Conservation and Technology - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Conservation and Technology

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Conservation and Technology


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Conservation and Technology

The research within the department covers a wide variety of topics and disciplines within the field of the conservation of easel paintings including technical art history, conservation science and the development of conservation treatments. Apart from the research undertaken by members of staff there are three research fellows, one post-doctoral researcher and five PhD students.



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Deterioration of yellow cadmium sulphide artists' paints
Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear
Van Gogh self-portrait 1889

Dr Aviva Burnstock

The project examines the deterioration of cadmium sulphide yellow pigments used in artists paints. The investigation included identification of the pigment in paintings, including works by George Seurat and Vincent van Gogh, and associated colour and surface changes in the paintings.


This is combined with an experimental study of historical and modern examples of the pigment, prepared in a range of binding media, and artificial aged to characterise the changes that may occur on ageing.
The images below show Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) images of these deteriorated pigments.

Cadmium yellow

Technical examination of a work by Julian Trevelyan

Maureen Cross

Cross Section of Paint Layers
Cross Section of Paint Layers

Julian Trevelyan was a British painter and etcher best known for his early surrealist work of the late 1930s. Never afraid to experiment with artistic genres, subject matter, and materials, he often pared scenes down to their bare essentials using a minimal palette. Woman in a Courtyard (1933) is a prime example of his unconventional technique.  Using both oil and household paints, he painted in prussian blue, synthetic ultramarine, vermilion and earth colours, shifting the hue and tone of his paint with black and white.

Detail showing Graphite
Detail showing Graphite

He created complex and interesting textures by adding wood chips and sawdust to his paint and by scratching lines into the wet surface with a sharp pencil.  He worked and re-worked the composition, leaving the pentimenti of previous forms visible.

Detail showing Sawdust
Detail showing Sawdust

Mary Fedden, the artist’s widow, gifted the work to Tate after finding it in his studio, damp, and folded in thirds. Due to the extensive damage and paint loss, it was considered a candidate for the study collection.  The work was resurrected after a precarious treatment complicated by the variation of material sensitivity and surface topography.  A complex arrangement of aqueous, and dry materials were used to surface clean the painting.  An equally complex combination of fill and inpainting media were employed to recreate the variations in surface gloss and texture. A full technical examination of the work was carried out which aided and enabled the treatment decision-making process.

Conservation Mechanics

Dr Christina Young

This work continues a tradition in the Department of research into the physical properties of paintings on canvas and panels. The work brings together conservators and scientists from The Courtauld Institute of Art, Tate, Imperial College, and the National Gallery, London. The research aims are to gain a better understanding of the mechanical deterioration of easel paintings, the effects of environmental conditions and to characterise their physical behaviour.

Conservation mechanics1

Along side this work, research is carried out to assess and develop methods and materials used for the structural conservation treatments of paintings; this includes lining, tear mending and panel joining.

Conservation mechanics2

Among the techniques employed for this research are uniaxial and biaxial tensile testing, interferometry (ESPI), thermo-mechanical testing.

Conservation mechanics3

The role of conservation in contemporary painting

Dr Christina Young


“Maybe a work is only finished when it’s ruined, no? You wouldn’t believe how many people send me photographs of my paintings when they have fallen down from the wall! They are always afraid that the work will fall down, that objects will fall from them……It is not so easy, I think, having a painting of mine.”

This research aims to bring together conservators, scientists, artists, art handlers and curators from the Tate, MoMA (NY) and White Cube Gallery and private practice. Through seminars, workshops, treatments and analysis of contemporary artists’ methods and materials, there is an exchange of information and approaches to the conservation of contemporary painting.

In collaboration with White Cube Gallery, Christina Young has focused her research on Anselm Kiefer- examining the nature of transformation of his paintings with the aim of developing a methodology for their future display and care. Anselm Kiefer represents the antithesis of the conservation remit to stop or slow down the degradation of materials within works of art. He challenges conservators and curators to accept decay and transformation. However, further exploration is required to fully understand both the physical and philosophical boundaries in which he operates and perceives future transformation.

To coincide with the Kiefer show at White Cube, the paper ‘Sow’s Ears and Silk Purses: Maintaining the art works of Anselm Kiefer’ is published here by the Courtauld Institute.

