Thanks to you, a remarkable pair of paintings by Canaletto has been conserved...

04/05/2020

While we are not able to open at the moment, we wanted to share the exciting news that, in late February, the two Canaletto paintings that were conserved thanks to the support of Art Happens donors returned to the walls of the Wallace Collection. Thanks to your generosity, the paintings and their gilded frames have been restored to their former glory and we look forward to welcoming you at the Wallace Collection to see them in real life. We hope that you will be as thrilled as the curators with the results of this important project, which proved more difficult than originally anticipated.

Initial technical analyses revealed that Riva degli Schiavoni (P509) had a tear that had been filled and retouched during a previous conservation treatment. However, the retouching extended far beyond the initial damage, covering a large area of the original paint. This painting also suffered from the accumulation of thick deposits of varnish alongside darker residues of a previous varnish coating. Molo with Santa Maria della Salute (P516), on the other hand, was in better condition, but the thick and discoloured varnish contributed to a patchy appearance, the loss of the finer details and depth.

Details of P509 before treatment showing discoloured varnish remnants in the sky and architecture and the discoloured 1 cm addition on the bottom edge of the painting as well as light abrasion on the clothing.

Following initial analyses and discussion between the conservators and curators in charge of the project, the varnish, which had a fine craquelure pattern distinct from that of the paint and looked uneven, partly because of surface dirt, was removed.

The varnish removal significantly improved the tonality of both paintings. However, in the case of Riva degli Schiavoni, the sky still appeared very discoloured. Its patchy appearance prompted further examination under UV, revealing a thin, slightly discoloured layer on the entire surface of the painting. Different solutions had to be used to succeed in the removal of this layer without any damage to the original paint.

P516 during varnish removal seen in normal light

The removal of the varnish revealed multiple campaigns of retouching and overpaint. They varied in surface texture, colour and solubility therefore their removal was decided on an ad hoc basis.

In both canvases, previous retouches that extended onto the surrounding original undamaged paint layer were found to have been executed in oil. As the overpaint did not react to solvents, it was agreed to remove the paint by mechanical actions, under a microscope, using a small scalpel and a gentle scraping motion.

Once the removal of the old varnish and overpaint was completed, the paintings were varnished for filling and retouching. This method ensures that future conservation treatments will not affect the original 18th-century paint.

Both paintings needed reconstruction on the bottom section of the canvases. The paintings had been extended by a later hand by approximately 1 cm, presumably to fit a certain frame. Overtime, this section had discoloured and had to be reconstructed to allow for adequate presentation of the paintings in their historic frame. The reconstruction aimed to extend the visible elements in the lower part of the painting in a neutral manner and elements such as irregularities of the stone surfaces and the wave pattern of the water were not imitated.

P509, after cleaning. Detail of the exposed upper pink ground on the lowest step 

Moreover, the uncovered original paint layer was of a more vibrant, deep blue colour than its surroundings. This is presumably because the original paint layer was protected from both sunlight and abrasion caused by previous cleaning campaigns. To reintegrate these areas, transparent glazes of lean paint were used to adjust the vibrant blue hue.

P509, after cleaning. Detail of the circle crack pattern and damage after cleaning and removal of overpaint

Before the final spray of varnish was applied, thin glazes of paint were used to tone down some minor abrasion. This was kept to a minimum, as in many cases allowing the red ground to show through could have been an intentional aesthetic decision by the artist.

The final spray of varnish evened out the discrepancies in gloss between the original paint and the retouching, whilst also bringing the final appearance of the varnish to a slightly matter finish. Once conservation treatment was completed, the paintings were framed into a simple wooden travel frame for transportation back to the Wallace Collection. The Wallace Collection conservation and curatorial teams worked together to reunite the canvases with their historic frames. They are now installed in the galleries where the artist’s skilful use of detail and mastery of architecture can once again be enjoyed by all.

The Wallace Collection, West Gallery I
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