Interview with Dr Mark Richter, Part One

 In this post we present the first of a two-part interview on the scientific examination for this project, which is the first of several interviews we’re planning with team members and other people associated with our project. Here Mark Richter, who is leading the scientific examination of five other Spanish portraits in the Stirling Maxwell Collection for comparison with the Lady in a Fur Wrap, talks to Rosie Thorp about the work involved and what it means to him. We also include a link to video footage by Joseph Briffa on the X-ray of the paintings, as well as photos of the process, courtesy of Glasgow Museums.

Mark for blog
Dr Mark Richter carries out examination with a stereomicroscope of the El Greco Portrait of a Gentleman in the Stirling Maxwell Collection for comparison with the Lady in a Fur Wrap (pictured behind). © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

Mark joined the University of Glasgow as a Lecturer in Technical Art History in 2013. Over the years he has built up valuable contacts and working relationships internationally, which we’ll be drawing on in our project. He cites Prof. Jaap Boon (now retired but formerly MOLART, AMOLF Institute, Amsterdam), Stephan Schäfer (who now runs a conservation studio in São Paolo, Brazil), and the Scientific Department at the Doerner Institut, Munich, as major inspirations for his comprehensive approach to analysis of paint samples, and his interest in binding media used in paint, which is a constantly developing area of research. Another fascination that is particularly relevant to Stirling Maxwell and Spanish art is in the 17C treatise on art by Velázquez’s father-in-law Francisco Pacheco, some of whose methods and recipes Mark found were still in use in 18C Germany.

Rosie studied under Mark on the Master’s programme in Technical Art History, ‘Making and Meaning’ two years ago. She is hoping to make a career in museums and is now embarking on an MSc in Museum Studies at the University.

Hilary Macartney

R: What excites you about this project?

M: I have been completely fascinated by the Stirling Maxwell Collection and the Lady in a Fur Wrap ever since Hilary Macartney first introduced me to the collection at Pollok House back in 2014. When Hilary asked me if I would be interested in being a part of a research project on it, my immediate response was yes. This was based on my conviction that this collection, put together by a scholar with a unique vision, also has great potential for a technical art historical approach. I am also excited about working with such an interdisciplinary team – from GU, Glasgow Museums, National Trust Scotland, Historic Environment Scotland (HES), Museo Nacional del Prado, Doerner Institut in Munich, and Bern University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland. It means I’ll gain new skills, experience and contacts. 

R: What do you, as a Technical Art Historian, bring to the project?

M: I have been practising Technical Art History (TAH) as an interdisciplinary research methodology for over twenty years in the study of easel and mural paintings and polychrome sculpture and architecture. It’s based on four pillars – art historical enquiry, scientific analysis, research on art technology sources, and reconstruction of artistic techniques. Over that time, I have been fortunate in being able to build up extensive expertise in the technical examination of works of art – and interpretation of the results. Much of this has been gained through collaboration with some of the top experts in the field from different institutions across Europe. Artists’ materials, techniques and studio practice are some of my specific areas of interest, and the methods of examining these scientifically. I’m also very experienced in taking and preparing paint samples, and in analysing them using a number of different techniques.

R: Why was a collaborative approach to the technical examination considered necessary in this project?

M: Well, quite simply, the more multi-faceted the approach is, the more detailed the results. Our aim is to extract as much information as possible from these investigations, and collaboration will help us achieve this. Collaboration is also imperative in this instance for comparative reasons, in order to obtain the high level of quality of results we require from the scientific analysis of the five other portraits in the Stirling Maxwell Collection. We need to try and match the methods of examination already used for the Lady in a Fur Wrap at the Prado Museum, which has state-of-the-art facilities. We don’t currently have all the highly specialised (and very expensive) equipment available in Glasgow, or even in Scotland – but collaboration always brings benefits – everyone learns from it.

 R: How were the collaborators decided upon?

M: Depending on the particular technique of examination involved, we had to weigh up practicalities and expertise. We need to minimise disruption and consider the safety of the paintings first. Fortunately, in a number of instances we found an excellent and appropriate solution close at hand, as I’ll explain in the case of the X-rays below. For other types of examination, we were able to bring the experts and the equipment to the paintings. In the cases of the Doerner Institut in Munich and the Bern University of Applied Sciences, I’ve had previous successful experiences of collaborating with them, including with Dr Ursula Baumer at the Doerner and Dr Stefan Zumbühl in Bern. I’m particularly interested in their recent collaborative work on the binding media used in 14-16C oil paints, and how these proteinaceous additives were mixed and manipulated to create specific painterly effects. I also previously had the opportunity to work with both institutions on research into understanding how organic binders and complex mixtures in layers of paint can be examined by a combination of advanced analytical methods.

R: Why are X-rays so crucial and where were they taken?

M: X-radiography is a fundamental tool in TAH – just as in Medicine. In the case of paintings, it allows us to look through the paint and preparatory layers to the support (such as canvas) behind. The X-ray can be very useful in helping to guide us to the most appropriate sites from which we can take microsamples for pigment analysis. There are no dedicated facilities for X-raying paintings in Scotland, and so we utilised the facilities at the Small Animals Hospital at the University of Glasgow’s School of Veterinary Medicine. This was a new experience for me since I normally have worked with instrumentation dedicated to the examination of works of art and other cultural artefacts. All five portraits in the project were X-rayed there, thanks to Gawain Hammond, Head of the Diagnostic Imaging Service, except for the Lady in a Fur Wrap, which was examined at the Prado.

Suzanne and Mark for blog
Don John of Austria is lifted into position by Suzanne Ross (Paintings Conservator, Glasgow Museums) and Mark Richter for X-ray of by Gawain Hammond (Head of Diagnostic Imaging Service, University of Glasgow School of Veterinary Medicine). © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

R: So what was different in how you prepared for the X-rays this time?

M: Since the Vet School is not a dedicated facility to examine artworks I needed to perform some tests with Gawain on a few other paintings beforehand, in order to determine the correct parameters and materials – like the size of the X-ray plates for the larger paintings. Sometimes it was learning-by-doing since we have never worked together before. Altogether, it worked very well considering the extreme time pressure within a fully functioning animal hospital. This would have all not been possible had it not been for the openness of Gawain Hammond. We are extremely grateful for his time, generosity and his genuine interest in our work.

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Gawain Hammond, Suzanne Ross and Mark Richter view preliminary results of the X-ray examination of Don John of Austria. © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

M: Next time I’ll tell you more about some of the other methods of scientific examination we’re using on the portraits in this project.

Video footage of the x-ray process.

Find out more about Mark here and about Technical Art History at the University here.

For further information on the topics discussed, we recommend the following publications:

The Conservation of Easel Paintings, eds. Joyce H. Stoner, Rebecca Rushfield, Routledge, New York 2012.

Scientific Examination for the Investigation of Paintings. A Handbook for Conservator-restorers, eds. Daniela Pinna, Monica Galeotti and Rocco Mazzeo, Centro Di, Florence 2010.

And the website:

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