Works of art that are made with great skill can resist the ravages of time wonderfully, as we can see in museums. In domestic dwellings, however, the intensity of use is much greater and there are numerous dangers.
If you have been entrusted with items of cultural value that may have been painted long before you were born and that may be treasured by your descendants long after your own earthly existence is over, your care will have a considerable influence on the cultural longevity of a work of art or painting. It should be noted that neglect can shorten a work’s life span by generations, as not all symptoms of ageing caused by neglect can be rectified by restoration.
Below you will find a number of simple guidelines that can optimise the care provided, more particularly for paintings, but by extension for other works of art too.
- Don’t hang a painting in direct sunlight or over a radiator; constant fluctuations in temperature – and, as a consequence, in relative humidity – are very bad for cloth and wood.
- Hang the work up on a strong hook and with steel picture wire attached to the frame.
- Don’t hang a painting in the kitchen or on any other damp internal wall.
- Make sure – if it is aesthetically and art-historically justified – that the canvas is varnished before any dirt can attach to it. Always consult a conservator about this.
- Don’t clean the surface, certainly if it has not been varnished or if it contains porous materials. If the work is covered with a deposit of dirt, ask a conservator to clean the work and then varnish it. DIY cleaning can cause irreversible damage to the pictorial layer of a painting.
- Never clean the backs of paintings with a vacuum cleaner, as this can eventually lead to ugly cracks at the front. Cobwebs are not harmful in themselves and they also block harmful insects such as flies and butterflies.
- Ensure adequate tension of canvas paintings, as slack canvas will bulge and warp. Here, too, it is best to consult a conservator, in order to avoid taking unnecessary risks.
- Always ask the advice of a qualified conservator. An estimate costs nothing and gives you a good idea of the treatment your work of art requires; above all, don’t start tinkering yourself!
If you bear in mind the guidelines above and recognise the kinds of damage described below, you will be in a position to preserve your works of art for your descendants. The most important kinds of damage are: mechanical damage such as scratches and dents; chemical damage caused by corrosive household chemicals; weakening or brittleness caused by fire or candles; wear and tear caused to paint by intensive dust removal and inexpert cleaning.
Damage such as soiling by food and flyspecks; discoloration caused by sunlight; damage caused by insects and mould; wear caused to paint by frequent cleaning and vacuuming of the canvas; bad mounting; labels stuck onto the back; and the wrong varnish – are all sources of damage that can actually be avoided. Sadly, damage caused by inexpert restoration is also a very common problem. Wear and tear caused by overly crude varnish removal, darkening and excessive retouches and the use of heavy patches to repair tears are just some of the mistakes often made by incompetent individuals.