This month, we take a closer look at the restoration of an intriguing work of art: The Witches’ Sabbath, a 16th-century masterpiece by Frans Verbeek. We focus on the restoration of the oak support, carried out by Brian Richardson, a specialist in the conservation and restoration of wooden objects and furniture.

Structure and damage pattern of the wooden carrier

The panel consists of three horizontally oriented oak boards, the top one being 26.5 cm wide, the middle one 21.0 cm, and the bottom one 23.0 cm. This is not clearly visible on the back; during previous restorations, the glue joints were covered with veneer, which made the situation very confusing. It is notable, however, that the panel is only 7 mm thick, which is thin for a panel of this size.

The carrier with support structure before conservation treatment
The front showing a level difference

An earlier restoration treatment, presumably from the second half of the last century, included the addition of a support structure at the back to reinforce the panel. Despite the attempt to develop a sprung support structure, the system falls short because the window construction is immobile. Saw marks and serrations in the wood suggest that the panel was thinned, possibly long before the 20th-century support structure. The patina on the backside has been partially removed for the support construction, and the cracks and glue seam have been reinforced with V-shaped inserts in walnut, but not all glueing is even, causing level differences at the front.

Removal of support structure

To improve the condition of the panel, Brian first loosened the support structure, including the screws on the back. He cut away the fastening blocks one by one with a gouge and chisel and finely sanded the panel to smooth the glue residue. The remnants of synthetic glue in the wood structure itself were not removed.

The back of the panel after removing the blocks

Correction of level difference

After removing the support structure, Brian decided to remove the V-shaped inserts – where the level difference to a crack was most disturbing – to open up the crack and improve the level difference. The expectation was that the V-shaped inserts would follow the cracks nicely. Once the inset pieces of wood were removed, only 2-3 mm would then remain where the crack would need to be loosened. Compresses were used to soak off the glue to then open the crack. Next, Brian carefully cut away the V-shaped inserts on the back with different types of wood chisels. Finally, the white glue, with which the inserts had been glued, was soaked loose with acetone and removed so that the notches were completely clean.

While removing the wax layer

New construction

Without support, the panel was too fragile, so Brian placed a new support structure on the back. This system consisted of slats that were glued to the back with fish glue using small blocks. Each slat was slid into grooves in the blocks, creating an equal distribution of pressure across the backside. After this addition, the panel became considerably more stable and again manipulable.

After the glue has dried, everything is ready for sliding in the slats
After conservation with the new support structure on the back of the panel

Paris-based paintings conservator Perrine de Fontenay, has been a fellow at The Phoebus Foundation for the past three months. Her focus during this period has been on the conservation of paintings from our collection of Latin-American art of the colonial period and our old masters collection. One of her most notable contributions involves working together with paintings conservator Sofia Hennen on two paintings by Jakob Seisenegger (1505 – 1567) depicting the siblings Archduke Maximilian (1527 – 1576) and Archduchess Elisabeth (1526 – 1545).

For the past few months, a long process of painstakingly removing old overpaint has been carried out in order to unveil the original, colourful background intended by the artist.

before treatment

Jakob Seisenegger (1505 – 1567) painted the portraits in 1537, depicting the siblings Archduke Maximilian (1527 – 1576) and Archduchess Elisabeth (1526 – 1545) at the ages of 10 and 11, respectively. These oil paintings on linden or poplar panels showcase the children adorned in luxurious clothing embellished with jewels and flowers in their hair. The attire and jewels are detailed with gold accents. Both figures are positioned behind a green marble ledge. Initially, the backgrounds were dark brown-black, but in some areas, traces of a colourful layer beneath were revealed after removing oxidized varnishes and tinted layers.

As the court-appointed painter to Ferdinand I, Seisenegger created numerous portraits of the children and other members of the Habsburg court. His artistic skills were highly sought after at the time. Receipts related to Seisenegger’s first commissions from Ferdinand I have been discovered, revealing the artist’s meticulous approach in selecting and preparing the panels for portraiture (Borchert, 2021). Similar to many painters of his era, Seisenegger maintained stringent standards for the materials that he worked with.

