Fine Art Restoration and Conservation: In Conversation with Simon Gillespie
Simon Gillespie Conservation and Art Restoration Studio is situated in New Bond Street in the heart of London's art district. Simon has been conserving and restoring paintings for over thirty years and his studio has vast experience in saving paintings and sculpture of every age, shape and form, in various states of damage and returning them to clients in a good, repaired condition.
His clients include leading auction houses, galleries and a large private client base. Simon Gillespie carries out a variety of work, from the simplest of condition reports, to in-depth analysis, investigations and restoration. They offer advice on all aspects of collecting, including; acquisitions, lighting and hanging and storage and shipping. All their work is documented with high quality before, during and after digital images and all their clients receive in-depth reports of condition and treatment.
As a studio, they work with a diverse range of mediums and are constantly researching and training to stay up to date, and at the forefront of developing new techniques in restoration and conservation. All materials which are used during the restoration process are easily reversible, with the products used during the process being of an internationally recognized standard, with the main aim being to adhere to the Artists’ original intention whilst retaining the patina of age.
AN INTERVIEW WITH SIMON GILLESPIE
E.L. How did you decide on becoming a restorer / conserver? Where did you start?
S.G. I was living in Mexico at the time, and a friend had a picture which needed restoring so we took it down to the local restorer who didn’t seem to be treating in anything approaching a good manner, or I didn’t think so, and I thought this looks absolutely amazing, he was holding a cultural object in his hands. So, I came back to England and I took two apprenticeships, I was 22 at the time.
E.L. Two apprenticeships, did you have a mentor who worked with you, or anything like that, and do you mentor on occasion?
S.G. I worked with a couple of mentors in the studios, and they taught me various techniques. I really don’t have the time to teach people here on apprenticeships, I used to take on an apprentice every year, but it requires quite a lot of time and tutoring and I think that conservation students get a better teaching at university where they get to learn about every aspect of restoration and conservation. An apprentice only has the opportunity to realistically learn about half a dozen things while they are here, you don’t really get the wide degree of international knowledge over a short period of time, as you would at university.
E.L. So interning at a restoration studio, isn’t necessarily a great route into the business?
S.G. You just get a much broader education at university.
E.L. Do you remember the very first good piece which you restored, and were you a little bit worried about working on it?
S.G. Yes, definitely, I was very worried. It was a Pre-Raphaelite painting that had been found by Anita Roderick, founder of the Body Shop. They moved house and found a wonderful Pre-Raphaelite painting in their attic, I was very worried about working on that piece, as it had tiny little pin pricks of paint loss all over it which had to be gently filled in, and I’d only been working on pictures for six months. It was a whole new experience, in at the deep end.
E.L. How do you go about restoring a painting, explain that process if you wouldn’t mind?
S.G. Restoring and conserving are the two activities I perform. Conserving is the first and easier thing to do, and that involves making sure an artwork doesn’t fall apart any further that it already has. We try to keep a piece in the best state that it possibly can be. This includes making sure that the environment in which the artwork is kept does not damage it; for example, resolving issues to do with UV in sunlight. Restoring is actually going back to what it was, to how it used to look. We try to get as close as we can to how it was when it was first conceived, and during that process we will also be repairing damages as well as cleaning and taking off over-painting, dirt and old vanish.
E.L. That’s interesting, there are two different facets, which you mentioned there, and one could presume that they are both one and the same, but they’re not. Is there a particular time frame involved with restoration on each work, or does that depend on each piece?
S.G. It really depends on what the problems are. I’ve had things I know have been on my list for the last four or five years, but then one thing came in yesterday and its going out tomorrow.
E.L. So each restoration project is different and based on the amount of work needed, not a standardized process at all?
S.G. Yes, that’s correct.
E.L. What type of paintings pass through your studio?
S.G. We work on some of the finest paintings in need of conservation or restoration in the world, so we really do have some of the best pieces coming through our studio at the moment.
E.L. The client page on your website is impressive.
S.G. Yes, we do work for some absolutely amazing people right across the field.
E.L. What time period do you specialize in?
S.G. It’s totally across the board, anything with paint on it essentially, but I really love working on early English portraiture from the Tudor period, Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.
E.L. Why’s that?
S.G. Basically because fewer people were painted back then, fewer portraits were commissioned. The early portraits are normally of really interesting people, mainly because of their status in society, and wealth. You get great insight into what the sitters were doing at the time, whether it’s Drake or Queen Elizabeth, and of course, there is a historical journey with each painting, a facet to restoration which is sometimes really thrilling; we do like to research the painter and the sitter, especially for important works.
E.L. Is that part of the service?
S.G. It is part of the service, but not all the time. Some clients have a full background knowledge of a work which they bring to us, and some have no idea at all, and where we can, we enjoy educating the client on any historical information which we can proffer.
