Having your every move at work scrutinised by members of the public would not bear thinking about for most of us, but that’s exactly what Jon Old has been getting used to in recent weeks.
Not only is the conservation manager at The Bowes Museum tasked with restoring a valuable Turner oil painting, but he’s been carrying out the painstaking work in full public view.
When the 1810 painting, part of the County Durham treasure house’s impressive collection, was found in need of restoration, it was decided visitors might like to watch it happen so Jon set up his work station in a glass gallery where for the past few weeks he’s been making slow but steady progress in carefully cleaning away years of yellowed varnish.
“I’ve done pieces in the public eye before but it became most apparent this generated far more interest,” said Jon who has been working at the museum for the past seven years.
“Some restorations take just a couple of days; some a year – it all depends on a painting’s size and complexities. But even if you’ve done lots, it’s always nerve-wracking when you start.”
The oil by Joseph Mallord William Turner, one of Britain’s leading artists, was acquired by Bowes earlier this year via Arts Council England’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme which allows those with an inheritance tax bill to pay it by transferring important cultural or historic objects to the nation.
Called Lowther Castle – Evening, it captures a location just 40 miles or so away from the museum and was painted by Turner in 1851 as one of a commissioned contrasting pair. The other, with the wordier title of ‘Lowther Castle, Westmorland seen from a distance by day in 1810 by JMW Turner’ remains in private ownership.
The castle, which has been undergoing its own restoration since 2011 in a bid to reverse some 70 years of deterioration, was visited by the artist in 1809 while it was still in the process of being built.
Then he was gathering sketches of architectural details and drawings of the surrounding landscape for his paintings. When they were finally exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1810, the castle’s construction was still not complete.
Now more than 200 years on, the painting is again the focus of interest and Jon admits he was surprised at the numbers that turned up keen to take up the rare opportunity to see first-hand an artwork by someone as famous as Turner, who died in 1851, being restored.
They have been watching the work through the glass front of the viewing gallery where the much-publicised restoration on the Bowes’ famous silver swan took place, and Jon emerged on a couple of occasions, he said, to answer their questions.
Although a chemical analysis was carried out on the oil before he got to work, it still turned out to be a bigger challenge than he expected as he discovered areas of old paint loss probably caused by damp.
“Although we did a lot of scientific analysis you can never really tell what you’ll find until you start work,” he said.
“I re-touched it so you can’t tell except under ultra-violent light.”
That means future restorers will be able to find evidence of Jon’s work which is also being meticulously detailed in a report. He thinks his cleaning work is the first on the painting in decades. “I haven’t been able to find any records but varnish takes time to get that yellow.
“It was in pretty good condition but it was very discoloured with brown layers of varnish so the sky was brown but it’s blue now. I think it looks dramatically different and I still have a bit more varnish to take off.”
He’s currently taking a break from the work while further chemical analysis is undertaken to trace the different techniques used by Turner across the painting. It will resume in January and be finished by mid-March, but local art-lovers will have to wait a little longer to see the end-result as the painting is first going on loan for an exhibition in a gallery in Rome.
The oil will be back by early summer ready for show in Bowes’ refurbished suite of painting galleries.