There are more than 1600 works in the Paintings Collection, ranging from a seventeenth-century Russian icon to contemporary paintings only recently completed by the artist. All Te Papa’s paintings have been surveyed to assess their condition and whether they need conservation or restoration work.
Like people, paintings deteriorate as they age and can become less good looking! Varnishes can darken and discolour with age and spoil a painting’s appearance. Paintings can also be damaged through neglect and ill treatment or through an artist’s faulty technique.
Conservation treatments are carried out to repair damage, prevent further deterioration, and to enable the viewer to appreciate the artist’s intention. Not all effects of aging can be reversed - some must be accepted as part of the painting.
The physical and chemical structure of paintings can be complex, and conservation often involves treatment of the painting structure underneath the paint layer. Older paintings may have undergone several previous restorations and extensive retouching. Research and analysis by the conservator in order to clearly identify the artist’s intention and the painting’s structure and composition are an essential part of the conservator’s work.
Where a paint surface has been lost and needs to be replaced, the conservator will never cover over any original paint and will always use a medium different from the original - so the conservator’s work can always be identified even though it is not apparent.
Paintings conservators work with solvents, especially during varnish removals. Many of these are potentially harmful so safety precautions are very important. Face masks are worn and fume extraction is used to make sure none of the toxic fumes are breathed in. Solvents that are flammable are kept in special fireproof cupboards.