As a Paintings Fellow, it was such an enriching experience to carry out a full conservation treatment on A Winter Landscape (brotherly love). My impetus for applying to work at SRAL was to learn new conservation methods, specifically the methods that had been developed at the studio, such as solvent tissue gel composite cleaning, mist-lining and BEVA fillings. This project has provided an opportunity to apply the theory of these techniques into practice, and it was hugely beneficial for my personal growth as a conservator.
A Winter Landscape (brotherly love) is attributed to Jan Wildens (1586-1653). The privately owned painting is oil paint on canvas, and measures 99.6 x 148.9 x 2.5cm. It depicts a quintessential 17th century Northern European landscape of figures skating, a snowball fight, and a view of Antwerp in the background.
Condition and conservation issues
When the painting arrived at SRAL, it was in an extremely poor condition. The glue-paste lining, which presumably dates from the first half of the 20th century or even earlier, was failing. The varnish had oxidised causing it to discolour and become yellowed.This led to a stark shift in colour temperature from an initial cool blue to a warm greenish yellow across the entire surface. The sense of an ice-cold winter’s day intended by the artist was therefore compromised. The surface was covered with extensive overpaint which had visibly discoloured.
Given its age and physical history, the paint layer was in a reasonable condition. It exhibited an aged craquelure and horizontal wrinkling of the paint layer. The painting was very dusty and thick with surface dirt.
Solvent tissue gel composite cleaning
After carrying out surface cleaning on the front and back of the painting, I removed the discoloured varnish in two campaigns. The initial varnish removal was with a solvent tissue gel composite cleaning which is an impregnated tissue with cellulose ether gelled organic solvent. This method was selected to achieve an even clean and reduce the risk of potential residues. The second campaign was to remove the tenacious varnish residues and oil-based overpaint which were solubilised using a combination of gels directly applied to the paint surface.
A Winter Landscape (brotherly love) had been lined in the past, a technique that attaches a second supporting canvas to the original canvas, to stabilise the structural issues. Overtime, the old lining canvas became degraded and acidic causing it to become very brittle. Removing the lining canvas was challenging but essential, in order to apply a new lining canvas. Low-pressure was applied to the lining canvas and a hydrogel was used to soften the canvas and swell the glue-paste. In the end, the non-original canvas was removed and the next step was preparing for mist-lining.
Materials and techniques are always evolving, often this is due to local environmental issues that can cause a wide range of structural problems. The 'Mist-Lining' process that was developed at SRAL, provides many advantages such as reducing the amount of adhesive used; inhibiting the penetration of the lining adhesive into original materials; eliminating heat and moisture from the lining process; using minimal pressure during lining; reducing the exposure of the conservator to harmful solvents and facilitating the removal of the lining canvas in the future.
A linen canvas was selected as the lining canvas due to its light weight and open weave. The lining canvas was then sprayed with the acrylic dispersion adhesive due to its strength and reversibility. Spraying the adhesive produces an open network instead of a closed film that can be regenerated using solvents.The painting and lining canvas were positioned face down on the low-pressure table. The solvent cloth was injected with alcohol which was rolled across the top of the lining canvas to emit the solvent vapours to reactivate the adhesive.The envelope was closed, and the low-pressure table was turned on. The air was extracted from the envelope and the two canvases were bonded together using the pressure from the table. A Winter Landscape (brotherly love) was successfully mist-lined and was ready for the next steps of aesthetic treatments.
After treating the stretcher and re-stretching the painting, aesthetic treatments were carried out. An isolating varnish layer was applied, and the losses were filled in the paint layer. Canvas inserts on the edges of the canvas were required. BEVA fillings were heat-set onto linen canvas inserts before attaching them to the edges of the painting. The same acrylic dispersion adhesive was chosen to create consistency with the mist-lining adhesive. The losses, insoluble overpaint and abraded areas were retouched to form a legible composition and a final varnish was applied. The painting was framed and preventive measures, such as padded insert backboards and a protective backing were installed to prevent against environmental fluctuations.
Summary and special detail
The painting has undergone a full structural, aesthetic, and preventive conservation treatment. The results are transformative in terms of the stability of the painting, and the legibility of the composition. This project was particularly interesting to work on as I learnt so many new practical skills.
Another aspect that contributed to my experience was the shared fascination of a detail in the painting that the owner loves to emphasise. In the bottom right corner, there is a black person in a red coat shaking hands with a possible friend or business partner, who symbolically gestures to the cross on the church tower. This composition has piqued the interest of SRAL colleagues and the owner, who suggested the addition to the title, 'brotherly love'. As conservators, we treat the material aspect of an object and often we do not have the resources to delve into the art historical context. What exactly is the story behind this scene; what was the artist’s intention; and who is depicted in this scene? This is something that would need further research. Hopefully, these questions can be answered in the future.
During varnish removal
Solvent tissue gel removal
During removing the old lining canvas
De-linting the lining canvas
Spraying the acrylic adhesive on the lining canvas
After mist-lining and re-stretching
Detail of two figures