Since their creation, these portraits have undergone some alterations and have been subject to several previous restoration interventions before being entrusted to the care of Sofia and Perrine here at the conservation studio.

details during varnish removal

The portraits were carefully studied upon arrival to establish a general overview of their condition and the previous restoration campaigns they had undergone. Through observations in natural light and UV reflectance, testing, and comparisons with other portraits by Seisenegger, it was determined that the original green and gold brocade of the background was concealed beneath a darkened accumulation of old varnishes, non-original glazes, and greenish overpaint. The overpainting might have been done with the intent of unifying uneven or overly cleaned paint. Another possibility is that the overpaint was an aesthetic choice following a trend. Similar examples of portraits from the same period with brightly coloured backgrounds hidden by non-original layers and overpaint can also be found.

Previous interventions, potentially dating back to the 19th century, were also identified in the panel structures. The planks were split, their joints planed down and subsequently rejoined with wooden half-lap insertions. This was likely done in an attempt to flatten the natural curvature of the wooden panels. The intervention is notably apparent in the portrait of the Archduchess, resulting in a loss of a few millimetres from the top to the bottom of the panel, extending vertically across the entire composition.

It was decided to focus the restoration of the panels primarily on the varnish and paint layers. A structural intervention aimed at correcting the discrepancy in the composition of the Archduchess’s portrait was deemed too risky. Following meticulous testing, the numerous layers of varnish, non-original glazes, and overpaint were gradually cleaned and softened using solvent gels, enabling their mechanical removal with scalpels. Though a time-consuming process, the results were rewarding as the beautiful hidden details finally emerged. Fortunately, aside from the edges, the original paint layer underneath was well-preserved, revealing a luxurious green-and-gold brocade.

after treatment

For this unique behind-the-scenes feature, we talk with the team of art handlers who work for The Phoebus Foundation. Get to know Idris Sevenans, Claire Dieltjes, Bram Van Broeckhoven, Claartje Borgmann and Florian Sevenans who manage and organize, under the supervision of our COO Luk Van Hove,  the operational ins and outs of the artworks from our collection. The team not only ensures the safety  of the works of art, but also of the people who come into contact with them. Every piece that enters the depot is carefully checked for potential contamination by micro-organisms and framing problems and then inventoried. This procedure is important for the further progress of the preservation and conservation of the artworks. Although every work is treated with precaution, efficient handling is a must.

The art handlers tell you more about the art of art handling: 

Florian: ‘Although my personal interest and passion are rooted in philosophy, I find the depot a particularly interesting working environment because I come into daily contact with very diverse works of art that are interesting from a historical perspective. Some artworks are not only aesthetically captivating, but are also sometimes a play on historical irony. Certain objects are literally and figuratively being brought closer together. In the depot, for instance, we hung a series of portraits of Italian writers side by side, including a portrait of Giovanni Pico Dela Mirandola (1463-1494). In 1486, this 15th-century nobleman and philosopher wrote an important treatise on the dignity of man in which he set out his views on truth and man’s place within the universe’.

Unknown master, Portraits of Giovanni Pico Dela Mirandola and Pietro Aretino, c.1650

Next to it hangs another historical figure from a later period, Pietro Aretino (1492-1556). In his writings, he highlights the less flattering elements of human existence in his writings, such as the abuses of the church and the tameness of ecclesiastical authority. His writings instilled fear in sixteenth-century high circles. He was considered one of the first art critics and had contacts with great artists. As a result, these two portraits, where a whole story could unfold, suddenly become incredibly interesting when placed in confrontation with each other. It is very pleasant to work in an environment that triggers an almost daily historical sensation and awareness. This creates a connection with the bigger picture and adds value to preserving and passing on artefacts.’

