This painting of ‘The Raising of Lazarus’
by Joachim Wtewael has had the most extraordinary history. It was discovered only a few years ago
in a small museum outside London at High Wycombe, the Wycombe Museum. Now, this is actually mainly a museum of
furniture and decorative arts and they think they were given it possibly in 1932,
just possibly earlier than that. But judging by its state they can’t ever
have been able to display it. It was completely unexhibitable, it had no frame and it was covered by an incredibly thick,
very discoloured brown varnish. I think actually it’s the heaviest, darkest varnish
I’ve ever had to remove from a painting. But as well as that it was in poor condition, there
were visible damages, it had had holes knocked into it and a large tear in the area of the old man where something perhaps with a sharp corner had knocked against it. But the first thing that we do when we’re proposing to treat a painting is find out as much as possible about its condition and we do this using techniques like
x-radiography and infrared reflectography. When the results came back from the x-radiographs we
were actually very worried because it showed us that underneath all the thick brown varnish we
had a very, very damaged painting, one that had possibly been folded or perhaps rolled and then the roll of canvas was crushed. And the x-ray told us that a great deal of paint had fallen off and that the restoration, which was almost certainly 19th century, was covering a lot of damage. However, we could also see that large parts of the picture weren’t in such a bad state, that the lower part was generally not too bad and that with one exception all the heads were good, and again with one exception the hands, which are such an important part of Joachim Wtewael’s work, were in perfectly good condition.
So the cleaning started and this was a very, very slow process, gradually dissolving off the thick yellow varnish but also large amounts of repainting that had been put on, fortunately in the 19th century, which meant that it wasn’t terribly hard and difficult to get off, it was just slow. And gradually, gradually as the overpaint came off and all the varnish, Joachim Wtewael’s original paint was revealed, a painting in very, very damaged condition, there’s no denying that, but also with passages of tremendous quality. The restoration process was slow and laborious. The first thing I had to do was to fill all the missing areas because you can’t just retouch on the bare canvas where all the paint has crumbled away and I had to fill it and then put in the base colour that Joachim Wtewael had used; the priming, we call it, and in this case it was this rather cool, pale grey. And we find this in all of Wtewael’s paintings that have been examined by scientists, that he liked to paint on this grey surface. And indeed he actually makes it part of his painting technique, in some of the lighter parts of the painting the grey is very clearly visible and so it was important that I started, even in the smallest of losses, with exactly the same base colour that he used. So it took me some time to mix it to get it absolutely right and then months – it was much the most tedious part of the work – with the painting on a table, gradually filling in the holes and giving myself a good starting point for working with the colour. The colour part, it was challenging because of the enormous number of losses and the places where they were but it’s actually been immensely rewarding, I would almost say fun, because it’s been incredible to see how the painting has slowly come back together again. It’s not our intention in restoring paintings to take them right back to what we think they were like when the artist first completed them. After all, we can’t possibly know, but it’s to find a level that I could apply to the whole of the painting, leaving it looking like an old and damaged painting because that is what it is, but at the same time allowing it to function as a picture that people can enjoy.