I should never have risked it. Looking back now I would never try it again. But put yourself in my position, a hunter of paintings who had recently realised the consummate joy of being able to surf the worlds auctions without even having to move from my desk. In the mid 1990’s EBay was amongst the first to offer good enough digital images to make decisions from a screen, and I had just managed to buy a highly exciting portrait which, now unwrapped, was blinking at me from under the bright lights of my gallery easel.
I decided to restore it myself – something I always leave to the professional restorers, but this new arrival was different. Firstly I had managed to pick it up from an American seller for the paltry sum of $180 as an early 19th century American portrait by an unknown artist . More compellingly, I could see clearly what had happened to it and how it might be reversed with the help of a bottle of acetone I had at the ready.
The face of the portrait, that of an eighteenth century gentleman, gazed at me with ironic formality, a look that befitted its age, but in this instance, possessed an unusual authority. The paint strokes were honeyed, fluent and applied by a master of glazing – a paint technique which, if done well as it was here, allows one colour to shine through another with seductive brilliance. The gentleman’s jacket on the other hand was embarrassingly bad: the construction was wooden, anatomically confusing, and painted with about as much skill as a jobbing pub sign painter on his first assignment. The urge to remove it myself overcame my normal professional judiciousness.
Bit by bit I began to apply swabs of acetone-drenched cotton-wool. His lumpy shoulders began to melt, the swabs became saturated with dissolving paint, and from beneath began to emerge another form, altogether different from his straight jacket of later paint. Working now at a feverish pitch, holding my breath with every application of a new swab, over the course of an hour I revealed a new coat and body, as subtlety and lyrically painted as the head.
What had happened was that a ham-fisted restorer had decided to repaint the body in order to disguise a tear in the canvas that ran across his coat. A properly trained restorer would simply have attended to the scar with careful in-painting. The painting that had emerged was an Ipswich work by the greatest portrait painter at work in England in the 1750’s – Thomas Gainsborough. It was also worth in excess of $35,000.