E.L. Have you ever surprised a client with more information over and above what they think they knew?
S.G. All the time, yes.
E.L. Go on then.
S.G. Well, as an example, yesterday I was up in Yorkshire and we found a Titian. Titian is regarded as one of the top ten artists in the world, and this Titian was just lurking in their drawing room. Now we’ll present this work to the experts, who will, and I’m totally confident here, attribute the work to Titian.
E.L. So let me get this right, you found a Titian yesterday?
S.G. Yes, I did.
E.L. Just another day in the office then, really.
E.L. I’d like to move onto some slightly more technical questions. How do you go about removing old varnish, old over-paint, dirt; if a painting is exhibiting cracks, cupping, cracquelure; what kind of methods and materials do you use; how do you approach those scenarios and how does the process unfold?
S.G. What we do falls into two normal procedures. The first process involves removing the build up of dirt, household dirt that has landed on the surface of the picture, sometimes over the course of centuries. Then the more complicated process kicks in, that being the removal of old varnish which might be discolored, oxidized, opaque, dull, and can completely hide the original colours of the painting.
And during that process, if we are really lucky, the old over-painting will come off as well, if there is over paint there. Sometimes you find that there are numerous layers of over-paint, going back every generation.
We then replace a protective coating on the surface, if it has previously had such a coating on it, such as a varnish. But we leave unvarnished paintings with no added varnish as this would change their nature.
E.L. Do you think that some of the over-painting you come across could be down to fashions changing over the course of time?
S.G. Very good point, absolutely it is. Fashions change, in addition to a sitter sometimes wishing to update a portrait. For example, a sitter may have been awarded a medal at 21 years old and if at 50 years old they were made a knight, they may have wanted to update and include all the ribbons, and an updating of a costume. That sometimes happened instead of the sitter commissioning a new portrait.
E.L. How do you decide what to do with a painting when that form over painting is present? It must be a conundrum?
S.G. It is. Decades and centuries old over painting is part of the historic nature of the picture. We can work out what is actually the original paint, and when adjustments to a painting were most likely exercised by the owners, generally that would happen at the sitters command. For example, a knight would have a garter around his neck, and we would most certainly want to leave it there, as it is historical information.
E.L. If you are restoring a painting, and not wanting to remove certain over-painting, how does one deal with those issues versus the chemical process of cleaning?
S.G. That’s when we have to balance the solvents. It’s actually much more complicated than a superficial cleaning of dirt. We have the most extraordinary systems in place which are evolving at the moment and which are proving to be an alternative to using solvents that flood and penetrate the paint film.
E.L. What solvents would you normally use?
S.G. The solvents which we’d normally use for cleaning are acetones, things like nail varnish remover and alcohol, in various proportions, with additional chemicals used in order to slow the chemical penetration down a little bit. You have to be so very careful, some of these chemicals can be very destructive, but they are necessary in order to loosen up some of the over-paint. It’s a very slow, and very delicate application process that cannot be rushed.
The system which we are using at the moment and which is an entirely new development in the world of restoration, involves taking solvents and putting them into a gel, which slows penetration of paint down tremendously. In short, using a gel format holds the solvent on the surface of the paint or varnish. With this method, you only use two or three percent of the quantity of solvent which you would normally have used with the older method. It’s held in that gel and doesn’t evaporate, it’s very controllable, and works very slowly on the surface of whatever it is you might be working on. This new method is an extraordinary development, not only for the cleaning paintings, but for the cleaning all sorts of things including cosmetics, cleaning products, right up to really specialized things like cleaning space craft.
E.L. With new restoration and conservation techniques constantly evolving, would it be fair to suggest that your craft is not made necessarily easier or quicker, but definitely safer?
S.G. Exactly, it’s making it safer. New techniques do not always make a process quicker. On the contrary, they can make the process quite slow. But the priority is preservation and that’s the key to some of these new techniques, especially with the use of gels. We always try to educate the owners of works on our processes, and we also share expertise and knowledge with fellow conservators, especially when revolutionary new techniques become available.
E.L. What about the lining of paintings, what kind of linings do you use, wax linings, glue between lining canvases, do you face linings up or down, and, do you use spray or brush varnish?
S.G. I try and not to line any painting. Even if we have a picture with a hole in it, we will try and repair the hole and support the hole without any lining on the back.
Linings always tend to make a slight difference to the appearance of a picture, no matter how gentle it is. We do have one or two systems of lining which are incredibly good, and, on certain paintings - mostly contemporary paintings - you wouldn’t know that they’d been touched or lined, and I’m very proud that we can actually do that. In terms of the linings we use, when we have to, they are instantly reversible, simply with the application of a little bit of heat. We use a glue called beva, which is a heat setting glue, and that’s a very sensitive and sympathetic way of lining paintings.
