The Restoration of Rosa Bonheur’s ‘The Horse Fair’ | National Gallery
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The Restoration of Rosa Bonheur’s ‘The Horse Fair’ | National Gallery

August 15, 2019

Hello, my name is Hayley Tomlinson
and I’m the conservator responsible for treating Rosa Bonheur’s painting,
The Horse Fair, in the Conservation Department
at the National Gallery. The painting is actually
in a very good condition and the treatment is therefore
quite simple, quite straightforward. What I’m doing is removing
the discoloured and aged varnish layers which mask the original
condition of the painting as you can see here. The varnish that was applied
is a synthetic varnish which, we believe,
was probably put on in the 1950s and also incorporates
a great deal of wax. The difference here, as you can see in the sky,
is that the varnish has gone very yellow and dark,
so in these areas which have been cleaned, the sky now appears
much bluer and lighter. Lower down the painting,
in the foreground and around the horses, it’s really about the tones. You can see here that the tones
are greatly reduced or compressed, and that much of the illusion
of depth and recession is lost. So this is, you know, we really get to see the painting afresh
by removing these discoloured varnish layers. So all these things are going to come out
as I continue cleaning the painting. And the other great gain
with this treatment, which we hadn’t expected
but which is very pleasing, is to rediscover
the texture of this painting. The artist, Rosa Bonheur, clearly really
loved to experiment with her brushwork so, in the sky, you can see the brushwork
here is very bold and vigorous, and then, in the horses,
these fantastic horse coats are very fine and down below,
where she’s wanted to show the ground as being very dry and dusty, the paintwork is really broad and rough. So all of these is clearly a very important characteristic
of her technique. All of which we couldn’t appreciate before but which is now being uncovered. To remove the varnish, in this case, I’m using a mixture of two solvents which I’ve combined in a particular ratio which allow me to work through the varnish
in a steady and controlled fashion, not too fast or too slow. And I make up the mixture in a small quantity which I place
in a stoppered jar on my trolley and, when I’m ready, I roll a swab. So it’s very soft cotton wool and a sort of flexible swab stick. And I dip the swab in my solvent and then I work, rotating
the cotton wool swab gently over the surface of the varnish. And you can see,
I’m rotating it so that I’m using all of the surface
of the cotton wool. Removing this varnish. And I should say, as well, that the solvent
has a very important lubricating action, as well as solubilising the material, it does also kind of cushion the swab. As a conservator,
one has to be constantly mindful not to cause
any sort of mechanical abrasion and this sort of helps with that. And then,
when the swab is completely spent, so all the solvent is more or less gone, and there’s lots
of brown material on that, I then remove it by disposing of it in my swab pot. In this instance,
with this particular painting, I probably need about four or five swabs
to get down to the surface, and there are various tools that I can use
so I know exactly where I am. One of the most useful tools is UV light. This is a small but very powerful UV torch and because the varnish fluoresces but the paint, in this case anyway,
doesn’t fluoresce at all, I can see exactly where I am
and how much varnish is left. I always have
very good magnification and lighting, and even feel is a very useful aid. I can feel the difference very easily
between varnish and paint, and these very flexible thin swab sticks help us to know exactly
what’s going on at the surface. Having said that,
I only use four or five swabs, at about the third swab, I go through
a brief phase of whiteness, broken up residues
that just haven’t fully solubilised yet, and I need one more swab
to get through that and then, that’s off. And then, when I’m right down
at the surface, the very last swabs,
I use a completely different action. Rather than moving the swab around
like this, I roll it more like this, so there’s absolutely no abrasion
or rubbing of the surface at all. Because I’m using
a very loose wet swab, it allows it to reach
inside the depressions in the brushwork and pulls them out. I should say, it doesn’t matter if
there are a few tiny wisps of residues left. Obviously, broadly speaking, I do want
the clean to be as even as possible so that it’s going to last longer and the painting
will stay looking good for longer, but if there are a few tiny traces here
and there, little bits of residue, that’s OK, that won’t matter.

Only registered users can comment.

  1. Thank you!! This is really helpful for an art conservation student, and for people to understand how important this process is for any painting.
    I'm looking forward for more interesting videos!

  2. I saw this painting in the National Gallery recently and it looks wonderful. The colours, light and textures are amazing, she was a great artist. Thank you for all your hard work to bring the picture back to life.

  3. That was a really interesting, informative presentation.Thank you, and keep up the very worthwhile work.

  4. Astonishing! I always admired the work,of conservators and restaurs, it's great that you help us all tomunderstand works of art better. Thank you!

  5. Very interesting! I'm not sure if I missed this, but I'm curious how long it takes to complete from start to finish.

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