The Silent Artist: The Importance of the Artist’s Intent on Conservation

The Silent Artist

The Importance of the Artist’s Intent on Conservation

by Chrissie Juno Mann

“For what is decoration but the worker’s expression of his joy in work?  And not joy merely – that is a great thing yet not enough – but that opportunity of expressing his own individuality which, as it is the essence of all life, is the source of all art.” William Morris

In the study of conservation, the relationship between the artist and the conservator is often bypassed and at times forgotten.  The original artist or conceptualist has been ousted by the purveyors of preservation.  Arising conflict between the ethics of conservation and restoration, minimum intervention and the notion of falsehood, science against craftsmanship have overtaken and transplanted the importance of method, ideology and the beliefs of that original artist and maker.  As is the nature of conservation, the original artist has long passed away and the work is preserved under an umbrella of guardianship.  The objectives and methods of this protection have evolved over the decades reflecting the views of society prevalent to that moment in time; until we naturally come to the point where today’s conservators work to embrace the physical structure of an object primarily through the study of its material-based perspective.  But what of the original artist and maker’s view point, his ethics and beliefs at the moment of creation?  And how does this modern manifestation of conservation translate when 20th Century objects and artworks come before the conservator?  What of the expanding and at times experimental role that science has, and how does it sit with 19th Century beliefs?  Would a modern replacement, with the risk of a falsification accusation, be preferable to evasive modern scientific experimentation? 

The acknowledgement of the artist’s intent is pertinent to conservation, as it brings an additional viewpoint to the table when considering complex issues surrounding the preservation of a piece of work.  Each piece contains a genealogy that can be traced back to the artist or maker; the intended use of the object, the historical evidence surrounding the piece, the condition of the object, and the aesthetic identity of the piece.  The minutia of these signifiers bestows upon the conservator and the historian the methodology undertaken in the process of creation, whilst the ideology behind it’s conceptualisation and theories of the artist’s intent are pushed aside or down-graded to a historical viewpoint no longer practiced.  “We, as conservation professionals, have in many ways begun to isolate the artist from our work.”   Albano

It could be argued that the aesthetic virtues of a piece of work are intrinsically bound up with the artist’s intent, one cannot be separated from the other.  However, according to Erwin Panofsky the piece of work must be purely of aesthetic value rather than of practical function.  He sees aesthetic pieces as “…vehicles of communication,” unlike their functional relations “tools or apparatuses.”   There is however a grey area, where Panofsky fails to explain the moment a functional item that is of a decorative nature becomes a work of art, “the element of “form” is present in every object…therefore one cannot, and should not, attempt to define the precise moment at which a vehicle of communication or an apparatus begins to be a work of art.”   Functional or aesthetic, a piece of work with form or concept can communicate a multitude of historical facts to the conservator, but what of the artist’s intent?  Inevitably, as time takes its toll on a piece of work and the uninterrupted process of deterioration takes place, then the original intent of the artist can easily be lost or misinterpreted to the modern day purveyor.  The temptation for the modern day conservator is to “neglect looking and appreciation and… concentrate on a nut-and-bolts approach focusing on materials, technique, and condition.”   Consequently, under the restraints of time and resources, the artist’s intention is overlooked and forgotten. 

In the manner of the Renaissance period; one could argue that “…cleaning and often substantial restoration work can be regarded as aiming to reveal the ‘true nature’ of the object...”.  Undoubtedly this is the stance of many, as the process of restoration attempts to refresh a piece of work by bringing it back to its ‘original state’, using original materials and replacement materials, all of which are close in material consistency to the original form.  Thus safeguarding the piece of work, in order to maintain its aesthetic and historical value for the future.  However, “before any treatment is carried out the object should be placed in its historical, archaeological or artistic context.”   Within the space prior to treatment the object should be placed beside the artist’s intention; for the spirit of the piece is as important as the material construction.  This view-point holds more weight in an Eastern and more native culture.  In these societies the original material of an artefact has a shared reverence with the concept of what the object symbolises or represents within the societies cultural identity.  By doing so, the importance of the piece of work is equally shared between material perspective and artist’s ideology and intent.  It is a Western styled approach that places a huge value on original material rather than replacing old with new and maintaining the spirit and physical body of the piece for generations to come. “This is true of many societies which have extensive traditions using organic materials; they have an acceptance of decay and renewal as an integral part of their culture.”

