Jeremy Casson has a passion for restoring fine art, having attended one of the UK’s top art conservation courses while at university. Prior to opening and running his own practice, where he now mentors other conservators, Jeremy was engaged as an art conservator by several public institutions. This article will focus on a recent restoration of one of Paisley’s most important artworks, the true beauty of which lay hidden for generations until its remarkable transformation.
In 2023, following 225 hours of painstaking work, the Dundee-based specialist conservators Egan, Matthews & Rose unveiled a restored painting by the celebrated Glaswegian artist William Barr.
In 2010, Barr completed pastel portraits of over 100 of Paisley’s ‘great and good’, capturing the character of the town’s social elite, including ministers, industrialists, councillors and civil servants. A reflection of the Edwardian era, the piece featured just four women, one of whom went on to become the Parish Council’s first female chair in 1912.
Since it was first exhibited at the YMCA in Paisley, the condition of the painting has deteriorated considerably. In fact, the damage was so severe that Dr Victoria Irvine, OneRen’s curator of art, described the painting as ‘probably the most damaged’ in Renfrewshire’s collection. The appearance of the image was marred by discoloured varnish coatings, as well as suffering less than optimum storage conditions, with water damage sustained at some point in its history.
As part of Paisley Museum’s £45 million refurbishment – the biggest cultural heritage project undertaken in Scotland to date – the painting has been restored to its former glory by a team of specialist conservators. Dr Irvine was stunned by its transformation, reflecting that she remembered the painting pre-conservation when the paint was coming off the canvas. She described Egan, Matthews & Rose’s work as ‘unreal’, highlighting the meticulousness required to stabilise the picture and bring it back to life.
Dr Irvine pointed out that the painting is extremely important to Paisley and Renfrewshire’s heritage, capturing a particular moment in time. She explained that whenever those kinds of images are shared they really resonate because people connect with the places and their individual histories.
Depicting important local figures gathered in front of the Town Hall, a building that has also undergone a multimillion pound refurbishment, the painting and frame had a thick, sooty coating of dirt removed, as well as plaster and silty deposits from water damage. The work by conservators has ensured the painting’s structural stability, preserving it in the best possible visual condition for future generations. Dr Irvine indicated that the conservators had done an amazing job in ensuring the picture looked once more as the artist would have intended when the piece was first shown in 1911, giving William Barr the prominence he truly deserves as an artist.