The Controversial Treatments of the Wallace Collection Watteaus
Restorers who blunder often present their dramatically altered works as miraculous “recoveries” or “discoveries”. Sometimes they (or their curators) park their handiwork in dark corners pending re-restorations (see the Phillips Collection restoration of Renoir’s “The Luncheon of the Boating Party” and the Louvre’s multi-restoration of Veronese’s “The Pilgrims of Emmaüs”). Here, Dr Selby Whittingham, the Secretary-General of the Watteau Society (and the 2011 winner of ArtWatch International’s Frank Mason Prize – see below), discusses the controversial restorations of Watteau paintings at the Wallace Collection and calls for greater transparency and accountability in the treatment of old masters.
Selby Whittingham writes:
The Watteau exhibitions held in London 12 March – 5 June 2011 prompted much comment, but little about the condition of the oils at the Wallace Collection [- see endnote 1]. Exceptionally Brian Sewell mentioned their poor state: “both overcleaned and undercleaned, victims of cleaners with Brillo pads and restorers with a taste for gravy.”  This was a bit sweeping, but had some justification.
In the Watteau Society Bulletin 1985 Sarah Walden contrasted the recent restorations at the Wallace Collection with those at the Louvre and the different philosophies behind them . The report on the cleaning of “Les Charmes de la vie” at the Wallace by Herbert Lank in 1980, she wrote, did not discuss “whether to touch the varnish at all…and if so how far it should be lightened and removed.” By contrast the Louvre report on cleaning “L’Embarquement pour l’isle de Cythère” centred “on the ethical and perceptual problems of thinning the varnish.”
If the results were far more satisfying at the Louvre, a defence might be that its picture was in better condition to start with than the Wallace one. In his 1989 catalogue of the Watteau pictures John Ingamells said that “Les Charmes de la vie” was described as “much injured” in 1895, and that in 1980 several areas of retouching were uncovered . That might explain the loss of paint suffered on the face of the girl in the centre, but this glaring defect was only made all the more obvious by cleaning, to disguise which the picture was at first hung in a dark corner and then was retouched by Lank again in 1987. [For Ingamells' and Lank's discussions of the restoration in the Burlington Magazine, December 1983, see below, right.] However the scrubbed appearance of the picture overall with subtle transitions in the landscape lost (- see Figs. 1 – 7.) cannot be explained by partial losses of paint earlier.
In 1984 Lee cleaned “Pour nous prouver que cette belle” at the Wallace (- see Figs. 10 & 11). It had already been cleaned by Lord Hertford’s factotum Mawson in 1856, when Hertford acquired it and its pendant, “Arlequin, Pierrot et Scapin”, at the sale of Samuel Rogers, before which they had belonged to Sir Joshua Reynolds. In 1989 Ingamells de-attributed the picture, whereas now Dr Christoph Vogtherr re-attributes it (surely rightly) to the master. This is ironical, as an excuse for cleaning is that sometimes it leads to the uncovering of an original, whereas the opposite happened in this case. Though the painting now has the same scraped appearance as “Les Charmes de la vie”, this has not altogether obliterated Watteau’s touch and the quality of the faces and other details. It was a pity that Waddesdon had not lent for comparison the pendant (the attribution of which to Watteau was also once questioned – by Ellis Waterhouse – probably unjustifiably) .
In 1975 the two large oils at the Wallace, “Divertissements champêtres” and “Rendez-vous de chasse” were cleaned by Vallance. The result was generally considered disappointing. Part of the blame for this was laid at the door of Watteau, who was charged with painting mechanically, the first being an enlarged version of the much more pleasing “Les Champs Elisées”, also at the Wallace. The two big pictures were not painted as pendants, but made into such at an early date, thus necessitating, to make them the same size, the addition of strips at the left and bottom of “Rendez-vous de chasse”, thereby seriously slackening the tautness of its composition. This provides another irony. A merit of restoration is said to be that it returns works to their original state as near as maybe, but here deliberately that has not been done. Paint by a later hand and extensions are retained to the detriment of the overall effect contrary to what the artist intended.
Two loans were added to the main display upstairs. They were “Le Défillé”, an early battle scene from York, and another early work, “L’Accordée de village”, from the Soane Museum. These may be interesting to the specialist, but for most merely diminished the display, considerably helping justify Sewell’s sweeping castigation. The second in particular has long been recognised to be a wreck. Was it when Soane acquired it in 1802? We are not told. Admittedly Dr Vogtherr has not set out to produce another catalogue raisonné and exhibition labels never say anything about condition, but surely they should?