Bram: In the past, I often came into contact with art history due to my academic background but also because of my professional life as a historical art expert for art auctions. It never fails to fascinate me how the value of artworks is influenced by historical facts, and how knowledge of material and technique within the art world adds value to a work of art. For example, I recently came across Catharina Hemessen’s (c. 1527/1528-1567) Portrait of a Lady (1550) where it was thought that a tortoiseshell horn had been used. In collaboration with the conservation team, we were able to reveal that it was merely an imitation. Our expertise thus becomes an added value for the recognition and identification of artworks. Caring for them on a daily basis is truly rewarding!’

Catharina Van Hemessen, Portrait of a Lady, c.1550

Art handler and artist Idris Sevenans also brings a strong dynamic to the team of our art handlers. Additionally, he is involved in analysing and dealing with art (archives) through his organisation AARS (Antwerp Artist Run School), providing a refreshing perspective on the goal of preserving and caring for art objects.

Idris: ‘During my research at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, I was confronted with the transience of art objects and the importance of collecting them. Taking care of The Phoebus Foundation’s collection is a hugely rewarding cross-fertilization for me as an archivist and a teacher at the AARS (Antwerp Artist Run School). I thoroughly enjoy dedicating myself every day to both disciplines.’

Among all the male violence, there are also two amazing female art handlers: Claire and Claartje.

Claire: ”It’s rather a coincidence that I became an art handler. After completing my studies in fashion design in South Africa, I started looking for the next challenge. On the advice of my grandmother, I then came to Belgium to embark on a new adventure, which then brought me here. Walking into the depot every day, I step into another world. Moreover, thanks to my Antwerp-rooted colleagues, I have learned a lot about the country and city I now call home and their rich culture and history. I like the flexibility and variety of my job, but also security and planning. This is why I take on the administration of our team. Good planning and communication are crucial to successful completing our responsibilities. The friendship within our team ensures that no task is too hard and we come to work every day with a smile.’

The art handling team, which is continuously expanding in collaboration with Katoen Natie Art, is currently preparing several large loan projects. The team actively participates in courses and tasks are divided based on experience and expertise. They are an indispensable part of The Phoebus Foundation family!

As part of the conservation of The Phoebus Foundation’s modern and contemporary Latin American collection, Rafael Barradas’s painting The Party from 1910 is currently in the hands of Clara Bondia.

It showcases an expressive figurative style that predates Barradas’ renowned vibrationism. Within the artwork, his skills as a caricaturist shine through, evident in the joyful expressions and celebratory atmosphere exuded by the characters.

The oil paint layers on the canvas exhibit a modified format, with noticeable clear edge truncations in several areas. It is possible that these alterations were made either over time or by the artist during the creation process.

Through a comprehensive comparative analysis and empirical research, it was determined that the work was formerly lined using a resin wax system. It is evident that the initial adhesion between the pictorial layer and the canvas was inadequate, likely prompting the decision to conduct the lining treatment in the past.

The tonality of the artwork was slightly darkened by a layer of dirt on the surface, and it had developed a yellowish hue caused by the oxidation of a thin layer of varnish. The white layers of the dresses of the female figures were by far the most affected. Additionally, there were issues related to polychromy, including discoloration and the presence of thick overpainting that encroached upon portions of the original paint layer.

Due to the weak condition of the artwork, it was decided to perform several treatments, prioritizing minimal interventions with absolute respect for the artist’s original intentions.

The restoration process began with a two-stage cleaning procedure aimed at eliminating surface dirt and removing the discolored, oxidized varnish and overpainting. This restoration effort successfully revitalized the work, revealing the vibrant original colors. In the next phase, the missing polychromy was addressed by conducting both volumetric and chromatic reintegration. Finally, a thin protective varnish layer was applied to safeguard the piece.

This conservation project is part of a larger initiative focused on preserving the Latin American art collection of The Phoebus Foundation. It is a pleasure to treat this painting along with several other gems and return it to its original glory.

