Interview #4 Dr. Ella Hendricks

I have always love art and museums, and I could easily spend hours in an art museum and still not get bored of it. One of the reasons I moved to Amsterdam was the Rijks museum and the Van Gogh, so when I saw that Dr. Hendricks worked at one of them for a while, I just had to email her for an interview. And, boy howdy was this an amazing one.

She has this very comforting and soothing voice, and I could’ve heard her talk about art all day long, and on top of that, we had a small discussion on why I dislike modern art and her opinions on it. Without further ado, here is the interview with Dr. Ella Hendricks:

Your job title is conservator and art restorer? Is that what you would call yourself as well?

My first training or my first university education was as an art historian. Actually before, I was doing practical art but I decided not to pursue that and landed in Art History, and after that, I trained as a paintings conservator. With different training depending on which type of material or object we treat.

Can you tell me more about these fields – art conservation and history in detail?

 And the practical stuff too! Not to forget the practical stuff, because for me that was very important. You’re actually using the materials, so you have, what we call a different kind of knowledge; it’s not scientific knowledge, but it is the knowledge you get from working with materials, so you can anticipate if you use a certain mixture of paints what kind of effect you would get with it, and that is very important for conservation as well.

Well, to do it chronologically – after that, I did art history, and there are many different approaches to art history at the time I did it at end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s. There was very much a trend to lean more towards iconography that was more focused on the image that was actually portrayed and the meaning of the image, and it was not so much realizing that the painting, for example, was also made up of the paint, the canvas, ground layers – not looking at the material aspects, which was something that was missing. Also, that was something, strangely enough, that was really missing in practical art training at that time, because it was more about the ideas that you had and not so much the methods and the techniques you used to express them.

And so, eventually, because I was so split between science and art actually, in my interests in school even, that came together in conservation which was a four-year post-graduate program after your first degree, so, all in all, it was about 7-8 years training actually.

I feel so lucky that I got into it at that time, just everything came together – the various aspects and interests.

So, you fell into this by chance, it wasn’t something you always wanted to do?

Not at all, it was very lucky! I trained at an institute where they would take two students every two years, so there was a very small chance that you’d get taken on, and I feel so fortunate that I got that opportunity. I was also thinking, at that time, of doing a PhD in art history or conservation, but it didn’t pan out because I got offered that place in conservation, and that worked out for me. So, it is not that I planned it, it just happened to me.

You’re a professor now, though? What’s your experience been like, going from working for the museum as a conservator and then now to teaching?

It is actually very interesting! I have a long practical background, I worked for thirteen or twelve and a half years, at the Frans Hals museum in Haarlem, and after that sixteen years at the Van Gogh museum, and since 2016, I decided to go full time into the training program. That means that I don’t do much practical work anymore, but it is so important to have that practical background if you are teaching conservation and restoration because it is so important apart from the theory. It helps to connect the mind with the hands, connecting the theory and the practice that is going to be an essential aspect, but it is difficult because the conservation program sort of existed for ten years at the university, and a lot of the types of the knowledge for us that are important, are not easy to integrate in an academic context. So the things that are quite hard to measure in a usual scientific setting, though students do a thesis which incorporates scientific research – science is an integral component, but it is not the whole story that conservation entails.

Do you miss your work as a conservator and working at a museum?

Well, I have itching hands. So I’m thinking I’m going to learn knitting or something, but I won’t have time to do that!

The other thing is having worked at a museum for over thirty years is that it’s a very hands-on job. But also you get a lot of other aspects of the job: it’s not just sitting behind the easel and working on your painting, but it’s all kinds of things to do with the museum like doing condition checks, packing, transport, travelling of the artworks, advising on the lighting, and then you have to work with people with different specialities from the museum, or from outside. By its nature, it’s a very interdisciplinary activity.

As a conservator, often because you’re the one closest to the object, you need to act as a bridge between people you collaborate with and translating and bringing together all that knowledge in terms of what it means for that object.

What would a regular day be like for you, as a conservator?

