Master thesis: Conservation of Contemporary Paintings: Interaction between the Living Artist and Conservator

Posted on Fri, 09/05/2008 - 09:09
Master thesis by Camilla Gray
Diploma in the Conservation of Easel Paintings
Courtauld Institute of Art
Completed in January 2000
The thesis focuses mainly on the collaboration between conservators and artists, and includes interviews with both parties. Furthermore, an artist's materials supplier has been interviewed. A number of the interviews and the thesis itself is available (under conditions) by contacting
The intention of this project was to examine the interaction between the living artist and conservator. The need for the conservation of contemporary paintings is due largely to the fragile nature of the paintings, which are often unprotected and unframed, at times being physically unstable, as well as the increase in international exhibitions and the consequent high risks involved, with handling and transport, and the elevated financial value of the works. When treating contemporary paintings the conservator has the opportunity of being able to contact the artist to discuss the work in question and broader issues of technique, identification and choice of materials and the context of the painting.
Who was interviewed
Three private conservators and two museum conservators were interviewed to discover some of the common and some more extreme problems encountered with contemporary paintings, and their experiences of discussion and collaboration with artists. As a result of the interviews with the conservators, five artists were selected for interview, whose paintings had undergone conservation treatment, to illustrate the interaction between the conservator and the artist. These artists, who were at different stages of their career, were interviewed to gain detailed information on their choice of materials, techniques, their awareness of conservation issues and their opinions concerning the conservation of their work and their willingness to participate in the treatments carried out by the aforementioned conservators. Another result of the interviews was that an artist's materials supplier was interviewed, as it became apparent that he was frequently consulted for advice on the choice and application of materials, concerning stability and longevity. Correspondence was conducted with the Conservation Centre in Liverpool, regarding the biennial John Moores exhibition of contemporary painting. The mounting of unframed works in the gallery, with two recent examples where the curators and conservators involved the artist in the treatment of their paintings was discussed, as well as the practicalities and handling issues of hanging a temporary exhibition of contemporary paintings. As a result of which Angela de la Cruz was interviewed. Questionnaires and interviews in the Tate Gallery records were referred to as secondary sources.
  • The artists interviewed were Simon Callery, Shirazeh Houshiary, Mark Francis, Edwina Leapman, Angela de la Cruz and Ian Davenport.
  • The conservators interviewed were Bill MacKinnon, Phil Young, Simon Howell (all private) and at the Tate Gallery, Tim Green and Rachel Barker.
  • The artists’ materials supplier interviewed was Alan Fitzpatrick.
Problems with contemporary paintings
Particular examples of some of the common problems with contemporary paintings were discussed, as well as the nature of damage being largely accidental rather than the effects of age. An assessment was made of the value of the artist's opinion and potential contribution to the discussion of conservation treatment and display of their work. The reliability of the artist's knowledge was evaluated as well as the inevitable change of intention of the artist with time. The inherent conflict between the preservation and the presentation of contemporary painting was recognised, as exhibiting internationally is an increasingly important factor in an artist's recognition.
The scope and range of treatments carried out by the private conservator was contrasted with those of the museum conservator. It is important to keep in mind the different contexts of the conservators, for instance the discussion amongst the museum curators and conservators and the consideration of the painting in the context of the collection, in contrast with the direct contact between the private conservator and the artist, owner or gallery. Each have different factors influencing the feasibility of treatments, often resulting in a compromise. The contribution of the artist adds another dimension to the treatment, which could provide fruitful discussion, highlight a conflict, or even reveal indifference. The role and influence of the custodian, whether private owner, public corporation, commercial or public gallery, has not been included. The issue of teaching artists the principles and techniques of painting, both at a student and professional level and whether this helps or hinders experimentation and expression arose in the interviews with Tim Green (Tate Gallery) and Alan Fitzpatrick (artist's materials supplier). When the artist is alive the conservator has the possibility of identifying and discussing future problems before they arise with the artist, therefore promoting the practice of preventive conservation. Examples were given of painters seeking advice from the conservator on materials and techniques on their own initiative. The lack of craftsmanship and a painting tradition today was considered, as well as the intention of the artist. With some contemporary paintings, the defects are inherent in the painting technique, which is not the fault of the materials, as even the best quality materials if applied in the wrong way can be disastrous. In some cases, deterioration of the work is the artist's intention. The importance of a potential dialogue between the artist and conservator was recognised both for the conservator to gain information on the methods and materials of the artist, but also for the conservator to elaborate how the materials might perform and change with age.
Although in most cases there was a positive response, from both the conservators and artists approached, the difficulty in gaining access to and collecting material became evident during the project. In many cases, for reasons of confidentiality, the conservators, the materials supplier and the artists themselves were unwilling to disclose information on specific examples of damages and faults on contemporary paintings.