NEW YORK – In the following conversation, Simon Parkes and Sotheby's Mark Buck discuss current practices in Fine Art conservation and cleaning the Collection of Mrs. Margaret Thompson Biddle.


Mark Buck: Almost every season, the 19th Century department at Sotheby’s has been lucky to make an exciting discovery – whether it’s a Grecian beauty by Godward that was thought to have been destroyed or a major Firmin-Girard canvas known only through an etching – and we often rely on you and your conservation team to bring these paintings closer to the state that they were in when they originally left the artist’s studio. This season, we are fortunate to be presenting an extraordinary group of paintings from the collection of Mrs Margaret Thomson Biddle, which had been stored in a vault since her death in 1956. What struck you about the overall condition of the Biddle paintings when we brought them to your studio?  
Simon Parkes: The Biddle pictures bore all the signs of a collection that hadn't been touched either by a restorer, or a maid for many years. During those years, cigars, pipes, cigarettes and fire places left a significant layer of dirt, familiar to older restorers like me as dirt from the early and middle of the 20th century, but hardly seen in recent years. My father, like so many of his generation, smoked pipes and cigars, and I cleaned the same picture twice in five years! Nobody smokes today and varnishes are non-yellowing. The Biddle pictures were old school, and that is rare.  

MB: Mrs Biddle had a collection of Impressionist paintings too, which were sold in the late 1950s as these were put into storage. As a consequence, these works were left to age, and also escaped any early attempts at conservation, which were sometimes heavy-handed and irreversible. How have processes and methodologies in your field changed?  
SP: Conservation materials have certainly evolved. Detergents, chemicals and other solvents have changed and improved dramatically over the years. I think it's fair to say that damage caused by restorers has been greatly reduced by the restoration community having access to better materials and information. But it's certainly fair to say that over the centuries, by far the most damage to paintings has been made by people trying to clean, line or retouch paintings, but lacking the knowledge to do so properly. Materials alone don’t ensure safe and good restoration. Thoughtful work, experience and many hours looking at works in public collections, particularly in Europe, are invaluable. 


MB: When we, or any other client, bring you an undocumented painting, how do you determine what elements are the artist’s intention, versus what may have been added later or are simply a product of dirt and age?  
SP: A well-trained painter, like Béraud for instance, working before the Second World War, is educated well in the craft of painting, and at that time was encouraged to use only the best available materials. Almost all the artists known from the 14th century to the early 20th century played by the rules. The structure was in place and even though the style, subject and period might change, the values don't.

So, light and shade, and space and form all come from colour. After a while you learn to identify dirt layers partly by looking closely at a work, but more importantly by seeing if the values actually work, and whether the artist is well represented by what you see – old retouches can be clumsy, discoloured or misleading and a trained eye can normally identify them easily. Knowing that a work is dirty, however, does not mean that it can or should be cleaned. That is another matter! But experience, and decades of looking at art, is the best education.


MB: Surely your own experience as a painter also strengthens your intuition on the matter. Among the paintings by Jean Béraud in the Biddle collection, some were painted on canvas while others were painted on wood panels. From your perspective, are there any advantages or benefits from one support to the other?  
SP: The Dutch in the 17th century loved oak panels, since their attention to detail is best represented when painted on a smooth surface. The early Italians used locally available wood, which is liable to be unstable. The French in the 18th century favoured canvas. Orientalists in Vienna in the 19th century used mahogany panels. Freud and Bacon used canvas. Corot painted many works in oil on paper, as did Albert Bierstadt. In the 20th century, war and the Depression made it necessary and easier to paint on cheaper materials; ply wood, Masonite, cheap canvas and stretchers – these were the new norm.  

So, while there is no exact rhyme or reason, artists from various schools have favourite supports for their work. Being able to afford good canvas, stretchers, panels, etc. is noticeable pre-20th century, and Béraud obviously had the means to access fine materials. More recently, these important but costly matters have taken a back seat and works are suffering as a result. 


MB: Certainly, artists’ materials now encompass a limitless range of supports, far broader than panel and canvas. Have the perspectives and practices of conservators changed as much over the same period of time?  
SP: Conservation has until recently largely been driven by the needs of the dealer, the buyer, the seller or the curator. Today some restorers at least, who have taken the time to look at public collections and who have been lucky and privileged enough to be heard and respected, can change the way people look at a picture, and for the better.  

A Picasso painted 75 years ago and never touched, might have been cleaned and varnished 20 years ago. Now an untouched and not cleaned or varnished Picasso is a treasure and something to be respected.    

An original patina, or an old yellowed but beautiful varnish might be better left alone. An old lining although not as active as it perhaps was, is maybe preferable to a new harder lining. Less is very often more.   


MB: Going back to your practice in conservation, what are some of your considerations in how far you take treatment? When should a heavy-handed restoration be undone versus left alone?  
SP: The more a restorer looks at great public collections, in the U.S. and in Europe, the more they learn. The worlds of museums versus the art trade couldn't be more different on the one hand, but on the other, they do have a lot of common ground. Works of art are the common denominator and are too important to treat lightly, no matter what pressures, both financial and ethical, may be brought to bear.  

The constraints of the art world can be used as an excuse to choose the low road and make some money quick and easy, and often are, but a good restorers' role is ideally to do what is right. If there are objections, then a discussion and explanation should ensue. The art world will come and go, but works of art will live forever, if treated right. That is a real responsibility, and one that should be taken seriously.    

19th Century European Art

18 May 2016 | New York