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Edinburgh and London host major Liotard shows despite ‘no fly rule’ for pastels

Many works by 18th-century portraitist deemed too fragile to travel from US

Two major UK exhibitions of the 18th-century portraitist Jean-Étienne Liotard this year will boast around 40 fragile pastel works from seven European public collections and other lenders despite a “no fly rule” that effectively barred loans from the US.

Twenty years of conservation research have seen protocols drawn up for transporting the works in air ride suspension trucks “despite this reaction on the part of both public and private owners that you can’t move pastel”, says the curator MaryAnne Stevens.

Liotard, who flamboyantly styled himself as Le Peintre Turc after four years working in Istanbul, was one of the most popular portraitists of the 18th century, with subjects from an Ottoman grand vizier to Louis XV of France and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Pastel was the genre, he wrote in his autobiography, to which he was “most devoted”.

Liotard has largely dropped out of the popular eye. Stevens, celebrated for staging 70 exhibitions at London’s Royal Academy (RA) in her long career, says the goal is to reintroduce an artist “who was very distinguished in the 18th century and had an international career but has been seemingly forgotten to a wide audience”.

The Liotard exhibitions run to 13th September in Edinburgh, with 53 works, moving on in an expanded version, with 77 works, to the Royal Academy in London from 24 October to 31 January 2016. 

Early pastel works in particular have long been considered vulnerable to losing their pigment if moved or jostled—though early on artists recognised that putting pastel under glass was one method of protecting them. “If you do it wrong, pastel is a very friable medium, and if it’s not been put on to a well-prepared ground, there’s a danger that the pastel chalk will fall off,” Stevens says.

It is known that Liotard used a fixative, but early formulas were jealously guarded. By the 19th century pastels were oilier, adhering better, and with fixatives widely used. But the 18th century forms had higher pigment content bound together with anything from gum arabic, to olive oil, honey, milk or even oatmeal gruel.  

Research built up in the past 20 years, however, through major exhibitions on artists like Odilon Redon, Degas, and Manet, lead to an extensive protocol covering shipments and conservation.

“There have been large pastel exhibitions in the past, but what we have been able to achieve is to gain a very substantial number of loans, just under 40 pastels which is a fairly remarkable feat,” Stevens says. The RA’s Degas and the Ballet show included only 17 pastels— though Degas is known to have used layers of fixative as he built up his works.

Liotard loans are being brought in from Berlin, Vienna and Turin. But the no-fly rule— drawn up partly with experts at the Art Institute of Chicago— excluded two desirable Liotard works from the Getty Museum, which is building up a significant pastel collection. While Qatar offered two works from its Orientalist collection, those were excluded on grounds of cost.

Harriet Stratis, a senior research conservator at Chicago, said the no-fly rule was due more to the risks of loading and unloading than turbulence or landing jolts, she says.

“To take these works and subject them to cargo areas, getting them on the plane, getting them off the planes, it’s what happens on the ground in those airport situations that’s pretty frightening.”

The fragility of pastels was compounded when the paper was mounted on canvas as a technique to make them look closer to paintings, she adds.

Stevens says:  “The point is you can move it but you have to be very conscious of the condition of the work you are proposing to move. I said all along throughout the negotiations for these loans, if there is the slightest thought that a pastel is fragile you just leave it, you don’t even touch it.”