Restoration in Focus
One remarkable aspect of the two marines has not yet been discussed. Ships in a Storm off Enkhuizen and Battle at Sea between Hollanders and Pirates were acquired through two different channels. But in both cases, when we first saw the painting, the sea and the sky were largely painted over. Backhuyzen’s characteristic treatment of the waves and the clouds were not really visible and the colours did not resemble the palette generally associated with the artist. A definitive attribution to Backhuyzen would only be possible after restoration.
A warning in the auction room told buyers to beware. It was placed beside Ships in a Storm and remained there throughout the sale, advising: ‘Please note that this lot should read “attributed to Ludolf Backhuyzen” […] the current restoration on the picture for now precludes a definitive attribution.’ So much of the surface of the painting had been painted over that the auctioneers had apparently decided not to commit themselves as far as the attribution was concerned. But was it possible that a painting as famous as this, described by renowned art historians, celebrated and praised, was not by Backhuyzen? In our view there was sufficient pictorial evidence to indicate that the picture was genuine. But before we purchased it, we were aware that we would only know for certain once it was restored.
Restorer Ed Bekkers
It was not until the painting had been shipped to the Netherlands that restorer Ed Bekkers was able to examine it. We have known Bekkers for more than thirty years and we have a high regard for his opinion and expertise. His first suspicion was that much of the painting might have been painted over by the previous restorer because it had been in extremely poor condition. “When I looked at the painting that first time I was afraid that the sky had been badly damaged,” recalls Bekkers.
The proof of the pudding is the eating, so our only option was to remove the overpaint. But first Bekkers began by cleaning the surface, removing years of accumulated smoke, grease and grime. This was easily achieved with a diluted solvent. Judging from the colour of the varnish Bekkers realised that the previous restoration had probably taken place at least fifty years ago. There were no problems removing the varnish, which then exposed the overpaint.
“Cleaning a painting should never be a surprise,” as Bekkers says, “and certainly not an unpleasant surprise.” That is why he started by applying a slightly stronger solvent to a trial portion of the sky. The overpaint melted away like snow in the sun and, fortunately, the 17th-century layer underneath appeared intact. With that encouraging sign the cleaning continued. It turned out the overpainting had been applied to cover damage that was easy to repair and was limited to only a few areas of the sea and the sky. “I have been in this business for many years and have often seen exaggerated overpainting like this, but never on such a valuable work.”
The purchase of the Battle at Sea between Hollanders and Pirates was also a gamble. This canvas had been painted over as well, but here the overpaint had been added around the ships, masts, flags and rigging. Bekkers has an explanation for this. “We often see that the actual ships remain untouched on marines that have been restored, because restorers were afraid that valuable details might be lost when cleaned. Working on the sea and the sky was no problem, but they stopped when it came to the ships.” Since the details were therefore in pristine condition, there was some hope that underneath the overpaint the sea and the sky would also emerge in good state.
This time, it was early damage to the canvas that had prompted the excessive overpainting. It seems that the painting had probably fallen and that a small tear had occurred in the canvas. This kind of damage often looks worse than it is. By attaching a proper support it is possible to mend the fabric. In this kind of incident the loss of paint is usually limited.
Obtaining the right colours for the retouches is, however, not easy. Especially fifty years ago, when the paint used for this purpose had the tendency to darken. It was therefore simpler to cover the entire surface with one layer of paint up to the contours of the ships. Unfortunately, the paint used on this work was applied with a medium that was far more resistant than that used for the Storm. “It took some time, but we managed to solve the problem,” as Bekkers notes.
Relining the Canvas
Once the overpaint had been removed, both works could be sent with renewed confidence to the liner in England. To treat the canvas of a painting successfully it has to be absolutely clean. As James Wray, the liner, explains: “Naturally, you wouldn’t want any grime on the paint to be embedded into the new canvas by the vacuum table. The same applies to overpaint: it is vital to ensure that this doesn’t become part of the original.”
Below, the various stages of the treatment are explained with photos of Ships in a Storm off Enkhuizen. A similar process was employed for Battle at Sea between Hollanders and Pirates, but not entirely, since the former was found to have been transferred as well as relined. The following is James Wray’s illustrated report.
Once they had been relined the two paintings were returned to Ed Bekkers. The remainders of the glue layers were easily removed and it was now possible to start the retouching.
Bekkers uses one palette for powder paint and one for tube paint. A palette actually only has twelve colours, including black and white. He applies powder pigments with a resin solution that does not darken, usually painting on thin transparent layers of glaze one over the other to achieve the correct hue.
On both works the areas that needed retouches were the sea and the sky. Backgrounds should not be treated lightly in paintings. There is a famous anecdote about Van Dyck who went to Rubens to ask whether he could become his apprentice at his studio. When Rubens asked “What can you do?”, the young Van Dyck replied that he could do a little background painting. At which Rubens responded “Then you don’t need me any more, you can do more than I can.” He took him on nonetheless and Van Dyck became one of his most brilliant pupils. Four centuries later, Bekkers agrees that retouches to the background should receive as much attention as any of the more prominent parts of the painting.
After the retouches had dried properly, only one procedure remained. This was to apply a layer of varnish. Restorers generally have their own preferred varnish. But what they all have in common is that they are easy to remove. It is an essential part of the entire procedure, including the relining and the retouching, that it has to be reversible.
Style of Painting
In conclusion, Bekkers on Backhuyzen and how he views painting: “It was less than a year ago that I was in the Louvre where there are a number of fine marines by Backhuyzen. The artist is easy to recognise by his way of painting. Backhuyzen’s style is unique: it is his own interpretation in brushstroke and colour of what he saw. Actually I look at paintings like a palaeographer sees a manuscript. I read what it says, but I also look at the way it is written. For me, looking at paintings is an abstract pleasure. I can know a painting well without realising what it’s portraying. This is not the only way to view art but for me it is the best. Restoration has to be done carefully and respectfully. Every restoration requires sober and proper judgment based on the age and condition of the painting. I have a down-to-earth view of art, it’s based on solid foundations. As I sometimes joke: ‘I don’t have a platonic relationship with paintings; I strip them and then I dress them up again’.”