Boilly: An interview with the Conservator
In this short interview we meet Nicole Ryder, the freelance paintings conservator who worked on the conservation of our three Boilly paintings. Nicole has 30 years experience working on old master paintings for museums, collections, and institutions in London and the South East.
Q: Could you tell us a little bit about your experience and how you became a paintings conservator?
NR: I received a BA in Art History from The Courtauld Institute before training in the Conservation of Easel Paintings at The Courtauld and The Tate Gallery (Tate Britain), receiving diplomas in the Conservation of Paintings from both. After leaving the Tate, I worked for 6 years at the Area Museums Service based at Kenwood House before setting up my freelance studio.
Q: When approaching a conservation project, what are some of the key things you are looking for?
NR: The conservator’s primary function is to help preserve works of art for the future with as little intervention as possible. Cleaning, which involves the removal of dirt, varnish and old overpaint can produce a dramatic effect on the appearance of a painting. The decision to carry it out is made after discussion and careful consideration and only if it is deemed safe to do so.
It is useful to look for published information about the materials and technique of the artist, in the case of this project there was very little technical information. Communication with colleagues who have worked on similar paintings was helpful and provided useful practical information which helped with the treatments
Q: When you first received our three Boilly paintings, what was your initial assessment of their condition?
NR: The two larger paintings were very well preserved but ‘Cat and Mouse’ had raised and loose cracks, more damage and old restoration.
The canvas edges, hidden by the rebate of the frame, were damaged and slightly torn on all three paintings. This is a common structural problem and straightforward to deal with.
The appearance of all three was seriously compromised by thick, yellow and opaque varnish layers.
From this initial assessment I determined that the first priority for treatment was to remove the exceptionally thick varnish to improve the appearance and to enable more thorough consolidation of the raised cracks.
Q: What conservation techniques were used on the paintings and for what desired outcome?
NR: After a thorough examination and careful testing, cleaning was carried out under the microscope with specially formulated solvent mixtures on small cotton wool swabs.
It was necessary to remove the thick varnish to enable consolidation and treatment of raised cracks on ‘Cat and Mouse’, so that adhesive could be introduced through the open cracks to stop potential paint loss. The raised cracks were then gently flattened. These treatments were necessary to stabilise the paintings.
The varnish layers and old restoration were removed because they were severely compromising the colour, tone and legibility of the paintings.
Q: Throughout the conservation, was there anything that stood out to you in terms of new information or research revealed from this process?
NR: A growing number of very useful tools are available for the technical analysis of paintings and this can greatly enhance knowledge and understand of how a painting was made as well as its condition. IRR (infrared reflectography) was carried out on all three paintings by TSR (Tager Stoner Richardson). This technique enabled us to see through the paint films to examine underdrawings. In all three paintings Boilly started by drawing on the white ground layer with graphite or black chalk creating the bare bones of the composition before moving on to a liquid ink medium with which he delineated the figures and some of the other details.
Q: And finally - what are some of the typical challenges of paintings conservation that relate to this project.
NR: Tiny eruptions, known as lead soaps are visible on the paint surface of ‘Cat and Mouse’. These little craters are caused by the formation of lead soaps within the structure of the paint and ground and they are a common phenomenon on old paintings. Although it is not possible to get rid of them, carefully retouching can minimise the visual disruption they cause.