This paper will chart the conservation history, technical analysis and treatment of a small Northern panel painting depicting the Virgin and Child with St Joseph. Although this work has been known to Worcester Art Museum for nearly seventy years, having been exhibited there in the 1930’s, it has only recently been bequeathed to its permanent collection. Before formal acquisitioning could take place, the panel required a full resolution of possible attributions. Past curatorial opinion had questioned the status of the panel as a sixteenth century panel, preferring to consider it as a nineteenth century pastiche. Subsequently its entry into the permanent collection remained uncertain.
Extensive art historical research was mounted in a bid to resolve its initial attribution problems. A range of specialists from a number of different institutions in Europe and America were consulted about the iconography and other stylistic aspects of the work. A wide range of attributions resulted which ranged from Spanish to Flemish Masters and their associated schools and followers. After a number of authors, suggested by the scholars and curators were researched, it emerged that none seemed to reflect the work strongly enough to consider it related to the oeuvre of a particular workshop. Finally, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, made a further suggestion citing the Master of the Virgin with the Parrot as a possible hand. Photo archives in London, The Hague and New York were surveyed for any similar works to the Worcester panel. This yielded some encouraging examples which better resembled aspects of the unattributed panel.

An investigation into the materials and techniques of the panel was needed to compile technical data about the work and to confirm that it was indeed a painting of the sixteenth century and it could be correctly placed historically. Information about the panel materials and techniques has been gleaned by way of a range of analytical methods. Light microscopy and X-radiography were used initially to gain information about painting technique. Infrared reflectography and the compilation of an overall mosaic was used to examine the materials and nature of the underdrawing on the panel. Wood sampling was carried out to ascertain wood type. Non-destructive XRF analysis was carried out to get elemental information about pigment use. Microchemical tests were made to characterize the nature of the ground.

A recent, and entirely unexpected discovery of very early conservation documentation dating from the 40’s, made by the museum for the then owner of the panel, has served to elucidate its early treatment history. An early x-ray and IR photographs from 1948 give information about the particularly radical campaign of additive restoration they document that was thought to have originated in the nineteenth century or at least before 1919. The knowledge of this specific restoration campaign which was removed at some point after
1948, also provides valuable insight into aspects of the painting’s present appearance and the damage that was noted during an assessment prior to this recent conservation treatment. Thanks to the discovery of these early visual documents, a full understanding of the penultimate treatment undergone by the panel has now been reached.

The appearance of the panel prior to recent conservation treatment combined with older documentation, helped to diagnose the circumstances of the aggressive post 1948 cleaning and in turn helped to inform further conservation steps. The recent treatment of this panel was very straight forward and involved the removal of an older varnish layer and two campaigns of retouching, one situated above the varnish layer and one below it. The lower retouching was removed by different means from the varnish and upper retouching layer and some losses and the central panel join were filled after the application of an isolating varnish. The panel was then retouched. The technical analysis and treatment of the painting, along with the important but unexpected discovery of early documentation allowed a better understanding of this small panel and ultimately ensured its acceptance into the permanent collection at Worcester Art Museum.

Insights & Intuition: 10th Paintings SIG Symposium 2006
Paper author:
Blewett, Morwenna