We also use other forms of linings, which depends on how a picture has been treated in the past. My theory is, if a picture has been overly flattened with an old fashioned sort of paste lining, then it doesn’t really matter if it goes through that again, because it’s not going to change anymore than it has done already.
E.L. And varnishes?
S.G. We use spray and brush, initially we use brush, and then to finish off, we use spray.
E.L. Is that the very last point of the paintings restoration, the completion of the process, and if so, does that last detail make all the difference?
S.G. Varnish certainly can make a difference, but it doesn’t really rock the boat that much, however, it certainly rocks the boat if you don’t apply varnish. Having said that, we do on occasion come across some paintings which have never been varnished in their lifetimes, that’s rare though and they tend to be the more modern pictures, the 20th century paintings and of course contemporary ones.
There is, with some, a sort of a fear of victorianisation of modern 20th century paintings by applying varnish. In fact, we’ve had some modern paintings by artists who have applied labels to the back of their paintings saying “never varnish this painting.” Times do change, and varnishes these days can be very good. You would never know in some cases that there is varnish present. Varnish, in my opinion, is good, because it does actually protect the surface of a picture, especially if it’s a very porous surface.
E.L. What pigments do you use, water-based pigments, or oil-based pigments?
S.G. We don’t use oil. We use dry pigments, with different mediums. Normally it would be a synthetic medium that we would use, which is very easily dissolved. We use synthetic mediums on the basis that all the materials that we use should always be reversible. We mix in pigment on a pallet, and on it goes with a tiny little brush. Occasionally we use water colour, especially when we are blocking in large areas of loss, we also use gouache because it has a little bit of body to it, and you can recreate brush strokes better.
E.L. So when you’ve cleaned a painting, can you tell the difference between pigments from the 18th and 19th centuries?
S.G. Yes, some pigments definitely, and you can actually physically date them, once you have assessed precisely what those pigments are. Certainly in the 19th century there is a very good timeline of when certain pigments were invented. You know, an artist like Constable for instance, we know exactly when he was using different pigments, and we know when those pigments were invented.
E.L. So you can almost trace and date any restoration work or conservation work, which has happened to a painting over the course of time as well?
S.G. You can certainly analyze pigments, which shows if somebody at some point has used modern pigments on a painting that were not even invented at the time when a particular painting was created. You know then that it’s a fake or, its not supposed to be there, or the piece has had some over painting in the course of its lifetime.
E.L. What century do you think produced the best colours in pigment terms?
S.G. I’m not really sure of the answer to that question. Pigments go back thousands of years, sometimes the oldest and more common pigments are still being used today. Some of the more exciting colours and pigments have been produced very recently though. Obviously you wouldn’t want to see the more recent pigments on a very old painting, that would be immediately noticeable. For instance, cadmium would look really peculiar on a 17th century painting. No matter how much you try to hide it, it will still be there, and your eye would be drawn to it.
E.L. What happens to new pigments, if you hit them with acetone, toluene or xylene, the Knoedler canvases for example, what would happen with the paint on those canvases, if hit with acetone?
S.G. The paint would most certainly swell up and you’ll have a major problem. Acetone would literally change the shape of the paint. It’s not necessarily the pigments, it’s the medium which they are held in which would change shape.
E.L. Why doesn’t acetone remove some old pigment as opposed to what it can do to young pigment?
S.G. Old pigmented oil paint generally has had time to crosslink and set, meaning that particles in the chemical structure have actually joined up, and therefore they are solid. There are some pigments, some materials, like lead white for instance, which is like concrete.
When we have a lead white collar in a portrait, it might be next to something like a carbon black area. The carbon black is going to be very sensitive to something like acetone, so you couldn’t clean the whole painting with acetone. Carbon black is literally the stuff that comes out of a chimney. It can consist of all sorts of materials, bits of ivory, burnt bones, etc. It is literally the stuff that was on the top of the cooker that was scraped down and purified a little bit.
S.G. It’s like the colour umber, you know, burnt umber, raw umber, that is basically earth.
E.L. So what other unusual pigments?
S.G. There’s one called ‘mummy’. Back in the 18th century, Europeans on their grand tours round the world explored Egypt, and they decided to bring back some of the mummies they found.
Travellers brought them back as curiosities more than anything, and after a while, got bored with them. The mummies ended up in chemists’ shops who took them apart in order to find out why they were so well preserved, and what they found were all sorts of chemicals. Chemists of the day started giving spoon fulls of mummy to clients assuming that the substance would elongate their lives. What actually happened was that people started dying from it. Not a particularly good idea. Chemists ended up with jars full of ground up and powdered mummies. The next thing they thought of was to sell the powder to artists.
