Genevieve Silvester

Traces in Time: Uncovering Brueghel’s 'A Village Fair'

Traces in Time: Uncovering Brueghel’s 'A Village Fair'

Article Detail

Over the last three years the Gallery’s conservation team has been working on a major project to restore Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s A Village Fair (Village Festival in Honour of Saint Hubert and Saint Anthony), now dated circa 1615–20 (formerly dated circa 1632).

In the below article, painting conservator Genevieve Silvester shares some of her insights into this fascinating project and the stories it has uncovered about this beloved artwork in the Gallery’s collection. These insights are abridged from an interview published in the April edition of Art Toi – to read the full interview and learn all the artwork’s fascinating secrets, make sure you grab yourself a copy of issue 9 of Art Toi. If you’re a Gallery Member, you get all quarterly issues of Art Toi as part of your membership.

Traces in Time: Uncovering Brueghel's 'A Village Fair'

It’s incredible to think that this panel has seen 400 years pass in front of it. I like to imagine seeing the world from the painting’s perspective, rewinding through its history as different people pass in front of it – beehive hairstyles and miniskirts, pomaded and powdered wigs, lace collars and breeches – viewing it in the Gallery or a dining room lit only by candlelight.

We hope the painting will not need treatment again for at least a century. People will immediately notice that the painting now appears to be a daytime scene, whereas before the layers of varnish on the surface made it look like dusk. In fact, it’s probably quite a bright summery day. People will notice the vibrant colours. The details are also a lot sharper, after having removed the thick layer of varnish on the surface. And then there are small passages where heavy overpaint has been removed, revealing new details in the painting’s narrative.

The first stage of any treatment is always understanding the material object – what it is made out of, how it was made, when, and, just as important, why, as this informs the treatment process. This necessitated doing some exciting analysis of the work through x-ray and dendrochronology, the process of dating tree rings to the time and place they were formed.

The dendrochronology showed that the timber of the painting was derived from trees cut down in the early 1600s, most likely before 1628, from several trees in the Baltic region. This indicates that the painting was likely produced between 1615 and 1635.

I find it just amazing that some of the rings on the panels date back to the 1360s – it is so surreal to think of the panels as saplings in a Lithuanian forest as the Black Death swept the world.

<p>Documentation of the panel for dendrochronological analysis. Photo: Jennifer French&nbsp;</p>

Documentation of the panel for dendrochronological analysis. Photo: Jennifer French 

X-rays are really useful for interpreting artworks because they give us information about any changes that have taken place in the paint layer and also how the panel was constructed. It’s basically like seeing the painting from the artist’s point of view, as these are secrets only known to the maker.

We took the painting to Auckland Radiology Group in the Birthcare building. Our painting was scanned using the same machines that they use with people – the people in the waiting room looked at us a bit curiously when they saw what was coming through the doors!  Because the painting is so large, they had to scan small sections at a time, which we then stitched together.

<p><em>A Village Fair&nbsp;</em>undergoing x-ray analysis at Auckland Radiology Group. Photo: Jennifer French</p>

A Village Fair undergoing x-ray analysis at Auckland Radiology Group. Photo: Jennifer French

<p><em>A Special Delivery</em>, cartoon by Darren Sheehan, Gallery Registration Technician</p>

A Special Delivery, cartoon by Darren Sheehan, Gallery Registration Technician

We discovered a second signature on the panel, which is of huge significance. The first signature, which we already knew of, is in the centre of the work, painted on a brick wall.

The new signature, down in the bottom right, was only discovered with magnification. It’s so small and damaged that it has obviously been overlooked – perhaps for centuries. Whereas the first signature was unlike Brueghel the Younger’s typical style, the recently discovered signature looks very similar to his and is in the same location as his other signed works.

What’s even more exciting is there are the remains of a date. We cannot say for certain what the last two digits are, but it is most likely a 161(?). This makes it one of the earliest of the dated versions of this scene.

One of the more amusing and delightful aspects of the treatment was finding that previous restorers had painted over some of the ruder vignettes in the work. We’ve discovered the bare bottom of a dancing woman – a previous restorer had added a skirt. In the lower right, underneath the rooster, we found a hen that had been overpainted, possibly because they are evidently mating. Just beside the tavern, we found that the rather innocent man feeding the chickens – who until this point was fully clothed – actually has his breeches down and is defecating.

There are lots of little jokes in the painting – this was very common in Brueghel the Younger’s time. ‘Peasant pieces’ like this were commonly shown in people’s dining rooms and were used as conversation starters.

It’s a shame that these extra details were covered over by another restorer, probably in the late 19th century, because they were deemed too rude.

There are areas where we’ve been able to more accurately interpret – and reinsert – details that were lost through over-cleaning in the past or through splits appearing in the work over time.

To do this, I looked at the six other versions of this painting by Brueghel’s workshop and the remnants of paint to figure out what should have been there. I had this complicated map like they do on detective TV shows where you put Post-it Notes and string up and try to connect things – it was a tangled little web. Some had this detail and one didn’t; this one had a bare bottom, and this one didn’t.

It was very complicated working out the connections between this core corpus of six works. But it was possible, and there were two works that stood out as being most similar to the Gallery’s work, which became my primary source for determining what should be there: one in the State Hermitage in St Petersburg, and the other in the Museum of Beaux Arts in Brussels.

The table at the front of the scene is an example of where we’ve been able to add details back in. There’s a split that runs right through the work and there was a lot of loss and abrasion on the table.

Upon removing the overpaint we could see what should have been there, but only the remnants of it. In looking at the other close versions of the painting, we were able to see ‘Oh that should have been a vase’, ‘This should be a pie’, and we were able to put these back into the painting using a combination of looking at those copies and then also our original work. And now it fits better into the group of six [versions of the scene].

<p>Genevieve Silvester carefully retouching details in <em>A Village Fair.&nbsp;</em>Photo: Jennifer French&nbsp;</p>

Genevieve Silvester carefully retouching details in A Village Fair. Photo: Jennifer French 

The first day of retouching was quite frightening, when you put your first dot of painting on the artwork. It is quite a weight thinking that the marks you leave need to stand the test of time. But when the work starts to come together it’s rewarding – when you no longer see damage and you start to see the work as a whole.

Throughout the process of restoring this work I’ve discovered more details that I hadn’t noticed before – details that you wouldn’t see on first glance. Like how many children are present and how their stories are being told: the children chasing the jester across the back of the scene, the little girl sitting on her dad’s shoulders, and the little girl with her porridge bowl. I think it has poignancy when we think back to the life of Brueghel the Younger, who lost his own father at age four and evidently spent his entire career maintaining his father’s great legacy.

A conservation project on this scale is not an individual pursuit – it takes the work and expertise of many. We are very grateful to dendrochronologist Gretel Boswijk and Senior Technologist Catherine Hobbis at the University of Auckland, radiographers Pam Aitken and Marlen Cabraal at Auckland Radiology Group, and Gallery photographers Jennifer French and Paul Chapman for their expertise. We also wish to thank Christina Currie and our conservation colleagues who generously shared information on the sibling versions of A Village Fair.