Downstairs in the exhibition devoted to Watteau’s great promoter, Jean de Jullienne, hung “Fêtes vénitiennes” from Edinburgh, which is generally acknowledged to be in good condition. Critics often blame the condition of Watteau’s oils on his poor and hasty technique. Why, then, are some of his pictures in a so much better state than others? Is this a case of curators and restorers trying to shift the blame?
Watteau provides an excellent subject for the consideration of such questions. As he often evolved compositions as he painted, x-rays are frequently informative. Jean de Jullienne by having most of his paintings engraved provides a valuable check on their original appearance, supplemented by the numerous painted copies made in 18th century. (The pair of “Arlequin, Pierrot et Scapin” and “Pour nous prouver que cette belle” were in fact engraved by L. Surugue in Watteau’s lifetime almost immediately after they were painted, showing that the extensions in that case were Watteau’s own). In 1986 there was such an exhibition at Brussels, to which the Louvre and Wallace (in the person of John Ingamells) contributed.  But no British curator (including Dr Nicholas Penny) was interested in transferring it to Britain. This short changed the British public, as does the continuing failure to make conservation history a routine element in any exhibition of old masters.
1 Watteau at the Wallace Collection, by Christoph Martin Vogtherr, 2011; Jean de Jullienne: Collector & Connoisseur, by Christoph Martin Vogtherr and Jennifer Tonkovich, 2011.
2 “Top Drawer,” Evening Standard, 24 March 2011.
3 “A Tale of Two Watteaus,” pp, 9-11. She has since restored the strange and almost unknown “Le Rêve de l’artiste”, the attribution to Watteau doubted by Donald Posner in 1984, a doubt apparently removed for some after cleaning.
4 The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Pictures, III, French before 1815, 1989. These catalogues were inexplicably remaindered off by the museum a few years ago.
5 Selby Whittingham, “Watteaus and ‘Watteaus’ in Britain c.1780-1851,” in Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) le peintre, son temps et sa légende, ed.François Moureau and Margaret Morgan Grasselli, 1987, pp.271-2.
6 Watteau, technique picturale et problèmes de restauration, ed. Catherine Périer-D’Ieteren, Université Libre de Bruxelles, 1986. Dr Martin Eidelberg pointed out the catastrophe of cleaning when the restorer failed to realise that a painting might be a collaboration between Watteau and another artist (Lecture at the 1999 ArtWatch UK Annual Meeting).
The 2011 ArtWatch International Frank Mason Prize
The 2011 ArtWatch International Frank Mason Prize was awarded to Dr Selby Whittingham on June 8th, on the occasion of the annual Professor James Beck Memorial Lecture given at the Society of Antiquaries of London, Burlington House, by Professor Charles Hope on the subject of cleaning controversies at the National Gallery. Artwatch UK director Michael Daley paid the following tribute:
“In Britain, one of the doughtiest, longest-standing opponents of a sometimes self-regarding fine art establishment has been the art historian Selby Whittingham. Dr Whittingham, a student of medieval art and a devotee of both Watteau and Turner – two of the most restoration-vulnerable painters – started a campaign in 1975 for the creation of a proper and fitting Turner Gallery to house Turner’s great bequest. Some here may remember what a very fashionable cause this had been – enjoying the support of Henry Moore, Hugh Casson, Kenneth Clark, and John Betjeman among many others. But art establishments can look after themselves and sometimes prove accomplished practitioners of the principle Divide and Misrule.
“A case in point might be seen in the curator T. J. Honeyman who, in the 1940s, supported critics of the National Gallery’s cleaning policies in a letter to the Times. Merely for observing that the then failure of the gallery’s trustees’ to respond to their critics might suggest a certain “cynical aloofness”, he was, he later disclosed, “severely ticked off” by the trustees’ Chairman, Lord Crawford. It was only many years later that he was, as he put it, “restored to favour in high places” when he made it clear in an article in the Studio that he was now entirely convinced that “our National treasures were in the keeping of qualified responsible people”.
“Far from recanting, Dr Whittingham has never flinched and, over the last 35 years, has mastered the art of writing the letter you might hope never to receive – and would only deserve to receive if you were, say, the head an Academy that had mislaid both Turner’s death mask and the substantial funds that he had provided for a generous award and medal in his name to practicing landscape painters – or, if you were the head of a gallery that had lost two Turner paintings to what a government minister described as “a particularly nasty gang of Serbs”, after announcing that the pictures would not be accompanied by a courier when loaned to a foreign museum.
“It gives me very great pleasure therefore to award the 2011 ArtWatch International Frank Mason Prize to Selby Whittingham and to invite Dr Whittingham to say a few words about the current state of his campaigning – and I should add that we do so with a great sense of organisational indebtedness to this most widely-read recipient who, over the years, has generously supplied us with countless citations of restoration practices and abuses – Ladies and gentlemen, the Secretary-General of the Watteau Society, the Secretary of The Real Turner Society, and the Secretary-General of Donor-Watch, Dr Selby Whittingham.
