What to look for in a Conservator

On this website, you will find two links which will lead you to other websites providing information on training in Conservation and also, on the Conservation Register for Conservators in the UK.

For Conservators of Paintings, there are three courses in the UK – University of Northumbria, the Courtauld Institute, London and the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge. Please refer to the courses specifically for information on training.

To be on the Conservation Register means the Conservator has been Accredited and will have undertaken a process of peer review, be able to show Continuous Professional Development (CPD) and have a minimum of seven years experience. Not all Conservators on the Register are formally trained but increasingly this situation is improving and more Conservators will have attended a recognised training course. Finding a Conservator is easier than it used to be thanks to the Conservation Register. Something you should be aware of when you contact a Conservation Practice is whether the person who will carry out the work is the person Accredited by the Conservation Register. Many practices have one person who is Accredited (they will have the letters ACR after their name which means Accredited Conservator/Restorer) and the rest are not and may be students in training or apprentices in trade practices. This should be reflected in the prices charged for Conservation so ask about this point. As with any profession, experience comes with a price tag, you need to know who is doing the work – experience should be a reflection of competence.

Conservation isn’t a true profession yet but it is heading that way as more people go through a formal training programme. This is important; objects deserve good practice to be carried out on them when they need cleaning and repair.

A brief description of the differences between Conservation and Restoration: –

Conservation is the stabilising of the object to ensure it does not deteriorate further. It can be a ‘holding’ scenario until time/money can be spent on the work. This may well be something for future generations; Conservation should be practiced knowing that materials and techniques continue to improve. Conservation practice should aim to intervene as little as possible with the painting knowing that materials and techniques continue to improve and if it can get through the next 50 years with relatively little intervention then it is likely new materials and techniques will come along. It is not unusual to find that to do as little as possible takes more time than doing a lot; more attention to detail and a greater understanding of variables is more time consuming than applying a ‘broad brush’ technique to everything that comes through the Conservators hands. Restoration is the ‘glamour’ side of the job; it will make things look better without necessarily improving the object. It can involve lots of retouching/repainting. If you see a 16th century painting that is in ‘pristine’ condition – not a crack or lifting paint in sight – then buyer beware. It is against natural progress of aging that any painting looks ‘as new’ fifty years down the line let alone several hundred years later. I have seen paintings in original condition having survived centuries without too much interference only to arrive in the hands of an ignorant restorer to be cleaned and lined and retouched to within and millimetre of its original condition. A simple analogy would be having your 90-year-old grandparent have plastic surgery to return the looks they had as young adults. If it looks too good to be true, 99% of the time it will be.

All Conservators practice restoration but it is not the primary focus. A Conservator should be happy to talk to you about the level of work involved and discuss the materials and techniques employed or recommended. Some people prefer to be called Restorers, this is increasingly old fashioned and I think reflects a time when people were more trade based. It also reflects the Insurance side of the business, as you cannot find a ‘Conservator of Paintings’ category, only ‘Art Restorer’. Should you have the good fortune to discover a painting that is in original condition – unlined, uncleaned – then you have will have found something quite remarkable. Get the advice of someone who has respect for such an object.

In conclusion, Less is More in the Conservation world. The less intervention there is, the more the original remains intact.

That’s it for now, coming up on Blog 2 some of the courses, workshops and conferences I’ve attended in the last year  – brilliant things!

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