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Conserving modern art

Highly sensitive techniques for analysing artists’ materials developed by Dr Brian Singer at Northumbria University have influenced conservation treatments for works of art by Edvard Munch, and other artists, and to confirm the authenticity of previously unattributed drawings by Francis Bacon.

Dr Singer was a lecturer in art conservation science until his retirement in 2012. He led a multi-disciplinary research team of chemists and conservation scientists developing novel analytical techniques for the study of both traditional pigments and twentieth century organic pigments. He developed a very sensitive method for analysing proteinaceous paint binders, which gave information on the oils or resins present. This method is used to identify vital components of artists’ materials through the use of micro-samples ethically removed from the unseen margins of works or from damaged areas prior to restoration.

The conservation treatments for some of Munch’s best known works, including two versions of ‘The Scream’ (1893, the other is thought to be from 1910) ‘Madonna’ (1894) and other works, are based on the findings of Singer’s research. Singer worked directly with the Munch Museum, Oslo and his scientific analysis influenced the choice of conservation materials and treatments and enabled conservators to preserve these important works for public display.

The research started by Singer is now being taken forward by Dr Justin Perry. The research team is conducting an ongoing investigation, started by Singer, for the Authentication Committee for the Estate of Francis Bacon. This research is making an important contribution to number of works that can be attributed to Bacon and in turn, the value of those works and the artist’s historical legacy.  There are many examples of controversial material such as collections of works on paper, and pictures in the Barry Joule collection at the Tate, and those works allegedly produced while Bacon visited relatives in South Africa. One of these works has recently been re-assessed and authenticated as an abandoned work by Bacon.


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