You should regularly check easel paintings in your church for damage. Look for the following signs:
- Canvas: torn, punctured, split at the edges, sagging, bulging or dented
- Panel support: split, warped, cracked or showing signs of insect damage
- Paint: cracked, loose, flaking, lost or fading
- Surface: dirty or dusty, covered by mould or mildew, blooming or whitening
- Yellow or brown varnish
- The frame may be in a poor condition. This puts the whole painting at risk.
What causes damage
The main causes of damage to easel paintings in churches are:
- Frequent and drastic changes in temperature and relative humidity. The painting's structure becomes stressed and weakened. Variation in the way the different materials react causes cracks, delamination (separation of layers) and eventually paint loss.
- High relative humidity may cause canvases to become slack and deform at the corners or the bottom edge. A white veiling layer called 'bloom' may appear which is caused by the migration of moisture through the painting.
- Low relative humidity may cause the wooden parts, such as the frame, canvas stretchers and the panels of panel paintings, to shrink and they may split or break at joints. A low temperature of under 5ºC makes oil and acrylic paints brittle and liable to crack easily.
- Water damages both the support elements and the paint layers and can lead to paint loss.
- Wood-boring insects are the most common pests found in the wooden parts of a painting, such as the frame.
- Paintings hanging against cold or damp walls may develop mould on the reverse side.
- Bat and bird droppings can cause damage to the painting's surface.
- Light can also damage a painting by yellowing varnishes or fading pigments.
- Canvas paintings are particularly vulnerable to damage from impact, which causes cracks in the paint layers and tearing of canvas.
Repair and conservation
The conservation of easel paintings is a specialist task. If a painting is showing signs of damage you should contact a professionally accredited conservator to inspect it and advise you on required treatments. You can obtain details of accredited conservators on the Conservation Register website (you can access the Register here).
Some conservators may charge for visits and the preparation of conservation reports but we can help you with a grant for this initial work. Our grants also support conservation projects.
The conservation of easel paintings is likely to require formal approval. If you are a church, contact your Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC) Secretary at an early stage about a faculty. If you are a cathedral please contact your Fabric Advisory Committee (FAC) for advice in the first instance. Follow the links to find out more.
For more information on the conservation of easel paintings please contact us.