 Sow’s Ears and Silk Purses: Maintaining the art works of Anselm Kiefer, by Tom Hale [2 MB]

A seminar will took place on 26 January 2012 at White Cube entitled ‘An art of ongoing transformation: Anselm Kiefer’s materials and methods’.

 Related links
Canvas for the 21st century

As part of one of the projects under the Designing for the C21st AHRC/EPSRC initiative, we have evaluated modern fabrics for the structural conservation of easel paintings and as artists’ canvas. We are revisiting the specification requirements of canvas fabrics including: long term stability, mechanical properties, moisture permeability, texture, handling properties, aesthetic and commercial considerations. This work has been done in consultation with conservators and artists, then by testing, modeling (Warwick University) and working with fabric manufacturers.

Canvas for the 21st century

Tensioned fabric is also being studied as a medium for sculpturing architectural enclosures. The research includes the development of a mathematical model (Warwick) for predicting physical properties of fabrics. The Courtauld has conducted biaxial mechanical testing, for a variety of loading regimes and environmental conditions. The accuracy of the model has been tested, on a realistic scale, using full field 3D Electronic Speckle Pattern Interferometer (ESPI) measurements of the stress/strain fields of canvas tensioned on a stretcher. From this research we have been able to recommend suitable fabrics for use in different scenarios, for both conservators and artists.

Surface cleaning
Macro Photograph of cleaning test
Macro Photograph of cleaning test

This research is an examination of the effects of Triammonium  citrate at different concentrations and pH.

Cleaning with TAC montageCleaning tests: The paint surface is examined before and after treatment using light microscopy and VPSEM. The surfaces (right) have been treated with a 0.0822M solution of Citrate at pH 5.98 (equivalent to 2% w/v TAC).

The research within the department covers a wide variety of topics and disciplines within the field of the conservation of easel paintings including technical art history, conservation science and the development of conservation treatments.

A study of water-soluble oil paint in 20th-century paintings

Dr Aviva Burnstock

Jasper Johns Triptych 1964
Jasper Johns Triptych 1964

Conservators often report problems surface cleaning unvarnished paintings made in oil media using spit/water. A study examines individual works that exhibit this phenomena, including paintings by Jasper Johns and Robyn Denny made in the 1960s. The aim is to characterise aspects of paint manufacture and composition that could account for the water solubility of aged oil paints.

Non-invasive monitoring

Dr Christina Young

non-invasive monitoring montage

Using optical techniques it is possible to monitor the behaviour of paintings and measure their response to a variety of parameters without altering or damaging them. There are many related optical techniques that can be employed.

Non-invasive monitoring3D Electronic Speckle Pattern Interferometry is used at The Courtauld because it is suitable for mapping the in-plane and out-of-plane deformations of canvas and panel. Being a non-contact, non-destructive technique ESPI enables better use of the more rare examples of deteriorated paintings that can be used for testing, and also offers the possibility for monitoring paintings in the gallery.

The image on the right is a two dimensional  strain contour plot of a canvas with tacks every 30mm.

A reference image is recorded, the painting deformed by tensioning and a second image recorded. The deformation of the surface is then calculated from the difference (auto correlation) between the two images. The deformation is then displayed as a 2D map in contours or pseudo-colour.

Canvas supports

The Invention Movement Between the UK, France and USA During the C19th in Relation to Painting Supports
Pascal Labreuche

The research focuses on the comparison of the invention movement between the UK, France and USA during the nineteenth century, especially through the study of patents, trademarks, and archives and documents related to paintings supports.

Forthcoming publications: “Scientists, artists and colourmen in the first half of 19th century: a collaboration serving the French School of Paintings”, revue Alliage, 2007; La toile à peindre à Paris au 19e siècle. Inventions et mutations techniques, Paris: CTHS/INHA, coll. “L’art et l’essai”, c. 300 p.

 The Physical Properties of Canvas Supplied by London Colourmen
Dr Christina Young

The research concentrates on the mechanical and environmental properties of pre-primed canvas supplied by London Colourmen. The aim is to build up a database which correlates the materials and method of preparation with their physical behaviour. The data is being collected from archival primed loose lining supplied by private conservators and various Institutions. Canvas stamps and documentary evidence have been used to date the canvas. Optical microscopy and EDX is been used to identify and attempt to quantify the ground mixtures. Biaxial tensile testing under different environmental conditions is being used to measure isotropy, strength and stiffness and moisture response.

Canvas supports diagram

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