Giovanna Tamà is an independent conservator specializing in Old Masters. Join us inside the The Phoebus Foundation restoration studio as she unveils her captivating work on various projects, including the restoration treatment of Prometheus Bound. Let’s take a look behind the layers of paint together!

Giovanna while retouching

“One of my projects is the restoration of a painting by the studio of Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), Prometheus Bound. A larger-scale depiction by Jordaens with the same subject and composition from around 1640 is currently in the collection of the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne. It was common for Jordaens’ large and successful studio to produce reproductions of pre-existing compositions by the grand master.

Jordaens like to paint mythological and allegorical scenes, alongside genre scenes. In this particular artwork, he portrays the tale of Prometheus, who faced the wrath of Jupiter. His punishment involved the constant torment of having his liver pecked at by the supreme god’s eagle. This cruel fate befell Prometheus for daring to bring fire to men.

Over the years, the painting has already undergone some restoration treatments. It was given a new carrier and has been lined. In this old restoration, the edges of the canvas were cut off, so a small piece of the composition was lost.”

Studio of Jacob Jordaens, Prometheus Bound, c.1640-1645 (before treatment)

“The painting was not in the best condition. Over time, it had taken on a highly darkened and soiled appearance as the varnish had yellowed greatly. To hide wear and paint loss, large areas of the original paint were carelessly painted over in the past. Numerous unnecessary accentuations were also added to the bodies of Prometheus and Mercury (figure above right).”

Detail of non-original accentuations

“During the removal of the varnish, the old retouching and overpainting, the original colors were restored to their glory. The details came back to light, and we could finally see the painting technique. After cleaning, an isolating varnish was applied to create a barrier between the original paint layer and the restorer’s interventions.”

During varnish removal

Currently, Giovanna is working on the final stage of treatment. The next step is to fill and retouch the gaps in order for the painting to receive a final varnish.

After filling, before reoutching

Oliver Claes has now been working as a paper and book conservator for more than a decade and is currently in charge of the conservation of the topographical and historical book collection from The Phoebus Foundation collection. For the last couple of months, Oliver’s work included the restoration of Abraham Ortelius’ sixteenth-century masterpiece Theatrum Orbis Terrarum.

“The Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (‘theatre of the world’) is the very first world atlas, published on the 20th of May 1570. The volume was created by the Antwerp-native Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) and published by Gillis Coppens I. Ortelius compiled the best and most reliable maps of his time into one volume. A unique feature of it is that all the maps were engraved in the same style and size on copper plates, and were arranged by continent, region and state. This ensured that the atlas remained popular for decades and was even translated into other languages.”

“The condition of the book was very poor. The book block (the collection of quires) was very soiled, and the binding distorted. Moreover, it had also come loose, and the various quires revealed multiple damages and gaps. The binding made of parchment was broken and could no longer fulfil its role of protecting the book block. Furthermore, the sturdiness that a binding should provide to the book block had completely disappeared due to the lack of sturdy cartons. Upon opening the book, the fragile and coloured title page immediately became visible.”

“The outline of the restoration was a thorough cleaning of all parts, filling in and reinforcing the book’s binding and strengthening it. For this, the book had to be completely dismantled. All the quires were reinforced piece by piece with Japanese or Western paper (and starch glue).”

“Afterwards, all the quires were similarly bound with twine on parchment strips. The title page was also cleaned, completed and retouched. A fun finding during the restoration of this book was that a drawn “little man” was discovered on the inside of the parchment folded over the cardboard (of the book binding). Presumably, this was a personal addition by the bookbinder.”

“The vellum of the book binding was repaired with similar vellum and the lost cartons (covers) were filled in with acid-free cardboard.”

“A big problem was also the lack of endpapers. These are needed as protective pages at the front and back of the book. After a fruitless search in various art and paper shops, I finally had the paper artfully made by the Walloon master papermaker, Pascal Jeanjean. Based on a sample of the original paper (part of a flyleaf at the back of the book), he produced a similar paper for these books which, like the original sheets, are also handmade. Handmade paper can be recognised by the water lines or watermarks you see when you hold the paper up to the light.”

