Genevieve Silvester in one of Auckland Art Gallery’s painting restoration rooms. Photo / Babiche Martens

Meet The Talented Team Restoring Auckland Art Gallery's Most Prized Paintings

Behind the scenes at Auckland Art Gallery, a team of conservators preserve damaged or decaying artworks — and expose the odd forgery

Beyond the hushed, perfectly curated galleries, we pass through locked doors into the brightly lit hallways that are the interior arteries of the Auckland Art Gallery. This “behind the scenes tour” takes our group — a diverse bunch of art enthusiasts, patrons and gallery members — into the heart of the gallery where conservators work with palettes of paint and chemical potions to restore and preserve thousands of works belonging to the gallery and to private collectors.

Principal conservator Sarah Hillary is perched on her stool, magnifying device on her head, surrounded by artworks, books, frames and paints. She looks familiar, and later I discover why — she is the daughter of mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, and the resemblance is clear.

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Sarah is also an artist in her own right, represented by Anna Miles Gallery, but here at the Auckland Art Gallery, she focuses on caring for and researching the paintings in a collection of 17,255 works. With her modest, considered and articulate character, it’s easy to see why Sarah likes to be here with her brushes in the quiet back rooms, retouching valuable old paintings like the Portrait of John Sparrowe Esq by Thomas Gainsborough.

It’s dated between 1755 and 1758 and it’s marvellous to think this portrait on thin canvas is still intact. Sparrowe’s creamy hands are today being given a touch up by Sarah, who has previously removed the browning varnish to restore the work’s lustre with conservator paints, which are reversible, yet stable. In other words if she happens to make a slip, she can rectify it.

Sarah tells me this particular work recently paid a visit to Auckland Radiology for an x-ray. “They throw paintings around like patients,” quips Sarah, who adds that the scan revealed a painting of a dog behind the portrait. This investigative work adds to the knowledge bank Sarah has collated on Gainsborough’s painting techniques and aids conservators in their consideration of the authenticity of a work. In this case, Gainsborough often painted dogs, so it’s fair to say that this is not an unusual discovery.

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Chemistry is another tool in the arsenal of a conservator. Sarah has had paint layers analysed at the University of Auckland to establish what pigments and resins the artist was using at the time.

As far as retouching goes, Sarah says the face is out of limits and cracks are almost impossible to remove. “Cracks develop on all paintings and I think viewers expect that. It’s an old painting after all.”

Gottfried Lindauer, is another artist Sarah has spent many hours researching. He and C. F. Goldie were the most well-known painters of Maori portraits in the late 19th century “Few people realise Lindauer took photos of all his portrait subjects — he took a glass plate positive and then projected it on to canvas.” This process was quite common at the time, and while some may consider it cheating, the artist still has to be a proficient painter to create a good likeness.

Principal conservator Sarah Hillary. Photo / Babiche Martens

Sarah often studies the ears when looking for forgeries. “Ears are particularly tricky to get right.” Sarah has found a few forgeries in her time. “There have been some Frances Hodgkins forgeries, some Lindauers and some unlikely McCahons”, she says. When looking for fakes, she pays attention to the way the artist has applied the paint. “In an original, there is flow in the brushstroke, with a forgery it’s never like that.”

One of Sarah’s more unusual tasks was restoring Colin McCahon’s Urewera Mural — stolen by Maori activists from the visitor centre at Lake Waikaremoana in 1997. “It was badly damaged by crease marks, as it had been folded for a long time, so we laid it on a suction table and repaired the crease marks as best we could.”

There are more repairs going on further down the hallway, where our group is guided into the paper restoration room. Here Camilla Baskcomb looks after the gallery’s works on paper, including watercolors, prints, drawings, pastels and photographs. These paper works make up 80 per cent of the gallery’s collection.

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Camilla worked as a senior conservator for the Tate Gallery before moving to New Zealand and, with her bright demeanour, clearly enjoys her work here. One of her latest projects involved taking fragments of a delicate pastoral wallpaper left in a 1900s house owned by the City Mission that was about to be destroyed, but was rescued and brought to Camilla by architect Jane Matthews.

The final stop on our tour takes us to another painting restoration room, where conservator Genevieve Silvester is working on a huge landscape of the West Coast’s Otira Gorge by Dutch artist Petrus van der Velden. This moody work is typical of the artist’s later landscapes in New Zealand.

The gorge, in foul weather, was one of his favourite subjects, says senior curator Ron Brownson who recently bought the work on behalf of the gallery. There are tears to the back of the painting, and with a very brittle canvas and browning varnish, it will take months to restore. “It’s always a bit nerve-racking,” says Genevieve of the repair process. “This canvas was paper thin and took four people to remove.”

Genevieve is accustomed to restoring important works, having worked on a large-scale Rubens in London, along with Gainsboroughs and many other renowned artists. She trained in conservation in London at the Courtauld Institute of Art and as well as the Tate she has worked in Amsterdam, where she built up experience in restoring very old paintings before returning to New Zealand.

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Because of the predictability of the materials they used, “the old masters’ works are often easier to restore than modern works”, says Genevieve. Modern art can be difficult to repair simply because the substances used aren’t stable. “Some art isn’t made to last.” She recalls one work purchased by Auckland Art Gallery that melted in the cool storage room.

Time may well be the devourer of all things, but one thing all the conservators here agree on is that the New Zealand sun is one thing you don’t want your artwork exposed to. Fade tests show that if exposed to sunlight, artwork can lose half of its colour integrity in six months.

• Gallery tours are available throughout the year to gallery members, contemporary benefactors and foundation members. Becoming a member costs as little as $50 a year — a great gift for your arty friends.

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