Have restorers at the National Gallery of London gone mad.. again?

Dec 22, 2022 | Art-Test News, Authentications & attributions, Cutural Heritage, Exhibitions, Restoration

The UK approach to restoration has been the focus of many controversies since the 1840s, and it is today again under attack.

Following three-year extensive work, ‘Nativity’ by Piero Della Francesca returned to public display: a Christmas present to the Gallery visitors. But it received a severe backlash.

What in the name of God inspired the restorers to paint two completely new and distractingly moronic shepherd’s faces?” wrote on the Guardian Jonathan Jones.

A detail of “Nativity” by Piero della Francesca, before and after the latest restoration. We notice, a part from the inpainting on the shepherd faces, a clear loss of depth of the wall behind them

Are we going back in time to when in 1947 the National Gallery organised ”Cleaned Pictures”, exhibiting a number of paintings that had been secretly restored during the Second World War, that left artists and connoisseurs horrified by the results?

The so-called “cleaning controversy” went on for years. It regarded the conservation of paintings, and especially the different methodologies, practical and theoretical, on how to approach the cleaning of pictures. Pictures had been damaged by too aggressive treatments, they maintained.

UK and Italy where on opposite sides.

In 1949 the Italian restorer Cesare Brandi wrote a heated article in the Burlington Magazine, explaining concepts such as patina, varnish, and glazes, which past artists applied as sort of finish to their works. These resulted in a softening effect, the so-called patina or “pelle”(skin). The cleaning methods employed by the National Gallery UK restorers at the time were allegedly classifying all of this as “dirt” or “old varnish”, and removing them, losing forever a significant part of the painting.

An irreversible disaster.

However, the controversy had also positive effects. For instance, it caused a leap of improvements to the study of conservation and cleaning. Brandi published in 1963 La Teoria del Restauro (The Theory of Restauration) a landmark theoretical essay of restauration, where he underlined, as mandatory, the sharing among experts and scholars of conservation methodologies.

What was the role of science in this? Interestingly at the time the gallery’s actions were defended by saying that the restorations had been “chemical and scientific”.

However, some concluded that only 5 per cent of “scientific” restoration tests were of value, the rest were simply “window dressing”. It was also stated that claims that picture restoration was safe and unproblematic because it was “scientific” are unfounded.

Could this be true? Could science be useless or even misleading?

The answer is clearly no.

For what concerns the cleaning, limits depend on a critical analysis: while science offers objective information about an artwork and its state of conservation, the restorer must interpret it at the time of the object’s intervention, a process that greatly depends on the technical skill and experience of the specialist in charge of conservation-restoration decision-making. As always it is of crucial importance understanding what science has to offer, and be prepared to exchange ideas and experiences.

And this is even more true for what concerns inpainting, it can be also greatly helped by the knowledge of e.g. faded paint layers, or the underdrawing. But it heavily relies on the ability and sensitivity of the restorers and of the decision makers.

Anna Pelagotti
Anna Pelagotti


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