Quite unexpectedly, the hitherto carefully maintained defences of the National Gallery’s picture cleaning policies are in disarray. Their hollowness has been painfully exposed by glaring disparities of colour and tonality between four paintings assembled for the current Titian exhibition.
The four pictures, commissioned from Titian by the Duke of Ferrara for his study or “Camerino” between 1518 and 1524, have, for first time since 1621, been reunited in their (assumed) original order. They are: the National Gallery’s Bacchus and Ariadne; the Prado’s pair, The Andrians and The Worship of Venus; and, the National Gallery of Washington’s The Feast of the Gods (a work begun by Giovanni Bellini but repainted by Titian to match his other three autograph works.)
In a courageously frank appraisal, the Gallery’s senior curator, David Jaffé, concedes in the exhibition catalogue that some of the paintings present have been victims of “injudicious conservation” – a fact that, remarkably, seems to have gone unnoticed by professional art critics. Mr Jaffe himself, however, as a recent member of the Gallery’s staff, seems not to have been fully apprised by his conservator colleagues of the full extent of their department’s interventions on paintings – or of the frequency of its participation in past cleaning controversies. Although, for example, he rightly compares the Bacchus and Ariadne unfavourably with the Prado’s The Worship of Venus, he erroneously backdates the “storm” caused by the former’s cleaning to the 1840s, in clear ignorance of the storm that greeted the picture’s last cleaning in 1967. When I mentioned the latter event to Mr Jaffé, earlier this week, he confessed to being unaware of it, adding – rather too hurriedly – that if it had been cleaned then it could only have been a very minimal intervention. This was a doubly alarming response. First, it strongly suggests that the Gallery’s conservation department either lacks awareness of its own history, or is slow to disclose it. Second, because the Battle of The Bacchus and Ariadne during the 1960s marked a decisive tipping moment in favour of the Gallery in its long cleanings war. This particular cleaning was opposed with massed scholarly and artistic forces not after the event, as was usual, but in anticipation. In 1966 highly distinguished figures like Ernst Gombrich, Erwin Panofsky, Oscar Kokoschka and the then editor of the Burlington Magazine, Benedict Nicolson, publicly implored the Gallery’s Trustees not subject “this delicate and miraculous canvas” to cleaning methods “which they know to be controversial.” They were ignored. In order to defeat this collective expertise the Gallery played the “conservation” card: it was claimed that the painting was falling to pieces. (This ruse was later deployed by the Vatican authorities in justification for the disastrous cleaning of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes.) If there was any substance in this claim, the culprits, whatever Mr Jaffé was not told, might still have been around at the time. The Bacchus and Ariadne had been subjected in 1929 to what was described in the Gallery’s 1965-66 annual report as “an unsuccessful lining” with “a powerful glue”. To preclude the possibility of subsequent fresh embarrassments, an international group of big-wig restorers was invited to approve the Gallery’s proposed “urgent” programme in advance. It did so.
In May 1967 the picture was withdrawn for what was a most radical and aesthetically disruptive overhaul. The reinforcing canvas lining and its adhesive were stripped from the canvas’s back. A new lining was attached with a “thermo-plastic adhesive” designed to penetrate the original canvas and to attach itself to the paint/ground layers. (Such procedures are now discredited and largely abandoned.) After its new relining, the picture was mounted on a “wood-fibre composition board”. It was then turned over for a “final removal of residues of former overpaint and coatings” before being re-varnished. The Gallery astutely allowed the editor of the Burlington Magazine to be privy to the work-in-progress. He later professed himself to have been persuaded – to his own “amazement” – that his earlier “apprehensions” in general terms, “do not seem to apply to this particular picture”. Glowing reports of the emergence of “fabulous colours” were leaked to the press by ill-informed toadies – such as Ms Betty Harvie Anderson, M. P. who was allowed to take a group of political colleagues to see the restoration. With Nicolson’s defection the chief platform for scholarly dissent seems to have disappeared. By 1985 the then editor of the Burlington Magazine, Neil MacGregor, was contending that the key question was no longer “how, or even whether, to clean” but simply “what can be learnt through cleaning about the picture itself.”
This must have been a great relief to National Gallery’s restorers who had long been obliged to defend the brightness and intensity of its pictures’ blues and reds. In a final, despairing protest in 1970, Pietro Annigoni painted “MURDERERS” on the National Gallery’s front doors. These so-brilliant primaries, he maintained, constituted “atrocious results [which] reveal an incredible absence of sensibility”. Restorers who proclaimed the “brilliant colours” emerging from under their swabs and scalpels as miraculous recoveries, were in fact guilty of destroying the very glazes with which artists had conferred “unity, balance, atmosphere, expression – in fact all the most important and moving qualities in a work of art” upon their pictures.”
By the 1990s all seemed lost, with “conservation science” invariably trumping aesthetic, historical expertise. A former director of the National Gallery, Kenneth (Lord) Clark, had felt free to confess in 1977 that he created the science department precisely in order to have what “purported” to be material evidence in support of the controversial cleanings. In a recent television programme, a successor director, Neil Macgregor, boasted that the sky in the Bacchus and Ariadne now comprises “the brightest blue, perhaps, in the whole of European painting”. In truth, the claim was historically unsound and, as the current exhibition demonstrates, politically unwise.
Firstly, Titian was praised by his contemporaries precisely for his ability to make the skies of his landscapes recede optically and not, as today in the Bacchus and Ariadne, to leap forward, chromatically eclipsing the picture’s own principal figures.
Secondly, it has long been apparent from photographic comparisons that wherever the National Gallery owns a painting that was originally part of a larger ensemble, it hangs brighter, flatter, and less spatially/sculpturally coherent than its original companions in galleries elsewhere. This is most notoriously the case with the Gallery’s panel from Uccello’s three part Battle of San Romano cycle. Now, however, with this Titian show, we at last have direct, irrefutable physical, optical proof that Annigoni et al were right all along. Our Titian’s sky simply does not match those of its companions. Notwithstanding variations of condition that are evident today in these nearly four hundred year old paintings, our member of the quartet is grotesquely the odd one out. The strident red/blue/white chords of the Bacchus and Ariadne bear no comparison with their beautifully harmonious counterparts seen in the foreground and on the right of the Prado’s (more recently cleaned) The Worship of Venus. No one will ever again be able credibly to claim that the Gallery’s “cleanings” constitute any kind of liberation of suppressed historical truths. This exhibition may well – and certainly should – prove to be the National Gallery restorers’ Waterloo.