So, we never had anything like a regular day. Every day was different. It’s changed a lot over the years, and in recent years we’ve had very busy museum nights at the Van Gogh museum, where I was working. There was also more time spent on sharing knowledge with the public like guided tours, exhibitions and conceiving research project proposals – the museum had sponsoring money, and had to figure out what to do with that money. There were a lot more than the quiet parts of sitting behind the easel or the microscope, which is a very good thing because that is a very intensive process.

Were you also involved in Restoration?

As a trained conservator, you would hope that restoration is your main activity. But over the years, and as part of a big museum, you notice that it’s become a relatively small part of your daily work. The training is focussed on that – focussed on doing research too. Usually starts with observation, which is very important. Then employing all kinds of different techniques, also talking to art historians and social scientists, historians – whoever you need to understand the object that you’re working on In order to make the right choices about what you do to it.

Has there been a particular painting that you’ve worked on which you’ve been most proud of or loved the most?

I’ve actually been very spoiled in that point of view. It’s also the reason I don’t paint any more because I work with such nice and beautiful objects.

So, one of the works I like is The Bedroom by Van Gogh, a popular oil painting. It’s a beautiful painting, but it looked horrible at one point because what you do is you take off – or what was decided in this case was to take off the older restorations that was done in the past because a lot of these restorations were covering a lot of the paint and the original painting was quite damaged; it was already damaged in Van Gogh’s studio because there was a flood in the streets. The full extent of the damage didn’t appear till during the treatment and there was a very strict deadline to do that treatment. So it was a very intense project because you couldn’t have anticipated that completely, even with the technical research techniques that were done. There was a lot to discover, much more than anticipated, like the remains of the newspapers that he stuck onto the painting to attach the flaking paint – that was still there; in a very short period of time it was a fantastic research object and a challenging treatment. We also made a digital reconstruction which was made to reconstruct the original colours of the paintings, which has changed over time. So there were like three projects going on at the same time. And that project itself was quite new at the time and it was also very interdisciplinary – it was with an art historian, artist, curators. It was quite new and finding ways to put all these different types of information together to get as close as possible to a digital reproduction of how the picture could’ve looked originally at the same time as restoring it and restoring it physically, you don’t bring it to its original appearance because you can’t. It’s changed.

Do you try to, then, use the same pigments or the same type as the original?

You could try to reconstruct the original pigments, but most of them are quite poisonous actually. They use a lot of lead, chrome, arsenic – the greens and the yellows in particular. The original pigments aren’t necessarily stable, they’ve chemically deteriorated over time so we’ve changed to modern synthetic pigments that are more stable and won’t change colour in the period ahead, and they can quite easily be removed should you Want to remove the retouches in the future – that shouldn’t be a problem.

Have you even come across a fake in your work?

I’ve actually done a lot of work on authenticity attribution, so I’ve looked at a lot of pictures that are fake. With Van Gogh, fakes were made at quite an early date, immediately after he died he became quite well known and people started making fakes.

Fake is a difficult word because it depends on why these pictures have been made. Some pictures have been wrongly attributed because of fake signature, or later they’ve been associated with Van Gogh, though that may not have the intention by another painter. Some deliberately fake paintings and they’re usually easier to distinguish actually. So it’s a big field of research and it’s also very interdisciplinary.

You mentioned that you use Bayesian statistics or, the Bayesian approach in your field? How does that fit into what you do?

If we are looking into the authenticity of something, we base our argument on all kinds of evidence. That can range from the style of brushwork, which is very difficult to put it into words. We’ve got soft evidence and we have hard evidence (the scientific evidence), like what pigments have been used and if they fit with the time period and if it fits with what we know of what was on the artist’s mind at the time, do they fit exactly in terms of pigment particle size, how detailed you want to get, and you put all these different bits of evidence together to make your judgement based on the history or the provenance of the painting – does it come directly from the family or do we know where ti came from, and for each bit of evidence, we can create a Bayesian network. What is interesting about the bayesian network is that it forces you to think about what you don’t know, so usually when you’re writing an article, for example, to say that based on the evidence we came to the conclusion that this painting is by the artist. You attempt to write it in a sort of narrative way toward that conclusion, and the Bayesian networks forces you to stand still by each point and say we found cobalt blue pigment that agrees with what was on the artists palette in Paris in 1886, but it also forces you to say how often that happens, how many other artists were using that pigment at that time. So, it forces you to highlight the things that you don’t know and to identify gaps in the knowledge, and maybe to prioritise which are is worth pursuing to do more research. We do it intuitively, but the drawback is that it becomes very complicated because to start a Bayesian network for one painting, it has proved to be very huge. As a general approach, it is very useful to us because it makes us think in a different way about the ways that we use the information we have.

