The art of restoration
If you’ve a precious family heirloom that’s looking a bit tired, or you’ve accidentally poked a hole in a treasured painting, don’t panic – help is at hand
HAVE you ever seen a Rubens masterpiece close-up? I mean really close up?
Art restorer Alice Yergol has – in fact she is one of an elite few in the world who have actually handled and worked on one of the Flemish master’s paintings. Client confidentiality means that the details of this tale remain tantalisingly out of reach and Alice won’t be persuaded to spill the beans.
“I really can’t say,” she says a little apologetically. “It was a private collector’s.” Understandable, really, that client confidentiality should be so important when dealing with artworks worth significant sums of money – last year, for instance, Rubens’ Lot and his Daughters sold for a startling £44,882,500.
Since 2010 Alice, working from her light, bright and pin-neat studio at her Blofield home, has taken in damaged or dirty paintings and, with a combination of delicate touch and infinite patience, restored them to their former glories.
She embarked on a career in art after a visit to Paris with her mum, which involved quite a lot of gallery visits. “Mum said; ‘I have seen every painting in France!’” laughs Alice. She followed up her art history degree from the UEA with a Masters from
Newcastle and then followed that with spells working in some of the great houses and museums in Britain, including the V&A, and also the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
It gave her a good grounding in the disciplines of conservation, restoration and repair before she returned to Blofield to set up her own business, Norfolk Art Conservation. Since then, art owners, private and commercial, have come to her for her expertise to revive their artworks.
The process is a careful and collaborative one. “I talk to the owners to get their opinion on what they think needs doing,” says Alice, “looking at the structure, stability, flaking or fading paint, yellow varnish, dirt, then come up with a plan and help them understand the process.”
It is painstaking work and pieces can remain with Alice for months. Occasionally she has to repair damage done by wellintentioned owners trying to clean up a grubby painting a little – including one instance where the kitchen cleaner Jif was used, with predictable results.
Alice’s own techniques are rather more sophisticated, involving specially-formulated solvents and cotton buds for cleaning and tiny, delicate brushstrokes for restoring damaged paintwork. “Everything I do is reversible,” adds Alice. “I add a new layer of varnish before I add new paint on top of that, so any restorer in future would be able to see what I have done using ultraviolet light and remove it, if necessary.”
She sometimes has to repair physical damage too, where a painting has fallen or had a hole put in it in an accident or suffered a knock to the frame.
So what makes a good restorer? “Patience
and the ability to plan and work meticulously,” says Alice, an accredited member of the Institute of Conservation, adding: “Nothing is beyond repair. It is quite rewarding when clients think something is not going to come back but ends up rejuvenated.”
The range of art she works on spans 500 years, from the 16th century up to the 20th and one of her most recent tasks involved a large surrealist piece from the 1930s. Her personal preference is for portraits from the 16th and 17th century; “I like to work on portraits. It is quite exciting to work with a collector and learn all the stories.”
Her favourite artist is John Singer Sargent, the Edwardian portrait painter whose subjects included US President Theodore Roosevelt and Claude Monet, the latter piece on show at Tate Britain.
She would also like to pick up the brushes and create some of her own work again. “I sometimes think it would be nice to take the summer off and go painting,” she said, “but it never happens!”
A portrait before Alice cleaned it
The portrait after cleaning
Art conservator Alice Yergol.