Selby Whittingham’s acceptance:
“I would like to pay tribute to Art Watch, which, by challenging the restoration and attribution of works of art, additionally makes people scrutinise them more carefully. Sir David Piper, whom I knew at the National Portrait Gallery, welcomed the National Gallery controversy over picture cleaning ‘as furthering a continual extension of knowledge and of alertness’.
“Piper realised that for the enjoyment of art many things are requisite, and that one needs also to consider the psychology and the conditions of viewing art. I once asked Sir Trenchard Cox what the attitude of the National Gallery was when he was a curator there in the early 1930s. He said that display was regarded as a very ‘deuxième’ matter.
“Today museum curators regard everything as secondary to getting as many visitors as possible and their own researches published. Hence the vogue for museum blockbusters with their ponderous catalogues and the concomitant damage to exhibits and frustration for viewers.
“Of course such shows go back at least to the 1857 Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition. But now museums hold them, resulting in the devaluation of their permanent collections and sometimes, through their eagerness to lend in order to borrow, the breaking faith with donors, something increasingly prevalent more generally, as seen in the attempt to overturn the founding aims of the Warburg Institute. Granting powers to lend were fought against by the grandfather of the present Lord Crawford, when a trustee of the National Gallery, as he knew just where that would end.
“Sir Maurice Bowra, when charged with betraying his principles by accepting honours, said in justification that ‘they gave pain to academic enemies whose influence he had fought all his life; and, secondly, they recognised his campaigns …’ Through this prize I am very happy to be associated with Art Watch, whose leaders have, while many in the art world merely mutter their discontents in private, been bold enough to put their heads repeatedly above the parapet.
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How the National Gallery belatedly vindicated the restoration criticisms of Sir Ernst Gombrich
History has repeatedly shown that scholars and art-lovers (no matter how distinguished and mild-mannered) who put themselves between museum picture restorers and their professional ambitions, run high risks.
In 1950 Ernst Gombrich drew attention, in a Burlington Magazine letter, to Pliny’s description of wondrous effects achieved by Apelles when finishing off his paintings with a thinly spread dark coating or “varnish”. How could we be sure when stripping off “varnishes” today, he asked, that no Renaissance masters had applied toned varnishes to their own works in emulation of antiquity’s fabled painter? He received silence.
When he repeated the question in his seminal 1960 book Art and Illusion, his scholarly reputation and position as director of the Warburg Institute at London University commanded an answer. One came from Helmut Ruhemann, the National Gallery’s consultant restorer and author of its notorious “total cleaning” policy. Ruhemann insisted in the British Journal of Aesthetics that there was no evidence whatsoever “for anything so improbable as that a great old master should cover his picture with a ‘toning-down layer’.”
Gombrich returned play in a 1962 Burlington Magazine article (“Dark varnishes: Variations on a Theme from Pliny”). The discovery of a single instance of a tinted overall varnish, he suggested, would undermine the dogmatic philosophy of the National Gallery’s restorers. A dual reply came from the gallery’s “heavy mob” – its head of science, Joyce Plesters (who was married to the restorer Norman Brommelle), and the pugnacious former trustee and collector, Denis Mahon, in two further Burlington articles.
Plesters herself dismissed Gombrich on two fronts: for lacking “technical knowledge” and for displaying incomplete and misinterpreted scholarship. The entire documented technical history of art, she claimed, showed that “no convincing case” could be made for a single artist ever having emulated Apelles’ legendary dark varnishes. The passage from Pliny, she sniffed, was merely a matter of “academic rather than practical importance”. She offered to “sift” and “throw light upon” any future historical material that Professor Gombrich might uncover – should he but present it directly to the National Gallery. Her technical rank-pulling was underwritten (as perhaps was her article in part) by the director, Sir Philip Hendy, who disparaged technically ignorant “university art historians” in the gallery’s annual report.
In reality Plesters was a technical incompetent. It was she who claimed that the Raphael cartoons at the Victoria and Albert Museum were stuck onto “backing sheets” when there are none. It was she who described the large (150 cms wide) panel The Entombment, which is attributed to Michelangelo, as a single massive plank when it is comprised of three boards held by butterfly keys. It was she who counted six boards on the large panel Samson and Delilah, which is attributed to Rubens, when there are seven.
