Restoration in Action: Revealing a Benjamin West Painting

April 5, 2015

In this video, Mark Aronson, Chief Conservator at the Center, demonstrates the restoration of an oil-on-panel painting by Benjamin West entitled Milkmaids in St. James’s Park, Westminster Abbey Beyond (ca. 1801).

West painted a Sunday afternoon in St. James’s Park, a scene of leisure in London. Aronson explained that at that time people frequently met at the park and drank a beverage called syllabub, a mixture of milk and wine. (You may try this modern day recipe of syllabub when hosting your next cocktail hour.)

Aronson noted that the painting gives us a view into the daily activities in an eighteenth-century London park, where people from different walks of life met and experienced a variety of leisure-time activities.

Watch Aronson’s delicate removal of varnish across the painting. “This painting is in very good condition. There are very few damages, very few losses but it has a very thick, very yellow varnish obscuring the entire surface. We’re removing its varnish to reveal its hue, its proper color, and its spatial relationships,” he said.

The dirty varnish put a yellow coating over everything, making whites a dingy yellow and brown, while also lightening the dark colors. The paint texture was lost because a shiny, hardened syrup clogged the precise edges of each brush stroke. As Aronson removed the varnish, he pulled open the yellow filter.

Aronson observed that his work unveiling the view of this early 1800s painting compares to the experience of looking outside a screen window.

“The lights are going from this dark gray or brown to something lighter and the darks are getting slightly darker. The sense of space in this composition will be expanded, and it will no longer be flattened—that same effect that you have when you are looking through your screen window at a flat landscape. When you raise the screen, the landscape will expand.”