Layers of Dirt and History: Conservation of a Dutch Still Life

Freelance Curator Melissa Gallimore explains what happens when our paintings get sent away for conservation work and learn more about the Dutch master Jan Van Huysum


When a painting goes to the conservators there are many fascinating things that can be revealed throughout the process. Earlier this year it was decided that the painting, ‘Flower Piece’ by Jan Van Huysum (1682-1749) would benefit from attention. It had been hanging in the Terrace Room at Cannon Hall Museum for many years and whilst it was enjoyed by many visitors it wasn’t shown to its best advantage. The painting was very dark and it was difficult to make out any details of the plants and flowers.

‘Flowerpiece’ by Jan Van Huysum

It was unsurprising to find that the surface of the painting was dirty after decades of not being cleaned. Many paintings are dirty due to having been hung in rooms that were warmed by coal fires and lit by candles, sometimes for hundreds of years. It was also clear that the varnish that was on the painting had discoloured over the years and was very yellow and grimy. It had also been applied unevenly and was thicker in some areas obscuring the details of the surface.

White rose during varnish removall, White Rose During Varnish Removal

What was surprising was that once the yellowed varnish was removed the leaves underneath looked very blue when we would expect them to be green. Apparently, this is a common problem with many Dutch still life paintings. Artists would make their green paint for their leaves by mixing blue and yellow pigments. They often used a yellow called, ‘Yellow Lake’ but this pigment often fades when exposed to light over many years. This means only the blue pigment remains making the leaves look blue.  After some discussion it was agreed to keep the leaves blue as painting over them in green would fundamentally change the painting.

Detail: Uneven old green restoration over blue leaves

It also became obvious that at some point in the painting’s history there had been additions made by a restorer. These included details on the flowers and leaves as well as insects that had been included by Van Huysum on the original painting. It was clear which these were as they were on top of the layer of varnish rather than below it. It was decided to remove these to provide a clearer vision of the painting as intended by the artist. Some of the leaves had been damaged by a previous restorer and it was decided that where this had happened these would be left as it would be difficult to guess what the detail on these looked like.

The rear of the painting was also cleaned using sponges and a specialist vacuum. This revealed that at some point in the painting’s history it had been glued onto another canvas. This can happen for a number of reasons such as the original canvas wearing out. In this case it looks like it was done so that the canvas could be made bigger so that the painting could fit a slightly larger frame than the one it originally had. This also meant that on the front of the painting areas around the edges of the painting were painted to blend them in with the original background. It was agreed to keep these areas as the painting fitted the frame and it would cause many complications to undo this.

Work was also carried out on the back of the frame

The cleaning of the painting has revealed so many beautiful details about Van Huysum’s original work including the many species of flowers and the exquisite painting of the insects. It is a painting that rewards close inspection and is almost glowing after its conservation treatment.

We would like to say a massive thank you to Critchlow and Kukkonen Ltd http://www.ckpaintingconservation.com/

Then and Now

Scroll the slider below to to peel back the dust and varnish for yourself!

Take an even closer look

Following it’s return from the conservators ‘Flower Piece’ is now on display at The Cooper Gallery, open Mon-Sat 10am-3pm visit www.cooper-gallery.com for more information

Audio Description

We have created a audio description for the newly conserved ‘Flower Piece’ listen here:

We’ve also turned this painting into a digital jigsaw: http://bit.ly/HuysumJigsaw

Jan Van Huysum (1682-1749)

Jan was the eldest son of flower painter Justus van Huysum (1659 – 1716).  Jan and his brother Jacob both trained and worked in their father’s studio.  After his father’s death, paintings by Jan became fully acknowledged and his reputation really took off.  He developed a style with lighter backgrounds to appeal to tastes of the period.  His paintings were glamorous but also very precise in their detail, a successful strategy which lasted 25 years.

See more of Huysum’s work on the Art Uk website https://artuk.org/discover/artists/van-huysum-jan-16821749

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