 Do you think it is important to foster interdisciplinary research in your field?

I think all new developments come from crossing boundaries, in my experience. Now, in conservation, we just had a meeting where we are putting together big research plan – what is new in conservation is that we want to integrate more of the social scientists, because, since the 1920s the scientific component like chemistry and physics has been increasing, and now we’re joined also with the computer scientists, which is important for the imaging possibilities. But what we are also interested in now, is the role of the public or the audience– how they perceive art, and should we be taking that on board for the decisions we make on how to restore, and how we present artworks – what do they think about when we make digital reproductions of artworks and we show that next to the original, does that change the way people think of the original object, in terms of ideas about authenticity. There are things that are beyond outfield of expertise, and we need to engage with researchers and specialists that do that.

Are there any side-effects to being interdisciplinary?

At the university, conservation is quite new, less than ten years, and we are still trying to establish ourselves. I think it has a disadvantage of being interdisciplinary for conservation.

It such a natural role for conservation to be in the middle point, and you are the receiver for so many different things, and you are in the service fo the object, what do you want to do with the information in benefit of the object, we tend to sideline our own core expertise, that is something we are trying to define in a more clear way. And as we try to develop further and further, we also ger pockets of specialisation, which is probably what has happened in your field more. We have these conservators who do more contemporary art, conceptual art, for example, you do get more separation, and right now it is just one big basket essentially.

So, is it right to say that you’d like there to be advancements in your core fields, but also more interdisciplinary work at the same time?

Yeah, and maybe it is not possible to have the same people doing both because you need a different mindset. I mean, I have done both, in a way, because I’ve looked at Van Gogh, for example, for sixteen years – very in-depth with just one painter who was very diverse, but from that depth you can also go and expand the width, so to speak and there are ten different tracks not just paintings, but everything else as well. Yeah, it is a different mindset, but you definitely need both.

How important is interdisciplinarity going forward?

I can’t anticipate how exactly it is going to move forward, but I think it always had been a  field where interdisciplinarity is pretty important, and it only going to become more the case. But what you do notice is that the number of disciplines involved, or the diversity of expertise even, from experts in the manufacture of bulbs to experts in synchrotron emission, it is all necessary to look for what you need, and that diversity is increasing. So it is going to become more and more challenging, to keep a hold on this. It may even go in the direction of more specialisation, but you can’t become an expert in everything. So, interdisciplinarity will continue to be of key importance.

Has there been a TV Show or Film where an art conservator has been represented petty decently?

I’m going to answer that a bit differently, I think. Do you know that Mr Bean film with the painting of Whistler’s mother? That is such a nightmare for conservators to look at that, so somehow it puts the finger on what conservators fear the most. It’s brought across really well in that film. Not that I would recommend that as a good representation of a conservator, not at all.

There are also some Dutch documentary shows that are pretty good. I’ve been on one, and so have my colleagues.

What is the best and the worst thing about your job?

What I’m not used to is long hours behind a computer reading and writing, I like to look through a microscope and work with my hands, so that would be the worst.

The best would be that it is such a rich field. Going from being an expert in one field and then putting that in context now, and I realise it is so broad and there are so many challenges because we are such a young program.

Do you have any book recommendations for someone who wants to read more about your field?

I can recommend the book that got me into this field. It is by Helmut Ruhemann from 1965. He emigrated to England, and he was the chief conservator for the national gallery in London, and he was way ahead of his time because he was the first person to write a book about conservation, but also started writing down what he did to the paintings. Documentation was quite new at the time, and though the book is from 1965, it is quite philosophical, where he goes into things and discusses thing that is done to the paintings and things going on in the field. It is called the Cleaning of Paintings.

Thank you for your time, Dr. Hendricks!

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