Barbara Ramsay, Chief Conservator Master of Art Conservation in Fine Arts (Paintings & Works of Art on Paper), Queen's University, Kingston, Canada
Bachelor of Science in Biology, University of Toronto
Studies in Art History and Studio Art, Bachelor of Art Education Program, University of Toronto
The Ringling: Could you describe a typical day of art conservation?
Barbara Ramsay: Well I think that every day as a museum conservator is different. Certainly I am always available if anyone has noticed a change in condition of a work of art—if there has been an accident or vandalism or something that requires immediate attention. I will go to examine the work and determine whether or not the damage had been there before. And then deal with it appropriately.
I have a series of meetings to be involved in—for example the planning process for exhibitions that are coming up. Or discussing loan requests or installations.
Ongoing painting conservation projects in the laboratory require careful examination of the work, writing of condition reports, recommending treatment, and submitting proposals. Discussion with the curators is part of the process. When treatment proposals are approved the conservation work can begin. It could be anything from consolidating or reattaching loose paint—if paint is lifting or flaking—or surface cleaning—removing grime from the surface. Sometimes varnish removal—which is taking discolored coatings off that mask the original colors. And oftentimes there is overpaint that was applied over top of original paint, so you may try to take that off, if it can be done safely. Then the painting will be re-varnished—if it was intended to be varnished in the first place. If there is paint loss you infill, and then you carry out inpainting that involves applying a small amount of carefully color-matched paint to only the loss areas—not covering the original paint.
As a conservator, I am concerned not only with preservation of the physical work, but also the aesthetics. Structurally, a work of art has to be sound. Aesthetically, the appearance has to be acceptable. You show respect for the original integrity of the work of art and the intention of the artist.
What are the materials that you work with most often in your role as a conservator?
Any materials that we do use in conservation treatment we consider to be “reversible.” You can apply them and they can be removed later if necessary without damaging the work of art. Historically, this was not the case when paintings were restored. Oil paint would be used to retouch an oil painting. And you often cannot remove oil paint retouching without damaging the original oil paint surface below. So a lot of damage has been done to paintings in the past—damage that must be treated today. You want to use materials and methods that will not damage it now or in the future. To simulate the original painting materials we will often use inpainting mediums based on synthetic resins. There is a whole range of varnishes that you can apply—both natural and synthetic resins—to achieve a surface quality that is appropriate for the painting.
A conservator tries to tailor the treatment to the individual needs of each painting. You want to determine what the painting actually requires to conserve or restore it and not do anything that is not necessary. We call it “minimal intervention.”
Why did you choose to enter into this field?
I was always interested in both art and science. When I was planning to go to university I thought it was more practical to study science, in terms of future job opportunities. So I earned my Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Toronto and I was headed for genetics research. Then I decided that I really wanted to take some time to study art—because I had always wanted to—and I began my formal studies in art history and studio art. During that time, I traveled through Europe for six weeks to see the art in many of the major museums and churches in different countries. It was then that I decided that I had to have a career in art, but I did not want to give up the science.
It turned out that right at that point in time, a Master’s degree program in Art Conservation was starting up at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada for which you needed a background in both art and science. I was accepted into the first class and knew that I had made the right decision. By chance, and by following my interests, I was fortunate enough to find a profession that allowed me to use both art and science. And I have never looked back. I have loved it always…every single day that I have been a conservator. Conservation is such a fascinating field because it incorporates so many different disciplines: biology, chemistry, engineering, art history, art technology… everything imaginable. As an art conservator, you are always learning. There are so many developments in this field that you have to keep up with. So it is interesting and challenging. It can also be nerve-wracking because almost everything that we do can potentially cause damage to a work of art. So you have to think things through carefully and ask the right questions and make sure you have the right answers. Then test and apply everything cautiously. Be meticulous. That’s a big part of what we do.
How did you get past fears of possibly damaging priceless works of art?
Honestly, I do not really think about it much. I knew from the beginning that you had to be very careful. You were always cautious because we were trained to be very cautious. When testing which solvents can be used to remove varnish from a painting, you start out with the weakest solvent first and you move towards stronger ones. You test on tiny areas that are not in the center of the painting in case the solvent is too strong for the paint. You work with a microscope a lot because you can see what effect you are having on the paint film.
You learn about ethics in conservation and the proper methods to use. It eliminates a lot of those fears because the risks are lower when you approach it that way. But you never entirely lose the apprehension that something could go wrong and a work of art could be damaged…it gives you that added edge I guess.
Is there any restoration or project that stands out to you?
I have been at The Ringling for just a short time. But before coming here I was Director of Conservation at ARTEX Fine Art Services in Landover, Maryland. The Clyfford Still conservation project means a lot to me but many people may not know his work. Still was a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism, the most important American contribution to modern art in the 1940s and 50s. I was apparently the first conservator to work on paintings in the artist’s estate. He died in 1980 and the collection had been locked away since that time. My staff and I examined and treated many of those paintings for more than seven years in the ARTEX Conservation Laboratory. The Clyfford Still project was amazing because we were unrolling paintings from his collection that had never been seen outside of his studio. And all of those works went to the new Clyfford Still Museum that opened in Denver in 2011. Getting to know the work of that artist was wonderful. He was an incredible artist and a fascinating man. I am actually working on a small book right now on Clyfford Still’s materials and techniques.
Other interesting projects I worked on at ARTEX have involved conservation in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC—Constantino Brumidi murals in the Senate Appropriations Committee Room and historical paint research in the Senate Reception Room. We also recently completed major conservation treatment of the iconic and monumental Rembrandt Peale painting, Washington before Yorktown, for the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Is there an area of art that you consider your favorite?
Not really. I have very eclectic taste. I enjoy art of many different styles, periods, schools, and countries. When you look at it from the perspective of a conservator you get to appreciate art on a very different level. You come to appreciate almost any painting once you have studied it so closely and worked on it for a period of time. So that is a difficult question to answer.
What do you like about Sarasota?
I get the sense that it has a vibrant arts community, and The Ringling is at the very center of that. Of course, the climate is not hard to take either. I started out in Canada. I moved to Washington D.C. and now I am here in Sarasota. I seem to be moving to warmer places. I have received a very warm welcome here in Sarasota.