Maritime history and restoration magic: Sheffield studio bring paintings back to life for £27.4 million project

A team of conservationists from Sheffield are working their magic on 30 special maritime paintings which will go on display next year as part of a huge project in Hull.

Tuesday, 16th April 2019, 4:44 pm
Updated Tuesday, 16th April 2019, 5:05 pm
Painting conservators Lucy Critchlow, Pauline Murray and Pia Dowse working on some of the paitnting for the 27.4million maritime project in Hull

Chemistry meets art in the studio of Critchlow and Kukkonen conservation. Using various chemicals, solutions and tools the team of five return centuries old pieces back to their original form and protect them for future generations.

“It’s about returning it to its original state and that’s quite an exciting thing. With something that can look beyond repair, after you’ve gone through these methodical steps, you can see quite a dramatic difference and that in itself is very pleasing,” said Pauline Murray, conservator at the studio. 

Painting conservators Lucy Critchlow, Pauline Murray and Pia Dowse working on some of the paitnting for the 27.4million maritime project in Hull

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

They work on more than 100 paintings a year and have fixed up some Sheffield’s favourites such as Mrs Drummond Jackson by David Jagger, which shows the daughter of John Graves, in the Graves Art Gallery, and The Misses Vickers by John Singer Sargent of 1884 which is currently on display at Weston Park Museum.

This year one of their biggest jobs is restoring 30 paintings from Hull Maritime Museum. The works are all 18th century depictions of exploration scenes in the arctic and antarctic that will go on display next year. 

It is part of a wider £27.4 million plan for a large-scale celebration of Hull’s maritime heritage. It is due to be completed by 2022 and Hull City Council are expecting to attract around 300,000 visits to the sites within the first year after fully opening.

The paintings chosen for restoration were picked out of a survey of 450 from the stores and display of the entire museum.

Painting conservators Lucy Critchlow, Pauline Murray on one of the paintings for the 27.4million maritime project in Hull

Lucy Critchlow, founder of the studio, said: “It’s been really exciting because some of them have been in really poor condition with very thick dirt layers and yellowed varnish.

“One in particular, the Dock Masters Wife, had severe and complex tears. So a lot of these paintings were not displayable, they were just kept in the stores and it’s really exciting to transform them so they can be on display and enjoyed by the public.”

She added they were thrilled to be chosen as the conservators for the project and said: “It was quite a rigorous tendering process and a lot of work involved in putting the tender together so we are very pleased.”

Many quirky and significant pieces have been put under the lens by the studio since they opened in 2014 including medieval panels from the Middle Ages and a Madagascan straw mat painting.

The company gets commissions from various clients across the country including museums, art galleries, churches, private clients, historic houses and trust properties. 

They said they have been increasingly busy over the years but never turn down a broken or damaged piece of art no matter how poor the condition.

Some jobs are also the subject of academic research. Conservationist, Pia Dowse, said: “Paintings can be good social documents to give an idea of what life was like at different times. So they can be as good as a written document for historians.

“And if you come from more of an arty background you learn so much more about the artist’s materials and technique which is really interesting to find out. You end up learning more about these things through conservation than you do through doing a fine art course.”

Lucy said their work has often been referenced in journal articles which explore how different materials and chemicals react with each other. 

The team’s speciality are easel works which include acrylic, oil or tempera. Part of the job includes tackling soot, pollutants, flood damage, flaking paint, rips and tears, yellowed varnish, discoloured re-touchings, dust and dirt. 

It is a complicated and highly skilled process to bring them back to life but the results are satisfying. 

Lucy said: “I feel like we are in touch with the artist and the time it was made and the various conservators who have worked on the painting because you can see all the evidence and signs of different hands working on the painting, it’s fascinating.”

Hull’s huge maritime project also includes the Dock Office Chambers and the North End Shipyard and conservation of the Arctic Corsair and Spurn Lightship. It is being funded by Hull City Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund and is set to fully open to the public in 2022.