Part detective, part magician, Simon Gillespie and his team breathe new life into forgotten works of beauty. Words by Reyhaan Day.

 

 

Few people have been as close to the world’s greatest artworks as Simon Gillespie, the Mayfair-based art conservator and restorer.

Gillespie has revived paintings by revered Old Masters and modern art maestros, from van Dyck and Rubens to Picasso, Warhol and even Banksy.

He and his team breathe new life into paintings that have been neglected, forgotten or damaged.

They use the latest scientific techniques to remove dirt from the surface of the painting, often revealing something not seen since it was first created.

And, often, they help to discover a work’s true history.

 

Work for the BBC

Recently, Gillespie has assisted art specialist Bendor Grosvenor in attributing paintings to artists on the BBC4 programme Britain’s Lost Masterpieces.

“I very much like Britain’s Lost Masterpieces, because it is about our paintings – paintings that belong to the nation,” says Gillespie.

In the latest series, Gillespie worked on pieces by Rome-based fresco and portrait master Pompeo Batoni; influential Flemish artist Jan Brueghel the Elder; and early Renaissance painter Botticelli.

 

“I knew it was special as soon as I saw it.”

Hidden Brueghel

“We looked at paintings that had been misattributed or didn’t have any attribution at all, like the Brueghel.

“That was sitting in a drawer, with dirt and discoloured varnish – and 60 per cent of it had been overpainted.

“But I knew it was special as soon as I saw it. In one of the corners, there was a little figure that was beautifully painted and had no relation at all to the rest of the painting,” he says.

Using his expertise, he restored Autumn to its former glory – and it is now on public display at Birmingham Museum.

“It’s what we dream of doing – making a difference,” Gillespie says.

“It’s hard to believe that it’s the same painting. It was nice to be able to restore it back to how it used to look, and to do it well – and not have the painting suffer.”

 

Coffee stains and Picasso

However, there are occasions where Gillespie takes the decision to not over clean a painting.

For instance, he once received a Picasso painting with a coffee drip running down the canvas.

“There’s a black and white photograph of the painting with Picasso leaning against it…  And the drip is there, on the painting, in this black and white photograph!

“So that has happened within his studio.”

Gillespie, who has been in the industry for around 40 years, says about half his work now involves contemporary artworks, which present their own challenges.

“The challenge is that it’s not only paint. We’re dealing with other materials, like plastic, fat, chocolate, concrete… Anything that an artist wants to use in a conceptual piece will be plonked on to a painting.”