Anthony Moore Painting Conservation gives new life to old paintings

Cleaning and repairing oils takes special expertise and a trained eye—and the results can be remarkable.

For more than twenty years, Anthony Moore and his five-person staff in York, Maine, have specialized in the conservation and restoration of oil paintings in genres ranging from early religious icons to old master works, and nineteenth-century American and European paintings to modern art and newly executed pieces. Moore’s company, Anthony Moore Painting Conservation, is known worldwide for expertise in China trade paintings.   

New Hampshire Home spoke with Moore about his work.

New Hampshire Home (NHH): When should people bring in a painting for conservation?

Anthony Moore (AM):  We recommend surveying your paintings regularly and bringing them in sooner rather than later. Usually people wait too long before taking care of their paintings. The painting is on the wall, and people are just used to looking at it and don’t really notice until bits of paint begin to fall off. Often people bring in paintings when they’re planning to give them to the next generation.

Once, we received a small painting in an envelope, and when we opened the envelope, we could pour the painting out. The paint pieces had become so small they were like sand. Unfortunately, that painting did not survive.

Taking the time to really look at paintings is well worth it. When we conserve a painting, we always discover something interesting—a certain compositional strategy or color combination.

NHH: You have paintings here that are representative of all periods. How do you and your clients determine if restoration is the right choice, financially, for a painting?

AM: Occasionally, you can answer that straightforwardly: the painting is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars so don’t think about it—restore it. If the painting is a family piece and the client cares about it, then I think restoration is worth it. A client will say, “Well, it’s not worth very much, but it is to me.” Paintings should not always be defined by their dollar value. It’s one of the only arts where we stick a dollar value right next to the work.

All our conservation estimates are complimentary. 

During the restoration process, staff members confer frequently on paint colors. Here Anthony Moore (left) and Jeremy Fogg examine a painting. “We don’t all see the same colors,” Moore says. “So, it’s quite a process.”

NHH: What steps do you and your staff take when conserving a painting?

AM: First, we do a structural assessment. If we are looking at a painting that’s just dirty, then the restoration is relatively simple. But, if you have moisture damage, the canvas has started to shrink and the paint is flaking, that will change the way we approach the conservation.

Throughout this process, we take photographs and we also do an ultraviolent examination, which will reveal layers of varnish and any previous restorations.

To consolidate flaking paint, we use various glues, ranging from sturgeon to rabbit skin to the newer polyvinyl acetates (PVAs). Sturgeon glue is far more flexible than the others.

When the painting is stabilized, we can clean it, removing surface dirt and discolored varnish. One must take care, obviously, not to remove original paint.

One or two people do the cleaning, and someone else always cleans the signature. Sometimes the signature is put on in a different manner, and in that respect, we don’t want to make any mistakes.

The majority of my staff are inpainters—they restore the image—and that’s a very collaborative process. It can be quite difficult for one person to do it all. Certain people have more skill at blocking a painting, and others have more skill at finishing. We all discuss the paint colors, and we examine the paint in different lights for accuracy. We don’t all see the same colors. So, it’s quite a process.

Some of our restorations can take years. Having a staff means we can handle many projects. There are periods when you have to put a painting aside for various reasons. For example, you can only assess specific dark colors correctly at certain times of day. I used to think that was somewhat fanciful, but it isn’t.

NHH:  As a conservator, you are known for your restorations of China trade paintings. The Seacoast has a rich trove of these paintings. What special qualities do these paintings present?

AM: Those paintings were done in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for ship captains who were trading in Chinese ports. Captains brought paintings, prints or photographs of their wives or daughters to have portraits of them painted by Chinese artists. Captains would commission a portrait of themselves and their boats as well.

The theory is that the portraits were done in a day, but I’m not sure about that. Each painting looks like it was done by one hand, so it is possible to ascertain who the artist was by the style.

In general, the oil paint appears to have been applied quickly because it sinks into the gesso, the primer coat on the canvas. The effect is reminiscent of watercolor on paper, a technique the Chinese were used to. Probably, these artists were given a Western prototype to work from.

NHH: Is there a restoration you did that was particularly gratifying?

AM: We worked on a Maxfield Parrish painting (The Skier) that had been in a fire. The family had kept the painting, even though it was all black and blistered, for twenty or thirty years. No one had ventured to think that it could be restored. Then it came to us. We knew the blisters had to be flattened, and some of them had broken, but we thought we could do it. We managed to put most of the blisters down, and then we cleaned the surface. The whites had changed a bit with the heat, but some of the glazes were beautifully intact beneath the blackened surface.   

Left: The Skier by Maxfield Parrish was featured on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in January 1931. Although the painting survived a fire, for decades it seemed too damaged to restore (shown here before restoration). Right: At Anthony Moore Painting Conservation, the blisters were put down and the painting was cleaned. “Some of the glazes were beautifully intact beneath the blackened surface,” Moore says.

Tips from Painting Conservator Anthony Moore

Where is the best place to hang an oil painting?
• Out of direct sunlight.
• In a place that’s protected from humidity, moisture and extreme temperature changes.

How can I clean a painting on my own?
• This is not advised!

How often should a painting be cleaned?
• Consult a conservator, but as a rule of thumb, about every hundred years.

What’s the best way to invest in paintings?
• Look at paintings and learn about them.

Categories: Architecture and Interiors, Artwork and Design