservation assistant. We still use an operating microscope purchased by Lloyd in 1968, seen here in use by Kate Woodgate Jones in 1978. From the very beginning, Lloyd steered conservation in a commercial direction taking on work from external clients, which is virtually unheard of in museum circles internationally. The legacy has been an ongoing challenge as we try and balance income generation with work on the collection. Changing artistic priorities and a realisation that decisions cannot be made in isolation, have had a huge effect on the approach taken by conservators, as well as an expectation that conservators can contribute to original knowledge about the works of art.

In June this year, Conservation Services at the Auckland Art Gallery was renamed the Conservation Research Centre, in recognition of the amount of original research undertaken by the department. Conservation research informs the care and treatment of the artworks, so includes information about materials and techniques, history and approaches. It can be in the form of a general investigation into technique, which is behind the conservation exhibition Modern Paints Aotearoa; or it can be historical and technical research required to carry out a treatment, such as The Mocking of Christ by 17th-century engraver, François Langot; and finally it can be the type of research necessary to prevent damage through preventive conservation, such as the Mayo internship project into the time-based media collections. The conservators will continue to provide services to the public and other museums for the time being, but the change in name indicates how much more important research and treatment on the collection is for the future.

A newspaper clipping from 2001 shows a google-eyed conservator (me) looking out over painting. Things haven’t changed that much since the Art Surgeon, and we are still hiding behind our props, but with any luck the new name, Conservation Research Centre, will stick!

– Principal Conservator, Sarah Hillary

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