CALL ME CONSERVATIVE May 22 2015 12 Comments

Today I had the good fortune of meeting John Payne, Senior Conservator of painting at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.  He has restored and cleaned many of the masterpieces in the NGV collection from Turner to Tiepolo with a career spanning more than 30 years. The idea of being up close and intimate with the brush strokes of the masters is utterly fascinating to someone like me.

I came to him with a simple question “How common is the ability in artists to easily mix colours that match perfectly?” Surely John could answer this better than anyone else in Australia right?

We sat down to coffee in the NGV café on the ground floor.  Hordes of school children bustled noisily around us on their way to see the exhibitions but I barely heard them.  I was too engrossed in the insights John began sharing on two subjects very dear to my heart, painting and art history. He spoke of things like, the history of colour and pigment, the perils of using traditional Damar varnish over synthetic ones, his recent restoration of JMW Turner’s Dunstandburgh Castle, and the leading-edge and often controversial restoration techniques the National Gallery, London have been employing since the 1970s, to name a few.  Until finally getting around to answering my question with “depends…”.

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'Portrait Group: The Singer Farinelli & Friends' by Jacopo Amigoni 1750-1752

We then went up to level two of the gallery so John could show me his favourite painting in the NGV collection – a large tableaux he restored several  years ago. It was Jacopo Amigoni’s “Portrait Group: The Singer Farinelli & Friends”, a painting that I’ve passed by many times but never stopped to study because it hangs in the same room and is overshadowed by Tiepolo’s epic “The Banquet of Cleopatra”.  We stood for what seemed like an eternity before this masterpiece, John gently explaining in great detail the compositional elements and why he believes it’s Amigoni’s pièce de résistance, and me standing quietly in awe.

John Payne’s knowledge of art, painting and art history is profound. I’ve never met a person like him before and still can’t believe he gave of his valuable time like he did.  He may not have answered my question in the way I was hoping but I don’t mind. In fact I suspect I already know the answer as I’m one of these people who finds matching colours to be an easy business but I've not met many who do.  I didn’t dare say this to John though… I’m far too conservative to brag.

'The Banquet of Cleopatra' by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo 1743-44.