Tate conservator Bronwyn Orsmby talks restoring Rothko

By
Ashley Wallace

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March 26, 2021

When Mark Rothko’s 1958 mural ‘Black on Maroon’ was vandalised while it was hanging in London’s Tate Modern in 2012, the art community was in shock. A man had stepped over the barrier and defaced the painting in front of onlookers, inscribing several words with quick-drying black ink. The Tate conservation team, including conservation scientist Dr Bronwyn Ormsby, embarked on a painstaking restoration process. “Very quickly, Tate freed up the people and the resources to sort out the problem,” says Ormsby. “We were given the space and time to actually do the work we needed to do.”

One of the first things Ormsby did was purchase some of the ink the vandal had used after the police told her where he bought it from. “We did a load of tests on that to see whether we had to act quickly or we had time, and it turns out that the material didn’t change much after it dried, so we knew then we had time to devise a really good project,” she says.

What followed was months of testing – using mock-ups, evaluating potential solvents, and even consulting with members of the Rothko family, who donated a canvas for further testing. “After six months, we did one test on the painting; it worked and we were absolutely delighted,” says Ormsby. “At the nine-month mark, when we felt like we’d had enough rigour and enough knowledge about what we were doing, Rachel Barker, the conservator who did the treatment, was able to then gently go forward with the procedure for removing the ink, which was very successful.”

Bronwyn Ormsby hosts a conservation workshop at Auckland Art Gallery. Photo: Paul Chapman.

Ormsby is now the Principal Conservation Scientist for Tate, leading the Conservation Science and Preventive Conservation team. As the lead scientist, she is responsible for the analysis of works of art and carrying out research into materials that are relevant to the collection. Ormsby’s research focus has been modern paints and the conservation of modern and contemporary painted art, which poses a number of challenges compared to earlier works of art. “They’re often quite large, they’re often unframed and they don’t often have that protective varnish or that protective glazing over the surface, so in a lot of ways they are quite vulnerable to the elements,” she explains. “But that’s also what gives them their direct beauty and makes them very satisfying to look at.” Without this level of protection, dirt finds a way onto the surface of the paintings. “Then we start thinking about whether we should be cleaning them or not in terms of trying to make them a bit brighter again, a bit more alive again.”

One consideration unique to modern and contemporary art conservation is that often the artist is alive, and they will have their own thoughts about the ageing of their works or changes in appearance. “You have to take those things into consideration as well when you’re making decisions,” says Ormsby. “Sometimes you have the privilege of working with an artist to help understand the intention and the surface and how the artist feels about the change that’s happened since the work was created.”

For a scientist who “always had this fantasy of working in a museum”, Ormsby has found her niche in conservation science. “It’s a challenging landscape to be working in, but it’s also really interesting if you like to think things through and you like to reflect and contemplate,” she says. As for her next big task, there are many ongoing projects that have stemmed out of past ones. “As always, when you do research you end up with plenty more questions to follow on with.” Hopefully, she won’t be forced to deal with another act of art vandalism anytime soon.

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