NGV conservator John Payne restores JMW Turner’s Dunstanburgh Castle

National Gallery of Victoria senior conservator John Payne is restoring Dunstanburgh Castle, north-east coast of Northumberland, sunrise after a squally night, 1798, by English painter J. M. W. Turner. Photo: Jason South
National Gallery of Victoria senior conservator John Payne is restoring Dunstanburgh Castle, north-east coast of Northumberland, sunrise after a squally night, 1798, by English painter J. M. W. Turner. Photo: Jason South

“It’s a nice way to see a Turner,” says John Payne, with more than a modicum of understatement.

The National Gallery of Victoria’s senior conservator is part-way through the restoration of Dunstanburgh Castle, north-east coast of Northumberland, sunrise after a squally night, 1798, by celebrated English painter J. M. W. Turner.

Up close, the painting from the NGV collection (a gift to the gallery from the Duke of Westminster in 1888, it is one of three Turners held by the NGV) reveals much about the artist, his practice and process.

“This is incredibly vigorous,” Payne says of Turner’s style and technique, pointing out the print of Turner’s finger where he has wiped away a splodge of paint, and scratches made with the handle of his paintbrush marking the initial outline of the landscape. “For the late 18th century, it’s quite an adrenalin rush.”

As Payne works in the studio at NGV International, to a soundtrack of Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell through his headphones (he listened to U2 while restoring Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra), his careful removal of layers of varnish from restorations by previous NGV conservators in the 1920s and 1950s reveals further details.

Tiny figures of fishermen with a boat can be seen in a cave set back from the rocky shore; the detail of the rocks in the foreground becomes clearer.

And the damage to the canvas – particularly in the middle upper section, from varnish of an earlier era – which has been Payne’s focus this week, also becomes apparent.

The higher walls of the studio bear the X-rays of some of the best known paintings held by the NGV, including Tom Roberts’ classic Australian painting Shearing the Rams. Those X-rays, used by conservators to reveal the layers of work over the course of the work’s history, are like ghosts of paintings past. Payne points out how Roberts’  shearer initially had a rod-straight back, before the painter changed the pose to the hunched-over form we are now so familiar with.

It’s not the first Turner that Payne has restored – he recently completed work on Falls of Schaffhausen (Val d’Aosta), circa 1845, which is now back on display in the gallery – but it does seem particularly significant.

As a younger, less-experienced conservator he was asked more than 30 years ago to restore this particular painting, and declined.

Coming back to it now he finds a deep satisfaction in tackling the work, removing the earlier varnish and applying resin and pigments, applied with a brush bearing the tiniest tip.

“The poetry of this for me is the circular nature of looking at it 30 years on,” Payne says.

“I hadn’t realised it had hung around in the background of my thinking for a long time. It’s fantastic to [be able to] preserve it.”
by Debbie Cuthbertson

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

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