The miniature portrait restorer who thinks bigger


If you ask Alan Derbyshire how he specialized in the conservation of miniature portraits, he replies that it was “to be in the right place at the right time”. He joined the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London as a paper conservator in 1983 and then spent two years training with the museum’s miniatures expert, Jim Murrell. He assumed the role of V&A point person for miniatures after Murrell’s death in 1994 and became a world expert in their conservation. His accomplishments in the field have not gone unnoticed. Derbyshire is the recipient of the 2018 Plowden Medal, the highest conservation award given annually by the Royal Warrant Holders Association. We asked him about his work, his favorite artists and what collectors need to know.

The Art Newspaper: What are some of your favorite pieces you’ve done?

Alan Derbyshire: “It’s not so much individual pieces as artists such as Samuel Cooper, John Smart, William Wood and Nicholas Hilliard, who painted many famous faces, including Queen Elizabeth I. Also Isaac Oliver, who was formed by Hilliard. It feels like a mysterious and secret art that required individual training to understand the materials and techniques involved.

Tell us about your interest in miniaturist William Wood.

“Wood painted approximately 1,200 miniatures between 1790 and 1808. He kept fee books in which he described in incredible detail how he painted each miniature. He was constantly experimenting with materials. The books, now in the National Art Library of V&A, record details such as materials (e.g. whether he used distilled or river water) and how much he charged the caretaker. It’s a gold mine of information. He also used a code for his pigments, so he doesn’t have to write their names in full and I’ve worked with conservation scientists to match the numeric code with specific pigments. grants for this and to digitize the books.If we can make them available online, they will become a valuable resource for collectors and institutions.

You often piece together miniatures to see how they are made. Could you tell us more about this?

“Conservators don’t just repair objects – our expertise includes an understanding of materials and techniques. We often try to reconstruct how artists would paint from their treatises, by examining miniatures and doing analysis. The problem is that there are often gaps in information about their processes. For example, Nicholas Hilliard describes how he painted rubies, emeralds and pearls. We know that he painted a small area of ​​pure silver on the surface of the miniature, then used a hot needle to place a dot of colored resin on the silver. The silver acts as a reflector through the resin. The little mystery was that [contemporaneous] treatises state that miniatures were placed before a fire, but they do not explain why. We have found that when you remove the needle you end up with a small spike and not a globular ruby. When we placed the reconstituted figurine in front of a heat source, the resin resumed its perfect globular shape. If we hadn’t done the reconstruction, we wouldn’t have known exactly how the process actually worked. This is the type of art technology research we conduct to better understand what we are looking at.

What are the most common mistakes collectors make when it comes to maintaining miniatures?

“Deterioration is often caused by mold, which occurs when humidity and temperature levels rise in the medallion’s microclimate. Most people don’t realize their miniature portraits have mold because they can’t easily recognize this and once the damage is done it is difficult to repair.Ivory mounts that were used from around 1700 can also warp and crack and layers of paint can peel off.Often , people lock their miniatures in a drawer or bank safe for security, I wouldn’t advise storing them alone in a metal safe, as changes in relative humidity will be absorbed by the miniature Instead I would recommend that absorbent materials such as paper or silica gel be placed with miniatures when stored – these will act as a con be environmental changes. I would also suggest collectors examine their miniatures every few months, and preferably with a magnifying glass as it is difficult to detect signs of deterioration with the naked eye.

What about brightness levels?

“Miniatures, like all painted objects, can fade. Discoloration is more critical because the coat of paint on vellum or ivory [support] is very thin. Discoloration is irreversible – once it’s gone, it’s gone. I would never advise hanging a portrait miniature on a wall where natural light enters. They really shouldn’t be on display all the time. I would recommend a lockable display case or cabinet that stays covered most of the time. At the V&A, we have designed a visitor-operated infrared lighting system in which the lights are activated as visitors approach and only stay on for four minutes at a time.

“I’ve run workshops all over the world: in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and here in the UK. As you can imagine, this is a very specialized area. You can’t train someone to conserve portrait miniatures in two or three days, so my workshops for conservators, curators and collection managers focus on training people to recognize conservation issues before they don’t become too serious and require intervention work. I have also spent the past few years training one of my colleagues at the V&A, Dr Victoria Button, in the more specialized skills required to carry out in-depth treatments – succession training is vitally important for knowledge and skills are not wasted. »

How does it feel to receive the Plowden Medal?

“I am honoured. This is the highest and most prestigious award in the conservation profession. This is particularly significant as it is the result of peer recommendations and although the award is annual, if they believe that there is no suitable candidate, the award is not awarded that year. This is wonderful for me personally but also for my colleagues and the V&A itself. More and more television shows emphasize the public’s fascination with the way things are made and the materials and techniques used by artists Anything that draws attention to the important work of the museum, our curatorial department and the profession in general is great.


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