There’s also another unusual 18th century colour known as Indian Yellow, which was made from Urine, captured from cows, which were fed on mangos.
E.L. Charming. Not really the kind of information I was looking for, but thank you for that.
I’d like to move onto the subject of reproductions and fakes. Would you recognize with relative ease, a fake or a reproduction painting?
S.G. I can normally spot a fake as soon as it walks through the door, but not all the time. The really good fakes can be so good, that there is a need to delve deeper.
E.L. If you were unsure about a painting's authenticity, what process would you go through to determine whether a painting is a reproduction?
S.G. Always get a second opinion. I’m thrilled to be working with a fantastic team here because we always ask each other what we think of whatever it is we are working on at the time. We also do rigorous scientific analysis which includes the dating of pigments of all ages, dating the materials which are used on a painting, we scan a work under strong microscopes to see how things are put together, we use infra-red, ultra-violet, x-rays, we apply all of those methods, especially if we are unsure about a works authenticity.
E.L. So any suspicion, and you’d go through that process?
S.G. Yes, definitely.
E.L. If a number of paintings arrived over a period of time, which were all in pristine condition from a dealer, the Knoedler canvases for example, would that raise suspicions for a conservator / restorer at the very top of their industry like yourself?
S.G. Yes it would. Normally one expects a good deal of rot to have set in with most works. There are anomalies, however. For example, I’ve had some 17th century paintings which look like they were painted in the last few months, which, when they arrive like that, is absolutely remarkable.
E.L. But if 20 paintings came in from the same client, in pristine condition, you’d ask questions?
S.G. Yes, you would.
E.L. Do you think you have a duty of care to the client, whether a collector or a dealer, to let them know if you think a painting is wrong or right (fake or real)?
S.G. Definitely, my duty of care includes teaching and educating a client as to what is acceptable, what is in good condition, or indeed, if they are genuine pictures, shall we say.
E.L. Would you let the client know if you thought that a picture was a recent copy?
S.G. Certainly, and if they were thinking of buying the painting, yes. I’m employed to do that a lot. To advise on pieces, pre-purchase.
E.L. So if you had a very good client whom you’d worked with for years, and they walked in with a painting, and you didn’t think it was right would you would voice your concern to that dealer?
S.G. Yes definitely, that’s part of my remit. Essentially, though, it would be a friendly piece of advice, you know, do you really want to spend that sort of money on something which is only worth five pounds, and they may be thinking of spending 500,000 pounds on it.
E.L. What is the best painting you’ve ever worked on, you’re favourite piece?
S.G. A self-portrait of Frans Hals which was quite an amazing painting. Painting portraits is a fantastic art form, and a self-portrait is even more interesting. A portrait of somebody close to you is capturing the essence and their personality, but when an artist has painted a self-portrait, and for a really good artist, it is a very very powerful document indeed.
You can go to a gallery and see these works, and you might not even notice them, three seconds and you walk past. When you are actually sitting in front of these paintings, seeing the sitter as they were many hundreds of years ago, with a little brush poised on your hand, replacing a damaged highlight of a painter’s eye while he’s been glancing at a mirror to capture the image of himself, it’s powerful.
Sometimes I sit there on an evening when nobody else is around, with a nice glass of wine, and I can loose track of time, which I certainly did with the self-portrait of Frans Hals. I knew he was on my shoulder guiding me, so much so, that my wife phoned me at 12.30 at night, concerned about what had happened to me, I thought it was only about six thirty in the afternoon. Sometimes working on those pieces, feels just like a time machine.
E.L. That’s interesting. Some dealers have a similar reaction to wonderful pieces when they find them. So the most challenging piece you’ve ever worked on?
S.G. I worked on a Damien Hirst, which was a painful job. It was the day we launched our website. A gentleman phoned up, and said his girlfriend had left him, and on the way out, she threw a brick threw his favourite painting, which was a Hirst. The part which she had damaged was a large white piece of canvas, which was perfectly woven fabric, with perfectly even gloss paint over the whole piece. It was a stretched canvas which had been ripped open, with the paint in the area of damage being completely broken up. That was probably the most challenging jobs we’ve had to do, sounds easy, but it’s not.
E.L. Is something with age more exciting to work on for you then, as opposed to a work that is almost brand new?
S.G. Yes, I’d much rather work on ten van Goghs, than the white Hirst.
E.L. The picture that you are most excited about working on in the future?
S.G. The most exciting piece coming up is the Titian which I mentioned. I would literally eat Minks, the studio dog, if it turns out not to be by Titian, and I’m really excited about working on that piece.
E.L. Great, thank you for such a tremendous insight, and for your time Simon.