Pascal explained more about this himself:

“I’m going to try to give you an idea of how I made the paper. Because it was for the restoration of an old book, I chose to use raw materials similar to the original of the atlas’ paper, namely cotton rags and cloth. After treating the cotton rags in a bath, I started loosening the cotton into pulp in a Valley Beater, a modern version of a “Hollander”. This pulp thus forms the basis for the later paper. To create the right paper colour, mineral powders were added to the pulp. Calcium carbonate was added to increase its alkaline reserve.”

“After the right pulp was manufactured, a scoop window was chosen with a similar pattern of thin copper wires as in the original paper sample. Then, from a large bin, the paper was scooped. Subsequently, a pile of paper with felt interlayers was stacked on top of each other. Then, a large paper press was used to remove most of the water from the paper (60%). With intermediate sheets of special cardboard, the remaining moisture was removed from the sheets.”

“The straps on which the book was joined were glued through and onto the cartons of the book binding during the rejoining of the binding and book block. This ensures that both parts stay tightly together. The new endpapers were glued to the inside of the boards (plates) of the book binding. Finally, new ribbons were added to the book binding.”

In July, we welcomed a new Phoebus Fellow into our conservation studio: the French-Dutch painting restorer Annika Roy. For the next three months, Annika is taking care of Hendrick De Clerck’s Noli me tangere.

Annika during the removal of fills

“This painting, dated between 1560 and 1630, depicts a famous passage from the New Testament, Noli me tangere (“Do not touch me”). It reads a little bit like a graphic novel. The first scene on the foreground shows Maria Magdalena, encountering Christ, after his resurrection. Mistaking him first for a gardener because of the shovel he is holding, she recognizes him, and Christ speaks the famous words ‘Noli me tangere’. You will also notice a second scene in this painting. On the right side, you can recognize the three holy women at Christ’s tomb and Maria Magdalena among them. They find the tomb empty, and an angel announces Christ’s resurrection. Your gaze is then guided to the Golgotha hill in the centre of the painting and in the background, you can see the city of Jerusalem.”

Before restoration

“Even before the treatment, it was clear that the painting has very bright colours and that the paint layer is in good aesthetical condition. The paint is rich in oil, and the glazes used by Hendrick De Clerck in the red and purple drapery of Christ and Maria Magdalena for example, are well preserved. It is very satisfying to notice this painting was not overcleaned in the past. De Clerck’s burshstrokes are very visible in the brown colours, where we can see the preparation in transparency. Furthermore, smalt pigment (blue coloured glass) has likely been used for the blue parts of the painting (sky and some draperies). The pigment unfortunately discoloured a little with time.”

During the removal of varnish and fills

“The oak panel, consisting of four horizontal planks, underwent some structural treatment after which I could focus on the paint layer. The main damage was the up-lifting paint around the fills near the joints of the panel. The other alterations were mainly aesthetical: the fills were uneven, and the retouches were visible, especially the ones containing white. The varnish was also slightly yellowed.”

Fixing the paint

“The first treatment consisted in fixing the paint around the joints. I could then start the cleaning process, consisting mainly of the removal of the former restoration material: varnish, old retouches and fills around the joints. Some fills were overlapping on the paint layer. By removing them, it was exciting to uncover hidden original paint.”

“In the upcoming weeks, the losses around the joints will be filled again, the painting varnished and then I will be able to start the retouching phase. It is a real pleasure to work on such beautiful panel and appreciate every detail of it.”

Curious about the results? Keep an eye on our website and social media!

At The Phoebus Foundation’s restoration studio, conservator Carlos González Juste and former Phoebus Fellow, Kaisa-Piia Pedajas, are currently restoring a unique series from the Phoebus collection, namely twelve portraits of Inca emperors and Francisco Pizarro. This month, we dive behind the scenes and take a closer look at this fascinating project.