In contrast to the Eastern view-point, the Englishman, William Morris who was a socialist visionary and a man who wanted to protect the natural world, as he believed “the well of art is poisoned at its spring”.  This was due to the ravages of Victorian industrialisation on the landscape of Victorian England.  Morris explored through the Arts & Crafts movement, (founded by William Morris among others) the links between art, nature and the well-being of society.  Through his writings on the environment, restoration and preservation, Morris developed the reputation of being considered a forefather of the modern environmentalist movement.  He was acutely aware and exceedingly vocal about insensitive restoration that was taking place on historical buildings that he regarded as “real and living history”.   He was an active exponent of the ‘Anti-Restoration Society‘, as he believed antiquities should be protected against “both thoughtlessness and sordid destruction, and from rash falsification”.  

This line of thought develops the question that when conserving and restoring a piece of work relating to the Arts & Crafts movement, would it not be more appropriate to consider the principles of reversibility, stability and ecology before launching down a pre-prescribed scientific route?  Are the artist’s views being bypassed in order to maintain the objects he created at the cost of his, the artist’s intention?  And could we learn some important lessons from the Eastern way of thinking?  Although these pieces are far too important to our cultural heritage to allow them to take the natural route of deterioration, it could be argued that William Morris would have advocated that a piece should be allowed to live its full life-cycle without intervention or interruption, as applying additional new pieces to an object was dismissed as falsification by Morris.  To our modern day sensibilities, the idea of losing a piece from such an important collection is abhorrent.  So a more realistic answer would be to allow for greener politics.  Where a far more minimalist approach to the use of chemicals within the conservation and restoration are a common place practice when dealing with artist whose views are widely known and publicised, and are ironically the very reason for their work being held in such high regard. 

Within our society today, it could be argued that the attitude of the conservator has lost its connection with the artist’s intent.  The rise of scientific methods in the last 5o years has lead to, “procedures and materials handed down over the centuries through the practice of artistic craftspeople and through technical treatises on the fine arts [to] have often been abandoned.” In their place are methods developed in a laboratory for often other uses, such as boat building or architecture whereby the long-term question of stability, compatibility, and negative impact are as yet unanswered.  The role assigned to the scientist within conservation is growing in dominance and controversy; with a concern being voiced by the late Giovanni Urbani, director of the Istituto Centrale del Restauro that apparently the only place left for creativity and imagination within conservation is more often than not assigned to the scientist rather than the craftsperson.  One way to resolve this imbalanced of creative dominance and to refine the judgmental process of object assessment is to look towards the artist’s intent and the value of an object through the parameters of the artist’s ideology, the “object’s specific nature” and intent.  As Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-Le-Duc advised, “...the best thing to do is to try to put oneself in the place of the original architect [artist/maker] and try to imagine what he would do if he returned to earth and was handed the same kind of programs as have been given to us.  Now, this sort of proceeding requires that the restorer be in possession of all the same resources as the original master – and that he proceeds as the original master did.”    

I think it is fair to say that the primary concern of the conservator in the past has not been for the preservation of ideas connected to an object, but the preservation of the material subject.  As we are in the infancy of the 21st Century a whole host of issues are being raised for the conservator of 20th Century artefacts.  Generally far-more documentation and historical context is known about the philosophical and intellectual influences associated with the 20th Century objects in question.  Nancy Odegaard suggests that, “…In these cases, issues of context and use, not condition, set parameters for the meaning for the object.  Without an understanding of context, inappropriate intervention is a real danger. Odegaard goes on to say that, “….in enlisting a set of values we recognise as appropriate we do not override values that the artist considers important.” However, the problem still remains that the process of translating the artist and makers intention is open to interpretation and therefore error.  This is particularly the case when dealing with 20th Century abstract modernism and conceptualisation, where the meaning of the piece is fluid, individual and prone to multifaceted interpretation and open dialogue.    

