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Conservation of the Clérisseau panels

Clare Richardson
Senior Paintings Conservator


Left: Alice Aurand, Claire Shepherd and Sarah Bayliss smoothing fills; centre: Sally Higgs at work on filling losses; right: Roxy Sperber, Sara Wohler, Olympia Diamond and Sarah Bayliss in the studio with a pilaster panel ready for retouching. Photography by Clare Richardson © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In preparation for the new Europe 1600-1800 Galleries, the Paintings Conservation section has been working on parts of a painted room designed by Clérisseau and originally installed in the Hôtel Grimod de la Reynière, Paris, in 1777. The scheme comprises panels with figurative cartouches on a cream background interspersed with pilasters decorated by foliate patterns on a cool yellow background with a pattern of gold lozenges. The figurative panels illustrate scenes from the life of Achilles. Two of these panels have been selected for the display with four accompanying pilasters.

The paintings are executed in oil on canvas. The canvasses have been lined in the past and are in good structural condition, but the surfaces were obscured by discoloured varnish layers and crudely overpainted historical damages. As each of the figurative panels measures some 3.53 x 1.22 m the selected panels present over 12m2 of painted surface, so their cleaning and restoration is a very large scale project. We were extremely fortunate in having a team of student volunteers from the Courtauld Institute Diploma in Easel Paintings Conservation course who were able to join us over their Easter break. Sculpture Conservation kindly offered us space in their extraction studio so that we could work with solvents to remove the varnish coatings on all of the works simultaneously. The paintings arrived at the end of March and after just one week, the team of students, supervised by myself, managed to complete varnish and overpaint removal on all six paintings. In a subsequent four-day week, the students returned to complete filling the losses in paint and begin retouching under the supervision of Nicola Costaras, Head Paintings Conservator.

Having the opportunity to closely scrutinize the paintings for the first time out of storage, we noticed interesting aspects of the painting technique, including the use of underdrawing in a dry medium, such as graphite or metalpoint. Intriguingly, this was not found on all of the paintings, suggesting perhaps that their  production from Clérisseau’s designs was split across several hands in his workshop, each using slightly different techniques. As we worked as a team on the paintings, uncovering evidence of the workshop approach to their production seemed particularly pertinent.

The surface of several of the paintings is covered in tiny bumps, which appear to be the result of lead soap formation. The soaps have formed throughout, suggesting that they are not related to lead white found in the paint layers but rather to its more uniform use in the priming layers of the canvasses, or perhaps as a drier added to the oil. The soaps were not present on all of the canvas paintings, which could be the result of using different primings.. However, it seems more likely that the soap formation could have been catalyzed by environmental conditions, such as some of the paintings having being hung against a damp external wall for example. It would be interesting to compare the soap formation against plans and drawings recording the scheme as it hung in 1782, made by the German-born architect Jana Christjana Kamsetzer.

After cleaning and restoration, the paintings have been quite transformed. The subtle differences of tonality between the figurative works on the cream background and their pilasters with a cool yellow background can now be properly appreciated. The crude overpainting no longer detracts from the generally good state of preservation of the painted layers in the figurative panels. Trompe l’oeil effects in the foliate designs of the pilasters can be enjoyed against the twinkling gilt designs of their backgrounds. The modern day team of conservators have helped to ensure that the work of Clérisseau and his workshop collaborators can be enjoyed by visitors to the new Europe 1600-1800 Galleries.

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to Alice Aurand, Sarah Bayliss, Olympia Diamond, Sally Higgs, Claire Shepherd, Roxy Sperber and Sara Wohler for all of their hard work on the project, and to Charlotte Hubbard for loaning us space in Sculpture Conservation.

The Clérisseau panels are presented by the Art Fund.

The Europe 1600-1800 Galleries project is being supported with a lead gift from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The project has also received generous support from The Selz Foundation, The American Friends of the V&A, The Wolfson Foundation, The Friends of the V&A, the J Paul Getty Jnr Charitable Trust, The American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of William Loschert, Sir Siegmund Warburg's Voluntary Settlement, DCMS/Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund, Mr and Mrs Benjamin Bonas, Fondation Auguste Morin, Stephen and Anne Curran, The Band Trust, Mr and Mrs Harvey McGrath, The American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of the David Berg Foundation, Sir Nicholas and Lady Goodison's Charitable Settlement, Travel with the V&A: Dresden, Paris and Lisbon, and many others.