Her errors were products of a then unchecked institutional culture of technical adventurism and gross aesthetic recklessness. Great Renaissance paintings were ironed onto boards of compressed paper (Sundeala board) which today are too unstable to be moved. One such was Sebastiano del Piombo’s The Raising of Lazarus. That painting, originally on panel, had been transferred to canvas. When decision was made to re-attach the canvas to a Sundeala “panel”, technical examination identified three further “backing” canvases. When these three “backings” were duly removed it was discovered that no fourth and “original” canvas existed and that the surviving paint was attached only to a layer of disintegrating paper. But that crisis-of-their-own-making provided the gallery’s restorers with opportunity to play what Professor Thomas Molnar here called “demiurge” and improve upon the artistic content of the painting. In order to stabilise the paint layer which they had left loose and unprotected, the restorers embedded it from behind with terylene fabric attached by lashings of warm, dilute wax-resin cement. Because Sebastiano had painted his picture on a warm-coloured ground and because paint becomes more translucent with age and allows the tone of the ground greater influence on the picture’s values, the restorers decided to brighten things up and give the picture a brilliant white ground (like that of a Pre-Raphaelite painting) by adding highly reflective pigments to their own remedial wax-resin cement applications.
Plesters died in August 1996. Earlier that year, the National Gallery had published a report in its Technical Bulletin on the cleaning of two paintings by a Leonardo follower, Giampietrino. One, his Salome, had clearly suffered the Gallery’s trademark restoration losses of modelled form (see right and below), but his Christ Carrying the Cross was miraculously unscathed. Moreover, that picture was found simultaneously to display an “intensity of colour” and a restrained “overall effect” – precisely the paradoxical combination attributed by Pliny to Apelles but that had been pronounced technically preposterous by Ruhemann, Plesters, Mahon, Hendy et al.
It further emerged that Giampietrino, having first built up an “illusion of relief” with “dark translucent glazes”, had, again just as Pliny had said of Apelles, deliberately “restricted his own range of values” with a “final extremely thin overall toning layer consisting of warm dark pigments and black in a medium essentially of walnut oil, with a little resin”. Sir Ernst, nearly half a century on, had finally been vindicated but the report, inexplicably, made no reference to the dispute of the 1960s – to the very dispute which in 1985 had been described by the Burlington Magazine’s then editor, Neil MacGregor, as “one of the most celebrated jousts” ever. Had the National Gallery, having ridiculed Gombrich in the 1960s, not told him of its own remarkable technical/art historical discovery and of his own vindication? It had not. When we reported the findings in June 1996, Sir Ernst was approaching his 87th birthday. He replied:
“I could hardly have a nicer present than the information you sent me. I don’t see the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin, and would have missed their final conversion to an obvious truth…”
Gombrich’s vindication proved a double one. Not only had the gallery discovered a technical/physical corroboration of the scholar’s astute original supposition, but the survival of a Renaissance artist’s final toned coating served further to corroborate Gombrich’s general criticisms of the gallery’s over-zealous picture cleanings. Because the two Giampietrino works were restored at the same time in the same gallery, but with the surface of the one being protected from solvent action by an ancient oil-film, while that of the other was unprotected, an unwitting laboratory experiment had been conducted on the gallery’s own “cleanings”. We can now compare the appearance of the restored but protected painting, with that of the restored but unprotected one (see right and Michael Daley, “The Lost Art of Picture Conservation”, The Art Review, September, 1999). As can be seen here, the unprotected painting (the Salome) suffered clear and dramatic losses of modelling and weakening of forms.
For a number of years after the twin Giampietrino restorations, it was possible to examine the two cleaned specimens side by side and to demonstrate the unequal effects of the treatments they had received. That is no longer possible. One of the pair has been relegated to the ill-lit basement of the reserve collection which is accessible to the public for only a few hours a week on Wednesday afternoons.
The relegated work is not the restoration-injured Salome, but the miraculously preserved Christ, the very picture which now arguably constitutes the best-preserved example of a Renaissance artist’s technique in the entire collection. This picture, which might be expected to enjoy pride of place in the main galleries, shares its new dungeon exile with another recent National Gallery Embarrassment – the Beccafumi panel painting Marcia which was dropped and smashed at the Gallery when being “de-installed” from a temporary exhibition. We had hoped and suggested that the Christ might make a return to daylight on the occasion of the Gallery’s forthcoming Leonardo blockbuster exhibition, but it seems that it will not do so – not even to join Giampietrino’s full-sized faithful copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper. (For many years, that Giampietrino mouldered in the Royal Academy’s basement as embarrassing relic of the institution’s former artistic interests.) When the last restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper got into difficulties, the copy was taken to Milan so that full-size tracings of Leonardo’s figures might establish the limits of the restorer’s own substantial watercolour in-painting.
It seems fitting that last word be given to Sir Ernst, who died on November 3rd 2001. In another letter in 1988 he had recalled:
“I believe it was Francis Bacon who said ‘knowledge is power’. I had to learn the hard way that power can also masquerade as knowledge, and since there are very few people able to judge these issues, they very easily get away with it.”
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