But what of the ‘unknown artist’ and the artefact that cannot be connected to society by anything other than time and place?  These items still hold an important historical value in our society.  The intention of the artist can only be hypothesised, based around limited information of the individuals of that time, their methods of construction and material use, combine with other limited known facts of the period.  In these cases the ideology of the artist can never be satisfactorily defined, therefore following the guidelines for the UKIC Guidance for Practice (UKIC 1983) can outline the practice of conservation as “the means by which the true nature of an object is preserved.  The true nature of an object includes evidence of its origins, its construction, the materials of which it is composed and information as to the technology used in its manufacture.”  Notably the guidelines do not mention the artist’s intent, ideology or political viewpoint, and in respect to the unknown artist it is impossible to suppose such knowledge.  Therefore the UKIC guidelines fit these circumstances perfectly.  As Alois Riegl suggests, restorative work can be carefully carried out through the spectacles of the generation undertaking the conservation, with all the influences and values of their time activity but unwittingly projected on to the piece of work.

The responsibility of the conservator in terms of minimum intervention verses pragmatic restoration is extensively debated.  The writing on the nature of stabilisation and consolidation is substantial.  Even the moral dilemmas around the ethical considerations and objectives are considerable, however, the subject of the ‘Silent Artist and the importance of the artist’s intent on conservation‘ is rarely voiced.  The point of this paper was not to provide a solution to the complex issue of conservation ethics, but to open-up the space that has been encroached upon over the years by the rapid advancement of scientific procedures and the projection of modern objectives.  To remember the artist’s intent is to remember the cultural significance their piece of work holds, especially when that piece is held in prominence due to the manner, style and beliefs surrounding the artist or maker.  To ignore or sideline these views is to undermine the fabric of socio-cultural identity.  To fail to see through the eyes of the past and perceive it as the people of the past did, diminishes the significance of the work that has emerged through time and therefore history.  To not fully understand the complexity of the position of a conservator and the function they play in the preservation of a piece of work is to fail a generation.  And if the artist’s intention is unknown, then  “…restoration must aim to re-establish the potential unity of the work of art, as long as this is possible without producing an artistic or historical forgery and without erasing every trace of the passage of time left on the work of art.” Brandi (1996) 

Word Count: 2,728



Batchelor, J., 2000. John Ruskin: No Wealth but Life. London: Chatto & Windus.

Caple, C,. 2006. Conservation Skills, Judgement, Method and Decision Making. London: Routledge.

Conti, A,. 2007. History of The Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art. Translated by Glanville, H., Butterworth-Heinemann and Elsevier.

Faulkner, P., 1980. Against the Age: An Introduction to William Morris. London: School of English, George Allen & Unwin.

MacCarthy, F., 1995. William Morris: A Life for Our Time. 4th ed. Faber and Faber.

Stanley Price, N., Kiby Talley Jr. M. and Melucco Vaccaro, A., 1996. Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage. Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute.

Umney, N., and Rivers, S., 2003. Conservation of Furniture. London: Butterworth-Heinemann.

On-line Papers

Odegaard, N., 1995. Artists’ Intent: Material Culture Studies & Conservation. JAIC [online] Available at: Accessed May 13th 2012.

Sloggett, R., 1998. Beyond the Material: Idea, Concept, Process, and Their Function in the conservation of the conceptual Art of Mike Parr. JAIC [online]

Available at:

Accessed May 13th 2012.7


BBC1, Omnibus, John Ruskin – The Last Visionary.  2000


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