Time and the Conservation of Paintings

Ironically, few things today are changing as rapidly as our views on conservation. According to ECCO (see the Recommended Reading section, below) ‘conservation consists mainly of direct action carried out on cultural heritage with the aim of stabilising condition and retarding further deterioration’. ‘Active’ or ‘hands on’ conservation is commonly used to describe what is, in reality, a form of restoration.

The question is whether we should be ‘hands on’ conserving or restoring paintings at all? What should we do when ordinary conservation provides insufficient defence against the more serious effects of accidental damage and the passage of time? For example, what do we do when we have carefully placed a painting on the wall, away from direct sunlight, kept it protected from extreme cold, damp or heat, and even dusted it carefully, only to find that the varnish layer protecting the painting has become discoloured with age? What do we do when, even with gentle dusting, dirt still becomes so embedded that the image can no longer be fully discerned or enjoyed? And what do we do if the paint begins to seriously crack or flake?

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