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The Back of The Painting: Secrets and Stories from Art Conservation


Only the fronts of paintings are visible on our Art Gallery walls. So, a book in which secrets and stories found on their backs would be revealed sounded intriguing.


The Back of the Painting was written by three highly skilled painting conservators, Linda Waters from The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Sarah Hillary from the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki and Jenny Sherman from the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.


They know how to build the stories behind a painting from the simplest things like nail holes and stains which look meaningless to our untrained eyes. And can trace its provenance from an almost invisible signature, a scrawled title, stamps, labels and stickers.


Each chose paintings which were personal favourites, which they were most familiar with and told the best stories, 33 in all. They are arranged in chronological order from the 14th century to the present day.


I found the stories about the oldest paintings were especially fascinating. A few examples:

  • Claude Lorrain’s Landscape with Hagar and the Angel (1654) had many owners before it was gifted to the Dunedin Art Gallery. A royal connection with a Yugoslavian Prince was able to be confirmed from an unusual bright blue seal on the back of this painting.

  • A badly deteriorated newspaper cutting from The Maori Messenger: Te Karere Maori dated 1853 was found glued to the back of a small portrait of a Mrs George Vaile. This obituary was used to trace one of her descendants and discover more about a pakeha lady who had earnt the respect and affection of the local Maori community.

  • Dr Gray Hassell, a man with a magnificent moustache, was the superintendent of 2 mental hospitals. When the back of his portrait, painted by Petrus Van Der Velden c .1906 was examined it was discovered that it had been radically trimmed. A small fragment of lacy white fabric on the front of the painting was also visible. Had his second wife cut her predecessor out of the picture before donating it to the National

I enjoyed reading the stories and secrets revealed in The Back of the Painting. Had these three painting conservators not written this book these stories would have gone unseen and untold.


It was also a really good introduction to the highly skilled tasks which painting conservators must do to preserve paintings for future generations. As paintings conservation is a highly specialised field some of the language was quite technical so the glossary at the end of book was useful.


The full page coloured illustrations of the front of the paintings are also included and the lively and succinct descriptions about these added to the pleasure of reading this book.


All of the paintings in this book are important artworks in our public collections but I have not seen quite a few of them on their walls. I will be looking out for them when I next visit, feeling a little smug that I now know their secrets.


Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Te Papa Press