Francis Downing has been a painting conservator and restorer for over 40 years, working in churches in Britain and overseas. He has recently joined the National Churches Trust’s Professional Trades Directory .
Downing runs the Francis Downing Fine Art and Conservation studio from Harrogate where he and his team conserve and restore easel paintings in oil and tempera including decorative fixed painted wood structures from the Italian Renaissance to present day’s acrylic painting.
The studio cares for paintings from initial cleaning, repair to the consolidation of flaking paint and many other aspects to painting restoration,
His conservation work is split between churches and historic houses, large and small, all over the British Isles. He has studied thousands of pictures through his work and believes that there is no painting out there that is in such a poor state that nothing can be salvaged through care and attention.
Restoring a dilapidated old oil painting
He tells of a dilapidated old oil painting which was sent to the studio from the Anglican Cathedral in Spanish town, Jamaica.
He explains, “It was in such a poor state you couldn’t really tell what it depicted. It was thick with old varnish and layers of paint. It was badly stained - a real mess!”
Its condition was bad because it had been roughly restored numerous times and in situ, many years ago.
Eventually Downing's conservation work revealed the picture was a Resurrection scene with an angel and the two grieving women standing at the open tomb. It is now back in the cathedral in Spanish town, transformed.
Another challenge for Downing in recent years was a hidden wall painting in the church of St John the Evangelist, Hoylandswaine, South Yorkshire.
Downing says, “Apparently, the wall painting was disintegrating in the 1950/60s. Unable to get funding to save it, the parish decided to cover it with layers and layers of paint, including masonry and oil paint. It took us about a year, very carefully, to remove each layer.”
“The wall picture was late 19th century and had been painted by a follower of the Pre-Raphaelites, Roddam Spencer Stanhope. He had painted a Christ in Majesty with angels." Thanks to Downing's restoration team, it is there for all to see”.
The questions a conservator needs to ask
Downing comments “As a conservator you need to ask two questions, why was the painting created? What is its relevance now? If it was a building it would be a little different, but a religious painting showing some event, like the cruxificion, or a saint or some event in history, is a lasting image and says something about the artist and the time in which it was done.”
“We as restorers try to reveal what the artist intended, we want to get it back to what he wanted it to looked like when the artist eventually put down his brushes on completing the work. You must take the dirt off, dirt can cause damage and the varnish can turn yellow and diffuse the colour of the paint layers and therefore the picture is not what was originally intended. "