Welcome to the next installment in our Meet a Conservator series! If you’re an AICCM member and would like to take part in this series, please get in touch.
What first attracted you to conservation as a profession?
I always loved painting and drawing, but I wasn’t sure I had the motivation to become a professional artist. I also enjoyed history and science subjects at school, and wanted a career that combined these interests. I first saw conservators at work when I went on a tour of Artlab Australia in Year 10. A conservator was treating a painting by Renoir from the Art Gallery of South Australia collection, and after that I was completely sold on the idea of becoming a conservator. I had been studying the Impressionists at school and I was enthralled that conservators could work with paintings in such a practical way, and also the conservators there seemed like really nice people too! I started volunteering at Artlab when I was 18, and then graduated from the University of Canberra program in 1998.
Can you think of any experience in your career that has taught you a lot about conservation or that has changed how you approach your work?
Working under the mentorship of highly experienced painting conservators has taught me the most about conservation. Their guidance really taught me how to ‘see’ paintings, and to understand how even very subtle conservation interventions can considerably affect the nuances within a painting. Their influence stays with me today; I still get the voice of one of my most memorable teachers in my head when I’m varnishing paintings, reminding me of the ‘do’s and don’ts’! She referred to wax varnishes as the ‘Devil’s grandmother’, which was hard to forget.
Do you have a favourite object or material that you’ve worked on?
It’s hard to pick a favourite as different paintings are memorable for various reasons. On the high profile, glamorous scale, I recently treated a very large painting by Botticelli in preparation for the Botticelli: Reimagined exhibition which is now on at the V&A in London. It was thrilling to work on this beautiful painting by a Renaissance master. This exhibition was very high profile and the breakfast press launch was pretty intense; I was pulled into the photo call at the last minute and made it into the national papers the next day, awkwardly posed next to the V&A Botticelli with another colleague. I was wearing white gloves, of course!
A memorable project from my work in Australia is the disaster recovery of some flood damaged Indigenous paintings from a remote East Kimberley community. The paintings had sustained significant damage from the floodwaters. They were flown to Melbourne for controlled drying and conservation treatment.
What’s the one thing you wish more people knew about conservation and conservators?
I wish people were more aware of the time involved in preparing paintings for exhibition. Sometimes many hundreds of hours will be spent treating a painting, but the outcome of all that hard work is that the painting looks untouched. Achieving this is down to the skill of the conservator, and it is the fundamental aim of our craft.
Do you have any hot tips for people at home who are wanting to care for the materials around them?
Paintings like stability and security. Stable temperature, relative humidity and secure hanging fixtures will do a lot to help preserve them. Most damages happen when paintings are moved, or if they fall off the wall! So my tip is to keep paintings in a stable environment, hung securely, and move them as infrequently (and carefully) as possible.
Catherine Nunn, Bachelor of Applied Science Conservation of Cultural Materials, University of Canberra, Master of Arts, University of Melbourne is a freelance painting conservator in London, UK. She is currently on a leave of absence from her position at the University of Melbourne (GCCMC), where she has worked as a Senior Painting Conservator since 2007. She has spent her career working in many different conservation centres and museums and galleries all over the world, including Artlab Australia, Auckland Art Gallery, National Gallery of Victoria, Hamilton Kerr Institute (University of Cambridge) and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.