Anonymous, Portraits of Inca Emperors and Francisco Pizzaro, c.1790-1810

These portraits, each no larger than an A4, depict an idealised representation of the Inca emperors and the figure of Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of the Inca Empire. Portrait series such as these were very popular in the Viceroyalty of Peru during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Moreover, they were eagerly used as political tools. The iconography is based on an engraving by priest Alonso de la Cueva (1684-1754), in which the genealogy of the Inca emperors is succeeded by the Spanish monarchs. In this way, the Spanish rulers strengthened their claim as heirs of the Inca empire.

Throughout time, this message took on other meanings. The iconography was also used to document and confirm aristocratic Inca blood in certain families. As a result, family members linked themselves to Spanish nobility and were entitled to special privileges, including exemptions from taxes. As feelings of independence grew throughout the Viceroyalty, links with the Spanish monarchs were removed as an effort to restore the Inca empire.

Complex carrier and damage

Time to take a closer look at the portrait series. Studying the stretchers, it is clear that the portraits were produced on canvases, presumably made of cotton, and glued to strainers. However, this was not their original display. The irregular profiles reveal that the canvases were once cut from their original stretcher frame and then glued onto a new strainer. The canvases themselves are extremely thin with flat, regular waves, suggesting they were machine-made.

Beneath the blue background, we see a reddish ground, which is visible thanks to the transparency of the paint layers. These are so thin that it is almost impossible to see brush strokes!

Before the paintings came to the restoration studio for treatment, they had a dark, yellowish varnish layer and several overpaintings covering the canvases’ damages and edges. This varnish layer and retouches were also very irregular. The supports themselves were also particularly distorted due to the gluing to the strainer, creating strong tensions between the glued edges and the canvases.

Photo in raking light shows the dominant tear in the canvas, previously restored in vain.

Behind the paint layers

To find out how the portraits were created, we analysed one of the paintings using the imaging technique Ma-XRF. This scientific technique allows us to distinguish the different chemical elements of the painting and thus identify the pigments that make up the work. The resulting research showed the use of pigments from the last decades of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, confirming the possible execution date. Among other things, the Ma-XRF images showed us the presence of mercury, indicating the use of vermilion for the colour red, while arsenic points towards orpiment for the gold areas.

Ma-XRF images of the presence of mercury (left) and arsenic (right)

Before starting the restoration treatment, thorough tests were first carried out to find out the best method to remove the varnish. This was because it had darkened and had not only changed the colours of the paint but also made the supports, and the cloths, enormously stiff, resulting in various deformations. For cleaning, we opted for a non-woven Evolon® fabric and solvent mixtures that swell the varnish layers and can thus be easily removed with a cotton swab. In some areas, we also combined these techniques with gentle mechanical cleaning.

Cleaning process (from left to right) in which the varnish layer is swollen with Evolon® tissue, filled with solvent mixture and then removed with a cotton swab and, where necessary, with gentle mechanical cleaning
Conservator Kaisa-Piia Pedajas during varnish removal

Certain pigments showed greater sensitivity and required extra attention. Additionally, we noted that the paintings had been only partially cleaned during previous restoration treatments and that a darker layer remained in some places (such as the incarnate and accessories of the portraits). After taking off the varnish layers, we also removed several overpaintings from the surface and reduced stains where necessary. Although the paintings initially looked the same, it became clear during and after the cleaning that the conditions of the paint layers and supports were vastly different for each portrait.

Detail shots during varnish removal

Thanks to the removal of the rigid layer on the paintings, the canvases also became looser and distortions reduced significantly in most cases. Many paintings were placed under weights to make the canvas slightly flatter. Areas and distortions that required extra effort were carefully treated with moisture and underwent thermo-treatment.

Reduction of deformations with thermo-treatment (left) and weights (right)

Furthermore, we also repaired the tears that were present in the canvas of some portraits. To minimise the damage, these tears were flattened and the edges were also aligned. They were then consolidated and supported on the back with a suitable adhesive.

