One of Britain’s most gifted conservators opens the door to his Yorkshire studio, reveals why modern art can be a risky buy and why old watercolours could be the best investment.
Buying contemporary art has become increasingly popular as investors hunt for alternatives to bonds and savings accounts, but releasing your inner Charles Saatchi should come with a warning, according to Richard Hawkes. One of a handful of conservators who specialise in preserving and restoring works on paper, he says: “Some of the materials used are so poor and inappropriate they could degrade within 20 years, significantly reducing the value of your work of art. It’s quite frightening.”
The root cause, according to Richard, is that art students aren’t taught about the dangers.
“They are often encouraged to use upcycled items, such as newspaper and cardboard. They also use mdf as a backboard, which can turn paper brown within a year.
“I’ve been campaigning for better education. If you look back in history, painters like Turner knew about pigments and how they react and they knew about paper. That is no longer the case.”
Signed prints from the 1990s by a young Banksy are a good example, according to Richard. Before the world’s best-known graffiti artist became famous, he produced a series of £50 prints made to fit Ikea frames. They are now highly collectable and worth a small fortune but the quality of the materials is poor, which is a dichotomy that the mysterious maker himself may well find amusing.
In his temporary art project, Dismaland, one of the signs reads: “It’s not art unless it has the potential to be a disaster.”
“It’s understandable. He was unknown at the time and worked on cheap acidic paper, which is liable to tear,” says Richard, who works for museums, galleries, art dealers and collectors, and has tackled everything from the restoration of a 13th century Koran to reviving historic watercolours and wallpaper, and cleaning vellum deeds, photographs and globes.
The solution to the problem of disintegrating Banksys is to repair and line them using Japanese paper. It is strong with long fibres that can be knitted together with starch paste.
The paper is one of the staples in Richard’s studio, near Harrogate, where he practises a combination of chemistry and art.
Other tools of his trade include erasers and brushes and a water bath, where he immerses stained originals and prints, often the victim of acidic wood pulp boards that create brown oxidisation marks.
“A lot of what I do is about washing, which amazes people, but the colours don’t run if you know about pigments and how they react and paper isn’t that fragile. It can last hundreds of years,” says Richard, who also uses natural sunlight for brightening, along with calcium hydroxide, calcium carbonate and various enzymes.
He sometimes sprays ultrasonic mist on stains then pulls the water through the paper on a special vacuum suction table.
His route into restoration began after training in Newcastle and was followed by posts at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and a private conservation studio in Cambridge before establishing his own practice.
One of his favourite projects was restoring the map carried by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. It is a prized artefact with iron staining thought to be the Duke’s blood.
Richard’s most recent challenge is mending a ripped and foisty periodic table found rolled up underneath a stage at the University of St Andrews. Printed in Vienna in 1887, it is the oldest known surviving printed version and is, he says, “the equivalent of the holy grail to chemists”.
Other interesting commissions have included a flood-damaged screenprint of Chairman Mao by Andy Warhol, which was a write-off. The insurer paid the claim and then sent the print to Richard to see if he could help recoup some of its losses. It now looks almost as good as new to the untrained eye.
“It was against hardboard, which had turned the paper quite brown and the paper had expanded in the flood and distorted the image. So I used water and solvents to soften the ink and the paper and stretched it over a drying board,” he says.
Flood damage is common and Richard is part of a hit squad of conservators who answer emergency calls from museums and galleries. One of the first jobs is to freeze the documents and paper works of art immediately to prevent mould taking hold. They can then be dried out with fans and restored.
Thanks to his ability to date paper and pigments, he is also able to verify authenticity.
It’s mostly bad news, especially when it comes to Lowrys and Ben Nicholson pictures, which are easy to forge, though he delivered good news for one owner who asked him to clean what he thought was a print of an Anne Brontë drawing. Richard informed him that it was an original.
“That was a lovely feeling and very poignant as the drawing is of an idealised family with three daughters and a son by a lake. It was almost as if that is what she wished for.”
This knowledge and his love of art is put to good use in the online Watermark Gallery, which he runs with his wife, Liz. He buys pictures at auction knowing he can add value by restoring them. The couple also stock new work by some of their favourite painters and printmakers, including Robert Newton, George Hainsworth and Scarborough-based Janine Baldwin.
“I do most of the framing as I love that artistic side of the job and there is a skill in choosing the right mount and frame,” says Richard, who also specialises in replicas of photographs, artworks and documents for museums so they can display them to the public while keeping the originals safe. He has done copies of everything from Shakespeare’s will to Roald Dahl’s notebooks.
His own taste is for 18th and 19th century watercolours, which he says have fallen out of favour with collectors, apart from in China.
Much as he applauds Banksy for his chutzpah and his clever ideas, he wouldn’t want one.
“They are more of a status symbol and I see them as instant visual gratification. Once you’ve seen it and you get it, that’s it. I like a picture that I can lose myself in like a lovely landscape.
“They’re not fashionable at the moment as collectors are buying oils, so you can pick up a good Victorian watercolour for £200. My bet is that they will prove a good investment. The Chinese love them, especially chocolate box cottages and ladies who look like they could be in Downton Abbey.”
Artworks Conservation, artworksconservation.co.uk. Watermark Gallery, watermarkgallery.co.uk
*Frames of reference... Richard’s tips on caring for art on paper
Art should be enjoyed and displayed if possible. Poor quality framing, including using masking or Sellotape and wood-pulp mountboard will damage paper. Look for a framer who is Fine Art Trade Guild (FATG) commended or certified. Be sure to request acid-free mount board, including using it behind your artwork. A good framer will also recommend glazing that filters out harmful ultraviolet wavelengths that would accelerate fading. I recommend Tru-Vue, Conservation Clear glass.
You can tell if existing framed artworks have acidic wood-pulp board by looking at the cut bevel of the window mount. If the core is a biscuit-brown colour, distinct from the outer papers of the board, it is unpurified wood-pulp that can cause staining to the artwork.
Another easy and affordable tip for framing is to keep moisture out of the frame from cold or damp walls that might otherwise cause mould or “foxing” (orange or brown spots in the paper). Ask the framer to place a sheet of clear polyester or aluminium cooking foil behind the mount and place felt or cork pads on the back to create an air gap between frame and wall.
For precious or valuable watercolours, prints and drawings you might want to seek the advice or services of an art conservator. The Institute for Conservation (Icon) maintains an online register of conservation studios in the UK which can be searched by location or specialism at conservationregister.com To be listed, a conservator is required to have undergone Icon’s peer review procedure as an accredited conservator-restorer (ACR).