A museum director recently asked her to take a late-19th- century American over-mantle mirror and make it look like an English Chippendale mirror. "What this told me is that he didn't really understand or appreciate the aesthetic of the mirror's creation," explained Bigelow. Her role, she believes, is to prolong the life of the object so that the next conservator working on the object can approach it easily. That role often includes returning a work to its original state after it has been altered.
Such was the case with an American mirror carved and gilded between 1825 and 1830, later tarted up in Victorian America. The mirror was auctioned at Sotheby's after its treatment, and she overheard a couple say of the piece, "Do you know the piece has been restored? . . ." "Yes, but what a job." Said Bigelow, "No comment has ever made me happier."
John Walsh, distinguished scholar and director of the preeminent J. Paul Getty Museum, speaking about restoration, told the Reed audience that we must start by facing the hard fact: "Works of art have been altered since they were made, and most damage occurred a long time ago." How can a restorer reconstruct a complete work from the broken, damaged pottery shards collected from a collapsed ancient tomb? asked Walsh. Conservators can't have perfect hindsight, but they can rely on educated intuition and an acute sensitivity to what remains. Through an intimate knowledge of the parts of the object, a kind of wholeness can be gleaned. Then the conservator can use trickery to suggest visual unity without distorting or embellishing.
Walsh gave the example of a Greek vase, glued back together, missing parts created from molds of existing parts, the cracks filled, the design continued in the new areas only as far as evidence from the piece makes that possible. What a restorer refrains from doing is at least as important as what he or she does.Restoration, Walsh said, "involves removing the distracting element rather than trying to complete the work. Rather than attempting to fake the missing part, you rely on suggestion and allow the eye to fill in what's missing.
Agnolo Gaddi's St. Julian, James, and Michael, before the 1950s cleaning.
Same painting after the excessive cleaning reveals the underlying wooden panels.