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The second step in the conservation process is to remove the paintings from their frames and give them a good clean to remove surface dirt (the frames will be cleaned separately later).

All of the fixings holding the painting into the frame are removed carefully, in order to avoid damaging the canvas, the frame, and any information (stickers, labels, etc.) that might be attached to the back of the painting, as these can give us clues to its history.

Once you’ve taken a painting out of its frame, you can see how dirty it really is, especially on the back (where it rarely gets cleaned).

First, the backs of the paintings are cleaned with a museum-grade vacuum, a soft brush, a feather, and smoke sponges (a special kind of dry rubber sponge for gentle cleaning).

It’s important to remove all loose dirt and soiling from the back of the painting before cleaning the front, as the water used in cleaning the paint surface can dissolve the loose dirt and cause it to soak into the canvas.

The fronts of the paintings are then cleaned with distilled water and cotton swabs, in order to remove as much of the surface dirt as possible before the next major step, which is the removal of the old varnish.

Diana Gripped in the Ice being removed from its frame by conservator Rhiannon Clarricoates

(Clockwise from top left) The old paper tape being carefully cut with a scalpel.

Several layers of paper tape being removed with a scalpel and a swab moistened with distilled water – any labels or inscriptions found on the layers of tape are photographed before removal

The back of the painting part-way through removal of the tape, showing inscriptions and labels exposed during the removal process; The back of the painting after all of the old paper tape has been removed.

Diana Gripped in the Ice from the back, before and after removal from the frame
Residues of old newspaper found around the edges of Diana Gripped in the Ice. We haven’t found any dates on them, but they appear to be from the late 19th or early 20th century
The back of the Portrait of Mary Clarke (after she’d been removed from her stretcher for relining), showing how much dust can accumulate behind a stretcher (left), and how it’s removed with a soft brush and a museum vacuum (right)
The back of Martin Samuelson’s Shipyard, showing how the surface of the canvas is cleaned with a smoke sponge (left), and the difference that cleaning can make (right)
A feather is a very useful tool for reaching behind the stretcher to brush out all the accumulated dirt, dust, and detritus that can build up (and potentially damage the painting). It’s flat, so it slides perfectly between the stretcher and the canvas, and it’s soft and flexible enough not to cause any damage to the painting. Large feathers (such as swan or goose) are particularly useful
Wet cleaning with cotton swabs and distilled water; (left) Martin Samuelson’s Shipyard, showing how black the swabs become during cleaning, and (right) the difference in colour that results from just removing the top layer of dirt