Re-touching; how far is too far?

Someone recently asked me: “How much is an artwork re-touched during conservation treatments?” I’m afraid there’s no simple answer to this often hotly-debated subject.

And that’s a very good thing.

The answer is, and always should be, influenced by factors such as the artwork itself (what it is, who it is by, its history and current condition etc.) and future intentions for it (museum/library/gallery display or storage, limited or full access for the public or for private enjoyment at home), as well as the desires and viewpoints of the conservator and the client.

So…it all gets a bit complicated! However, it is a positive thing that the ethics of re-touching (often referred to as ‘inpainting’ in the US), are constantly being examined and that there’s scope for a flexible and unique approach for each object. Let’s take a brief look at an example:

A fifteenth century painting was damaged by a fire that occurred during the seventeenth century. During the nineteenth century, a restorer decided to remove the darkened layers of varnish on the painting and paint in the missing areas with what he/she believed should have been there.

Several questions arise from this fictional account. Firstly, at what point is the smoke damage simply part of the objects’ history? Is it right that it should be cleaned off? After all, conservation seeks to preserve historical evidence and this is an event that occurred during the painting’s history, possibly even a fire of historical significance itself. Secondly, should the restorer’s additional paint be removed? It may be obscuring the original paint layers below and alter the meaning of a painting with inaccuracies (for example, covering nudity or altering symbolism and proportions).

There are no right or wrong answers to the scenario, but a conservator would bear in mind both the chemical damage that the dirt may be causing to the painting and the need or desire for viewers to enjoy the object as a work of art. A decision will also be taken as to whether removal of the added nineteenth century paint layers is appropriate. These days, additions or repairs are often made in a slightly lighter tone so they can be differentiated yet tone in. This can minimise disruption that untouched losses could otherwise cause.

In summary, conservators carefully weigh up the pros and cons, often in consultation with others, and reach a decision to the best of their ability as to ‘how far is too far’.

If you’d like to read more on this subject, I can recommend the following two books:

  • Grette Poulson, T. (2008) ‘Re-touching of art on paper’, Archetype Books, London, ISBN 1904982131
  • Bomford, D. (1997) ‘Pocket Guides – Conservation of Paintings’ The National Gallery Company London, ISBN 1-85709-164-7
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