Tear mending on the back of the painting

After the structural treatment, a thin layer of natural varnish was applied. This layer acts as an insulation layer for the original surface and helps to saturate the colours after removing the old varnish layers.

Painting conservator Carlos González Juste applying the varnish layer on the first painting

The restoration of this exceptional portraits series is still in full swing! After varnishing, our conservators will also continue to fill and retouch the gaps. As a result, the Inca emperors and Francisco Pizarro can soon be admired again in all their glory!

Curious about the results? Keep an eye on our social media and website!

Leonora Carrington’s work, The Dark Night of Aranoë is part of the Latin American sub-collection of The Phoebus Foundation. Restorer Naomi Meulemans is in charge of the foundation’s modern and contemporary collections and started the restoration of this work following a future loan project. This month, she takes us behind the scenes of the research, the restoration and the wonderful world of Leonora Carrington.

Leonora Carrington, The Dark Night of Aranoë, 1976

“Leonora Carrington’s work seems to lean close to her own life. It is fragile, almost velvety at times, but also dark and analytical. Although she often painted for an unfamiliar audience, it seems as if, for a moment, we may look deep into her hidden dreams, deep happiness and at the same time, raw trauma. All these symbolic figures and sophisticated elements are also present in The Dark Night of Aranoë. Usually, only the figures or decorative elements were thickened in the paint. This way of working creates space and quickly takes the viewer far away from our “recognisable” world because of the absence of any kind of technical perspective.”

Details of The Dark Night of Aranoë

“For the first time at The Phoebus Foundation, Leonora Carrington’s work is studied from a material-technical perspective, giving us a better understanding of her working methods and the issues associated with them. In fact, the work is technically very well painted, but a later adjustment became pernicious to the paint layers. A shadowy, speckled layer seems to spread over the entire piece. This layer, which should serve as a varnish layer, has gradually sunk into the paint layer in the form of meticulously spotted islands. As much as we had hoped to extract more information from the empirical analysis using infrared and X-ray photography, for the time being, this conceals nothing more than what we can actually see with the bare eye. Thus, there are no remarkable layers above or below the paint layer that have brought about this phenomenon.”

Stained varnish layer

“A major comparison study with some of Carrington’s other works and a study of her methods lead us to suspect that the work was varnished at a later date, long after the work was created. Indeed, Carrington’s paintings are always very matte or even unvarnished. Because of the damage the layer does to the work, it was decided to remove it during the conservation campaign. With the restoration, we hope that this captivating work will find its strength again to inspire the viewer.”

Conservator Naomi Meulemans at work

This month, we go behind the scenes with twin sisters Jill and Ellen Keppens, who are currently restoring the seventeenth-century portrait of a nobleman from the Volpi family with his wife and children.

“A while ago, we were introduced to the Volpi family. This intriguing family of important diamond merchants, some with Italian roots, was active in 17th-century Antwerp. The fact that they were good at doing business is amply demonstrated in this portrait, through the depiction of white silk, pearls, diamond jewellery, lace, feathers, impressive buttons, a horse, a greyhound, their coats of arms and even the imposing footwear.”

Jill and Ellen during the varnish removal

“Besides all this opulence, something else extraordinary catches the eye. The extremely pale incarnations of the woman in the white silk dress and the two children immediately catch the eye. Why their skin is so white is still a mystery. Has the pigment become discoloured and transparent? Does the white skin show their privileged position? Or were they already deceased when this portrait was painted? More research on the family may provide an answer here.”

before restoration
details during varnish removal

“The white incarnate is not the only ‘strange colour’ that stands out. The clouds also look bizarre. This is because the sky around it is discoloured. At one time, it must have had a strong blue colour, but the artist used smalt as a pigment. 17th-century artists often used this pigment containing cobalt because it was cheaper than the expensive ultramarine, yet could still obtain a nice blue colour. Unfortunately, it is also very unstable and over time, it often turns brown, yellow, grey, or becomes transparent.”

lady during varnish removal

Curious about the final result? Keep an eye on our social media and website!

