An ambitious conservation and restoration project on the Canaletto paintings in the Vedute Room at the Wallace House was recently completed. The Italian term vedute is used, in art history, to describe a type of landscape painting that is usually topographically accurate, and represents a cityscape. Many collections of Italian cityscapes were gathered by young men on tours of Italy, and at home, the paintings were housed in galleries and collections that came to be called Vedute Rooms.
The Vedute Room at the Wallace House has held two magnificent scenes of Venice by Canaletto that have been overdue for careful restoration and conservation. Most noticeable, the varnish has yellowed and become dirty; this flattens and dulls the surface colours and obscures details of the paintings. In addition, where the framing is in contact with the canvas there is some loss of paint and deterioration of the substrate on one of the paintings, and a large tear in the nineteenth century that needed updated repair.
The goals of this important conservation were to both care for and conserve the paintings, ensuring they can be enjoyed and will last, retaining their value. In addition, for historians, detailed study of the paintings using the latest imaging techniques give us a great deal of information about processes and materials, and the condition of the paintings can be carefully documented for future conservation work. This conservation was completed at the Hamilton Kerr Institute at the University of Cambridge.
The technical analysis proceeded along with the cleaning and removal of the varnish. When the old varnish was gone, conservators could do a chemical analysis on the paint, so any repairs could duplicate paint formulas and pigments. The study was able to show details of brush strokes, techniques such as use of protractors to measure elements in the paintings, use of incising into the paint for fine lines, and other art processes.
The difference in the depth of detail and the colour were the most notable differences seen in the paintings after cleaning and restoration. Canaletto was always known for precision and detail; seen in these two large Venetian cityscapes, he was also a master at painting sunlight and blue skies, bringing a landscape to life.