My grandfather, Frank Denton, was a painter. I have a couple of dozen of his works; six or eight are complete paintings (up to 30” high or wide), and the the rest are small, usually 10” maximum, oil on board, that he did en plein air, on site, as sketches that he would take home and perhaps work up in his studio.
One of those small ones is “The Gothic Arch, Near Lafontaine, Ontario” (undated). It looked awful: a sludgy mess of light browns and dark yellows. I could tell it was dirt and discoloured varnish that was doing that: I could see big splotches of brown where the varnish had gone bad.
As it happened, I had a piece that needed some conservation done (someone had used masking tape to attach a chalk sketch on paper to a mat … in the seventies), so I decided to also take my grandfather’s painting along to the conservator to see what she could do.
My conservator is Michaela Bosworth. She’s an expert, and she’s great. If you’re in Toronto, or nearby, I highly recommend her. Everything I’ve seen her do, both for me and the Arts and Letters Club, is top notch. She gets large batches of work for insurance jobs (smoke or water damage, that kind of thing) but she’s happy to do small pieces like mine, and brings all her training and experience to them just the same.
Here’s a quick snap she sent me when she was half-way through my grandfather’s painting:
Now, the painting is no masterpiece, and not a great test of her skills, but that’s not the point. Look how dingy and dull it is on the left, and how on the right there are blues and greys and whites! (The light circle on the lower centre left is where she showed me, when I took it in, what a bit of cleaning could do.)
I have the cleaned painting back now and I’m going to get it framed and hung. For years I’d grimace when I looked at it, but now I’m happy I can see it like my grandfather saw it when he made it.
Speaking of restoration, I recommend listening to The Many Deaths of a Painting, a March episode of the podcast 99% Invisible. It’s about the damage done by a maniac’s attack on Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III by Barnett Newman and the subsequent botched repair work done by an incompetent conservator. I’m not a fan of 99% Invisible’s style, but the subject and interviews are definitely worth hearing.