There’s more on the back

The Back of the Painting: Secrets and Stories from Art Conservation

Linda Waters, Sarah Hillary, and Jenny Sherman

Te Papa Press, April 2021


Reviewed by Janet Hughes


The idea of this book I found very enticing. The multidisciplinary knowledge and skills involved in conserving works of art against the ravages of time and accident are fascinating in themselves. This book looks past the more obvious magic of conservation work on the paint surface, to concentrate on the information that can be read or divined from the backs of paintings, and its part in the work of art historians, curators, and especially conservators.


The structures supporting the painted image we see from the front can be examined with an expert eye and equipment to provide insight. There are clues to the artist’s materials, intentions, revisions, and working methods; to previous repairs, alterations and conservation efforts; to the provenance of the painting ­– owners, dealers, shipping, exhibitions, and even authorship should this be in doubt.


Each of the 20-odd paintings examined in this series of discrete essays exhibits at least one such clue to its interesting past or peculiar construction. They are clearly written, beautifully illustrated accounts, demonstrating the spread of information to be found or inferred by the experts who work behind the scenes with our major art collections. The authors undertake and oversee this work in The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Auckland Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery respectively.


Pasted and other labels attest to exhibition history, prizes, changes of title, repair work; a stamp records customs clearance; wax seals assert the ownership of past collectors.

There are also inscriptions pertaining to artists’ and sitters’ identities and locations, and even artist’s intentions: a widow strives to ensure no-one will varnish an impressionist painting contrary to her late husband’s wishes. Works with an element of sculptural construction bear instructions on and aids to assembling them as intended.


And there are surprises. The back of a formal portrait of a Māori adult bears, upside down relative to the portrait, an enchanting oil sketch of a child. The margins of a stretched canvas reveal that a former wife has been excised from a once double portrait. And the colossally challenging repair of a Tissot vandalised in the Auckland Gallery is there of course.


Oddly, I found the more pedestrian revelations particularly interesting. Revisions by artists can leave traces around the wrapped edges of canvases. Materials can be improvised (a cotton canvas has a buttonhole stitched into it) or recycled. And older works on panel will eventually warp and crack, leading sometimes to a series of attempts at repair and reinforcement, and to collateral damage. We can take delight in the ingenuity of solutions, and also perhaps in the three-dimensional materiality of these objects. It’s something we can forget, or never get to appreciate, as a result of encountering artworks and images mostly as arrays of glowing pixels.


The quality of all the images, not only the reproductions of the paintings, is exceptional. I found the images and closeups of the backs of the works visually delightful as well as telling – many of them can be read as exquisite abstract images as well as scientific or art-historical evidence. I wish the same standard had been applied to the page design; the vertically centred text blocks and images appear to slide down the page, which a slight realignment to create a more generous lower margin could have prevented. This pervasive visual flaw is out of character with the philosophy of meticulous respect that pervades the volume, and with the generally high standard of design and production. So too some verbal slips in the chapter standfirsts, which seem to have evaded editorial scrutiny. The writing is generally clear and precise, if a little stiff and academic. This seems a fair enough tradeoff for the privilege of sharing insights based on such wealth of multidisciplinary knowledge and expertise. A lighter touch could have been employed, but then it would have been another book, and perhaps not one for the reader who gets excited about the backs of paintings.