In 2016 the opportunity to investigate and conserve the painting, Still Life with Tureen and Fruit, 1925 by British Artist Christopher Wood (1901-1930) arose when the painting was requested for loan to an exhibition at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. Wood, born in Knowsley, Merseyside, was an early pioneer of British modern art and the exhibition, titled Christopher Wood: Sophisticated Primitive 2 July – 2 October 2016, was the first retrospective of Wood’s career since 1979. It was an exciting chance to breathe new life in his work.
Still Life with Tureen and Fruit, an oil painting on paperboard, had been in store and was not displayable when it was requested for loan due to problems with its visual appearance. The painting had developed a patchy white surface haze that was visually distracting and covered up parts of the paint, and the varnish had discoloured becoming very yellow. The yellow varnish acted like a tinted piece of glass and was altering the colours of the artwork.
Treatment got underway and the white surface haze was safely removed using organic solvents. Next,the task of removing the varnish began. I used mixtures of organic solvents to find ideal combinations to remove the discoloured varnish from the surface of the work without affecting the paint layers below. As the varnish removal progressed, the sheer variety and brilliance of the colours used by Wood began to emerge.
What we had thought would be a simple white tureen and plate revealed itself to be full of complex colour combinations across the surface. I don’t think there was a single area of pure white on the whole painting!
The removal of the yellow varnish not only revealed all the colours the artist employed, but allowed us a closer look at how he went about creating the painting. Looking at the work under a microscope I was able to see a thinned blue paint that Wood used to lay in the initial composition of the still life. He appears to have begun painting very quickly after he sketched out the scene because I found areas where the succeeding layers of paint had mixed with these still wet blue sketching lines.
Finally after the discoloured varnish was removed, I brushed a new varnish layer onto the painting to saturate the newly revealed colours. This layer also acts as a barrier to protect the paint surface and isolates the original paint layer from my restorations. I filled small losses to the paint surface with a chalk putty and then retouched the losses to match the surrounding paint colours.
You can see another painting by Wood, French Cyclists with a Girl, c. 1925, on display in Room 11 of the Walker Art Gallery, and compare the similar use of thinned paint to sketch his composition and the different styles he painted in during this stage in his career.
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