On the blue-skies fast track

December 26, 1997

The THES speaks with three academics under the age of 40 as part of an occasional series of profiles of young researchers making an early mark

Spike Bucklow

"If you paint your skirting boards, you have to paint them again in five years. This painting is 660 years old and still looking better than a skirting board," says Spike Bucklow, one of a group at the Hamilton Kerr Institute entrusted with the care of the Thornham Parva altarpiece, a remarkable medieval work of art.

"The fact that it has survived is a testament to the quality of their technical work," Bucklow says. Although trained as a chemist, he now works as a conservation scientist at the institute -the Fitzwilliam Museum's training centre for the conservation of paintings.

The Thornham Parva altarpiece, created for a priory in East Anglia, is a sophisticated demonstration of the use of oil paints, despite being a century older than what were thought to be the earliest oil paintings. The very early use of such elaborate techniques is challenging received wisdom in the history of science as well as in art history. "If you want to study medieval chemistry, as I'm doing, look at a painting," Bucklow says.

Standing at the intersection of art, science and history can offer a unique perspective, but it can also be precarious. Art historians can be as delicate as the paintings they study, and they might consider the comparison of a medieval altarpiece to a skirting board to be close to heresy. Bucklow is no philistine: he has a healthy respect for paintings. But he acknowledges that there can be tension.

"The painting is ordinarily seen as a visual image, for that is its purpose, but it was constructed by an artist as a physical object that projects a visual image. Art historians are interested primarily in the visual image. They discount that it is a physical object created by an artist," Bucklow explains. "People think that if you talk about the physical object you do not realise that it is a beautiful painting."

Multiple perspectives are essential in the conservation of old paintings and the assessment of any changes in appearance after restoration. "That change in appearance," Bucklow says, "can only be judged as to whether it is a valid or invalid intrusion if you think about it in terms of a physical object." When an old master returns to public view after restoration, the restorer may have some explaining to do. If a green layer comes back as a blue layer, for example, art lovers may deem the painting ruined, until they realise that it was green only because of an ageing, yellowed varnish.

The restoration of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is a case in point. It took place against a background of controversy over the brightness of the colours. The question was, had the restorers done a bad job or are we compelled to accept that Michelangelo was a colourist? "To be able to enter into that debate meaningfully," Bucklow says, "you have to have some idea of the behaviour of the painting as a physical object and the interventions it has enjoyed or suffered in the history of its care."

It requires a particular temperament to handle old paintings and the issues they engender. There is an almost tangible composure to the people working at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, no doubt aided by its idyllic site in the village of Whittlesford near Cambridge. Such calm might belie the fact that Bucklow is on a mission - to bring together historians of art and historians of science in the study of "cultural history".

"Part of my job is a kind of historical, scientific detective work. Paintings give insight into the extraordinary sophistication of technical knowledge of materials and their manipulation. The artist's workshop has been the point at which you draw together threads of different disciplines,such as chemistry and metallurgy (and art)."

Bucklow may have better luck bringing historians of science round to this way of thinking, but he is hopeful that art historians will find increasing value in looking beyond the visual image. "Art history is in a state of flux, and when a discipline is in flux, it is open to suggestions from all sorts of places. I think that the technical examination of paintings is just yet another thing that can be contributed to art history as a subject, and also cultural history, because if you talk about cultural history you're not entering into this artificial 20th-century art-science divide. You're saying art is one cultural expression, science another. I see technical art history as something with the potential to contribute to the history of science and to the history of art."

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