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Books: Carlo James explores the history of art conservation

A critical look at old and new conservation and preservation techniques

This extensive book contains much of professional value for conservators, curators, collectors and all those interested in the history of collecting. But it is much more and much less than its title suggests.

Divided into four sections, the first deals in depth with the physical characteristics of prints and drawings and the different ways in which they have been mounted. It covers how paper is made and what kinds of paper were available when, the tools and equipment used to make prints and drawings, and the appearance of works created by the techniques and media discussed.

The second section provides a history of the preservation of prints and drawings and an account of good practice today. Having ploughed through all this very worthwhile, but ultimately familiar and sometimes inaccurately summarised material, it was disappointing for a curator with a special interest in prints to read that what the writers of the book are really interested in is Old Master drawings. That this is the case becomes increasingly clear through the remaining two sections which present a history of conservation of Old Master drawings and an account of specific conservation techniques, with prints taking a back seat.

Written by conservators—Carlo James trained at the Uffizi and is now the renowned conservator at the Fondation Custodia in Paris—the book nevertheless looks at paper conservation critically, It brings out the inevitable tension between preserving the history of the object and presenting objects as it is believed they were intended to look when they were made. There is an engrossing section on the vicissitudes of drawings as they moved from one system of classification to another, being cut down or added to at the whim of the collector. Rubens is cited as the most celebrated culprit, retouching and finishing numerous drawings in his collection.

It also makes clear how much art-historical information can be lost through conservation: how, for example, repairing the tears on drawings which have been torn from a particular collector’s album destroys the evidence that would allow the dispersed collection to be reassembled.

It also stresses how some conservation problems are directly associated with preservation methods, making the point vividly with some wonderful quotations of traditional recipes. One of the great strengths of the book is the access it gives to the earlier literature, for example to Bonnardot’s 1857 Essai sur l’art de restaurer les estampes et les livres. Among the passages quoted from it is that for a hair-raising potion to restore scorched linen: “In a pint of vinegar boil with four ounces of fuller’s earth, two ounces of chicken droppings, one ounce of cake soap and the juice of four onions until somewhat thickened. Turn this mixture onto all the damaged areas, and if they are not actually burnt, after having let it dry on top and washing once or twice, they will seem as white and in as good condition as the rest of the linen.”

The writers do however show a remarkable confidence in the achievements of conservators today. The application of science which has made the difference. “For a long time the approach of conservators...remained essentially aesthetic. To be sure, a concern existed for the consequences over time of a conservation treatment; but lacking sufficient knowledge of chemistry, qualitative assessments were primarily the fruit of observations made from the works themselves...” It was only in the 1960s, Carlo James goes on, that “laboratory tests” were undertaken on bleaching compounds and the deacidification of paper studied in depth.

Yet when Carlo James describes his own work on a drawing after Titian he explains that a stain on it suggests that it might have been a preparatory drawing and that “the curator will want to retain these traces as a part of the history of the drawing, even if they seriously deface it.” He nevertheless records that after treatment of what proved to be a very resistant stain “it was possible to achieve a better transition and some lessening of the visual disfigurement.”

According to the reproductions showing the drawing before and treatment, the stain is seen to have changed from a positive mark, clearly identifiable for what it was, to a ghostly absence of anything, that is, a hiatus in the design. It is not altogether clear to me why such an act is anything other than qualitatively and quantitatively different from the attentions paid by Rubens to drawings in his collection.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Science ousts chicken droppings'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 85 October 1998