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Portrait of Eliza Babcock, as received (before treatment)

Portrait of Eliza Babcock, as received (before treatment)

Portrait of Eliza Babcock after treatment

The recent viral images of a botched “restoration” from Spain of a copy of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Immaculate Conception brought to mind a similar attempt at reintegration by a local amateur artist that was brought to West Lake Conservators. In May of 2004 a devastated client brought in an oil portrait of Eliza Babcock, that had been intervened on by an artist friend of the owner. An immediate parallel to this unfortunate occurrence in Spain is that the term ‘restorer’ seems a bit too generous. Fernando Carrera, professor at the Galician School for the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, in Spain, was quoted in the Guardian as sayingI don’t think this guy – or these people – should be referred to as restorers,” Carrera told the Guardian. “Let’s be honest: they’re botchers who botch things up. They destroy things.”

West Lake’s Senior Conservator Margaret Sutton had a similar opinion:  “This wasn’t even a restorer, it was the owner’s friend,” in reference to the portrait of Eliza.  Nineteenth century portraits are common enough, but this familiarity does not allow conservators to phone in their training during assessment and treatment.  Portrait of Eliza Babcock is a prime example of why thorough examination, understanding of historical material, and what those materials are made of is imperative for proper conservation.  

This oil painted portrait is in fact a photograph on paper adhered to a canvas support and attached to a stretcher. The original damage, which the owner was looking to address, was a large area of tears and cracks located around the sitter’s left shoulder.

Area of damage on shoulder

After an inappropriate structural treatment, which did not take into consideration the paper support, the amateur artist began to visually integrate or ‘inpaint the areas of loss and damaged paint.  Based on the end result, he must have realized the great difficulty in  matching the original object and keeping within the areas of loss and began to ‘overpaint’.  Overpainting is a term used to describe the excessive use of paint to retouch the artwork resulting in more of the original artwork being covered to mask the newly painted areas.  When this is done over large areas the term  ‘gross overpainting’ is used.  However, in an instance where 90% of the original  was painted over, ‘gross overpaint’ may not fully describe the intervention in this situation.  The amateur artist didn’t stop at overpainting the areas around the sitter’s left shoulder; he painted over the dress, skin, and background. While good intentions were clear, the result was extremely upsetting for the owner and greatly detrimental to the artwork.

A saving grace for Portrait of Eliza (and one that was not afforded to the copy of Murillo’s Immaculate Conception) is that it had not been cleaned before intervention.  Protecting the original artwork from the copious applications of fresh oil paint were layers of  a grime and oxidized varnish.  Additionally, the oil overpaint was recent and not fully dry, which facilitated its removal.

Once the overpaint was successfully removed, conservators at West Lake Conservators were able to properly assess the condition of the artwork and register the damage.  Due to the recent aggressive intervention, a minimal approach was taken to secure the raised cracks and not put any additional stress on the brittle paper support. Once the paint layer was safely secured with contemporary conservation-grade adhesive, proper integration began.  A practiced skilled conservator can match the inpainting to the original artwork without compromising the original artist’s intent. The final result of Eliza’s treatment is a stunning transformation.

Detail during removal of overpaint

Conservators go through extensive training over many years, and abide by national and international codes of ethics. Article IV of the American Institute for Conservation Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice establishes  that “The conservation professional shall practice within the limits of personal competence and education as well as within the limits of the available facilities”, instructing that conservators be self-aware of their skill level and know when to step back and not carry out a procedure they are not skilled to do. This level of accountability is not required of restorers or amateur interventionists. When seeking out help to care for family collection items  and works of art, it is important to contact a professional.  The American Institute for Conservation makes finding a professional in your area very easy through their Find a Conservator search engine.

Conservators always welcome inquiries and can help guide you over the phone to the best solutions for your collection items.