Queen’s University & NGC: Partnering to Bring Artworks Back to Life

When Whatif/Twilight (2008) arrived at the National Gallery of Canada’s Restoration and Conservation department in 2015, it was in a sorry state. Two years earlier the painting had suffered serious damage in a flood. The artist, Ron Moppett, offered it to the gallery — if it could be fixed.  

“Silt had fully impregnated the canvas,” recalls Director of Conservation Stephen Gritt. “It had swollen, then shrunk, so it was badly deformed.”

The painting landed on Patrick Gauthier’s work table. At the time, Gauthier was a first-year student in the internationally recognized Master in Art Conservation Program (MAC) at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He was on his first internship at the gallery and admittedly nervous about handling a significant work of art by an important Canadian artist.  

Patrick Gauthier, MAC Class of 2017, examining a painting. Photographer Lawrence Cook.

 

“It was a really big piece to do on my own,” he says of the 285 x 232 cm oil, alkyd and acrylic on canvas painting. “I had my supervisor helping me, but I was the lead. It was a really beautiful piece of art, but it was daunting, the amount of silt on it and the amount of work to be done to restore it.”

Gauthier credits the MAC program — the only graduate program in art conservation in Canada and one of five in North America — with giving him the skills and the confidence to tackle restoring the piece.  

“You are working on the basics right from the start,” he says of the program. “Every morning you have classes and lectures, then every afternoon is lab work. You are assigned a painting, which you work on for a year or two. You don’t know exactly what you’re doing, so to clean a painting for the first time is very intimidating.”

Students literally “hit the ground running,” says program director Rosaleen Hill. “They start working with art objects in the first week of their first year. It’s essentially a holistic discipline. Art conservators must have a very well-developed understanding of chemistry to understand the material science of the object.”

Théophile Hamel, Étienne Parent, 1848 oil on canvas, 81.2 x 66.2 cm. Gift of Paul Étienne Parent, Ottawa, Ontario, 2012. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

 

Students come into the two-year program from either the sciences or humanities, then specialize in the conservation of paintings, artifacts or paper objects, or carry out research in conservation science.

“It makes for a really exciting learning environment because everybody brings different academic and life experience. It creates excellent problem-solving skills. Students also have to have the hand skills to be able to treat an object effectively and ethically.”

Stephen Gritt agrees that students coming out of the Queen’s MAC program have a unique skill set.

“The Queen’s program gives them a strong foundation of vocational training,” he says. “There’s an element of critical thinking capability. It is extremely important to do no harm. They know that. When they are inexperienced, interns tend to be quite nervous about doing things. One of the skills the conservator must work out is turning nervousness into circumspect objectivity. You do that by knowing as much as possible, by being as skillful as possible.”

Tasia Bulger, MAC Class of 2011, working on Simon Vouet’s “Triumph of Galatea.” Photographer Lawrence Cook.

 

The MAC program was started in 1974 by Ian Hodkinson, who had come from Scotland to Queen’s to teach historical art technique and conservation. He says he immediately saw the potential for a Master’s program at the university. “I knew Queen’s had an absolutely top-notch art gallery — the Agnes Etherington Art Centre — and science programs. Everything was right for a conservation training program.”

Soon, he says, “students were coming from all over the world: the UK, Yugoslavia, Japan, China, Mexico, Spain. And, more often than not, they go back to their own countries and use the expertise they gained here.”

MAC graduates now work at numerous prestigious institutions including New York’s Metropolitan Museum, the Library of Congress in Washington, the British Museum, Tate, and the National Gallery of Canada.

“Ian was a force of nature,” recalls alumna Susan Walker Ashley, who attended the MAC program from 1989–91. “It was intense and fascinating and comparable to any program in North America.” Ashley also interned at the Gallery, where she is now Conservator of Paintings with the Restoration, Conservation Laboratory.

But collaborations between the Gallery and Queen’s University have always gone beyond internships. In 1975 Hodkinson and a troupe of students set about restoring Mr. and Mrs. William Croscup’s Painted Room — a whimsical, hand-painted parlour from a rural Nova Scotia home circa 1846–48. When the Gallery came to re-position and restore the room for the new installation of the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, Queen’s students also played a critical role. As Gritt says, “Reinstallation projects are amazing opportunities to expose graduating students to busy, vibrant working environments, where they can learn at an accelerated rate, both in the studios and on-site in the galleries. We used the opportunity to create a developmental year for two graduates, and it was great to continue the Croscup tradition of collaboration.”

Unknown (Canadian mid 19th century),  Mr. and Mrs. William Croscup's Painted Room, c. 1846‑1848, diluted oil colour, charcoal, and graphite on plaster, 2.1 x 3.8 x 4.5 m. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

 

Experience in a working environment such as this is key for the development of emerging conservators, and the internships — part of the curriculum — are a vital part of the programme.

Several other paintings conserved by MAC students are on view in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries: Mr. and Mrs. William Croscup’s Painted Room, treated by Patrick Gauthier; Robert Harris’ A Meeting of the School Trustees, conserved by Tasia Bulger; and Théophile Hamel’s Étienne Parent, conserved by Marie-Catherine Cyr.  

As for Whatif/Twilight (2008), it made its restored debut following three months of intensive cleaning, flattening and stretching under extremely controlled conditions — a process featured on the Gallery’s YouTube channel.

“Patience was key,” Gauthier explains. “The silt was so fine, it was challenging to get it out of the paint texture, the grooves of the brushstrokes.”

So, he says it was “a special feeling” when the piece was finally put on public view as part of the Masterpiece in Focus series exploring key works from the National Gallery of Canada collection.

“You develop a close connection with the work because you know its history,” Gauthier says. “And you finally get to see it the way the artist intended — up in a gallery space. That’s where it really came alive for me. The restoration went really well. Maybe better than we could have hoped for a painting that had been sitting in water. I felt privileged to have worked on it.”

Robert Harris, A Meeting of the School Trustees, 1885, oil on canvas, 102.2 x 126.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

 

View the videos documenting the restoration process of Whatif/Twilight and the installation of Mr. and Mrs. William Croscup’s Painted Room, which is on view in the NGC’s Canadian and Indigenous Gallery.

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