This month, Chief Conservator of The Phoebus Foundation Sven Van Dorst tells us about the conservation treatment of The Crucifixion panel by Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy. He masterfully describes how this work was created, where the stylistic influences come from, and what the damage phenomena can teach us. The power of this restoration emerges when we get closer to the heart of it through research techniques Sven employs in the process.

Before restoration

“This small panel depicting the crucifixion was painted by the Master of the Lucia Legend. His work is close to that of Hans Memling, so it is assumed that he was active in Bruges at the end of the 15th century. Based on an inscription on the back of the panel, we discovered that the little work ended up in Portugal during the 19th century in the collection of the Dukes of Palmella.”

Infrared reflectography makes rear inscription readable

“Before the restoration began, the painting looked dull. The colors had a greenish appearance because the varnish was heavily discolored. With the help of Infrared Reflectography (IRR) and radiography (X-ray), it was possible to evaluate the condition of the painting in detail. As a result, we found out that the edges of the painting were completely overpainted. Originally, there was a border of about 1cm of unpainted wood around the work. This is typical of 15th-century paintings because the wooden panel was held in the frame using a groove. On the IRR, we can see some minor damage in the paint layer and the underdrawing that the painter used to draw his composition on the panel. The lines are angular, indicating the use of a “dry” drawing medium such as chalk.”

IRR (detail) shows the underdrawing
X-ray showing the overpainted edges

“After the examination, the restoration could finally begin. It took some work to remove the old layers of varnish. Using homemade gels, the varnish could be swollen in several stages and removed from the paint surface with a cotton swab. Immediately, the original vibrant colors and some of the old damage reappeared. In the next stage, the old overpaintings at the edges were removed. This was done under the microscope to avoid damaging the underlying paint.”

During varnish removal process and after restoration

“Once the original surface was exposed again, the final phase of treatment could begin. First, a varnish was applied to protect the original. Next, gaps were filled and retouched to no longer stand out. The result was stunning and one of my most enjoyable projects. Now it is again possible to appreciate the refined technique and palette of the mysterious Master of the Lucia Legend.”

Sven in action

This month, we take you behind the scenes with Sofia Hennen, paintings conservator and art historian, who recently restored the work titled Tavern Interior by Pieter Pietersz from our collection.

Sofie at work in her studio © Sofia Hennen

“The conservation-restoration treatment of Tavern Interior by Pieter Pietersz, dated from the second half of the sixteenth century, was trusted to me in May last year as my first project with The Phoebus Foundation. This beautiful oil painting on canvas immediately impressed me with its refined artistic technique. However, its condition also instantly startled me.”

“From the beginning, I noticed the painting was full of problems. Only after removing the varnish and overpainting did the real image emerge. The oxidized varnish and the altered past retouching concealed an excessively worn original paint layer that had endured harsh incidents over the past five centuries. Inadequate conservation conditions and past inappropriate restoration treatments, such as aggressive cleanings, invasive linings, old overpainting, etc., are some of the interventions worth mentioning.”

“Thus, the retouching of the painting after the cleaning was quite tricky and needed progressive and critical decision-making processes. As the painting showed generalized abrasion, it was necessary to bring retouching solutions that could conceal the damages in an “illusionist way” while respecting its material history. In other words, I had to subtly reintegrate the damaged image by imitating at the same time the abrasion and maintain this approach constantly. Keeping a homogenous and coherent aspect with the same quality of retouching all over the composition was difficult. Deciding when to stop was also challenging, as you could easily overdo it and keep retouching forever.”

During the cleaning © Sofia Hennen
Before retouching © Sofia Hennen

“To conclude, this has been one of the most challenging treatments I have ever done, so I can only be proud of the result. I am already excited for future Phoebus challenges like this one!”

After restoration