15 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Art Restorers

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Nothing lasts forever, and that includes expensive and beloved works of art, which can be damaged through accident or over time through natural decay. Fortunately, the efforts of a skilled art conservator or restorer can extend the lives of such pieces and keep them looking beautiful for a very long time.

Art conservation refers to the process of maintaining works of art against future damage, while restoration more often refers to repairing damage that has already occurred. Many professionals are adept at both. For those on the outside, the work these experts perform can seem either romantic and rewarding, or painstaking and nerve-wracking. We talked to several experts in the field for their insight about what goes into keeping art beautiful. 

1. CONTEMPORARY ART CAN BE HARDER TO RESTORE THAN OLD MASTERS.

One might think that centuries-old paintings, with their layers of accumulated grime, would be harder to restore than works done much more recently. But Barbara Bertieri, a painting conservator and restorer in New York City who represents Fine Arts Conservation Inc along with Abraham Joel, says that’s not the case.

“With Old Masters,” she says, “the artists were trained in certain ways, and were very good at preparing pigments and canvas.” Because the older painting techniques are so well-established, they are quite familiar to restorers, as are the means of repairing such works. Contemporary art, though, can be much more unpredictable, and include all sorts of materials. “You never know what you’re facing,” Barbara says. “There can be water-soluble paint, oils and even objects in the same painting.” That can make the work a much bigger challenge. 

2. THE ART MARKET DRIVES A LOT OF BUSINESS. 

Steve Tatti, a sculpture conservator in Manhattan, has seen his fair share of clients, from museums to private collectors to entire municipalities. Increasingly, he says, restoration is driven by private collectors looking to cash in on their investments, rather than larger institutions.

“A lot of the time, someone wants to sell something and it has not been maintained,” he says. In that case, the client will hire a restorer to make the necessary repairs so that the piece will bring the best price at auction. Other times, economic trends may open up a whole new market. Barbara and Abraham say they cater to a sector of the Indian art market that has only cropped up in the last 10 to 15 years, due to the growth of the Indian economy and a new interest in art there.

3. SO DOES NATURE. 

Often it’s the inevitable damage done by natural forces that brings work to a restorer’s door. Many of the pieces at Barbara and Abraham’s studio bear cracks, tenting, and discoloration that are the result of changes in humidity, temperature, light, and age. Steve, whose company specializes in outdoor sculpture, grapples even more directly with the effects of nature in the course of his work. Marble and stone melt away over time due to acidity and pollution in the air, while brownstone, he says, “explodes in layers.” Bronze holds up better, though oxidation does eventually take a toll.

4. SO, UNFORTUNATELY, DOES HUMAN ERROR. 

Mistakes happen, but they can be all the more dire when a piece of art worth thousands or millions of dollars is involved. High turnover in auction houses and warehouses can sometimes lead to accidents, and even works in museums can be subject to misfortune. Barbara describes a situation where a client’s piece fell from its frame to the floor and broke because it was framed incorrectly. Steve says he commonly encounters clients who take the idea of outdoor art a bit too literally and “will put a sculpture outside and think that it needs no maintenance,” leading to more serious damage later on. 

5. THEY HAVE TO VIEW THINGS IN THE RIGHT LIGHT. 

Restorations that look great in one type of lighting can be glaringly obvious in another. For this reason, Barbara and Abraham make sure to look at their work under as many different artificial and natural lighting conditions as possible (they also emphasize the need to look at a repair from as many angles as possible).

UV light is also a common tool in a restorer’s arsenal. Light within the ultraviolet range causes organic materials, and some inorganic ones, to auto-fluoresce (or glow, basically) at different levels of intensity, depending on their age and when they were applied, revealing even skillfully done touch-ups. This can help the restorer understand what kind of work has already been done on a piece. 

6. THEY BORROW FROM OTHER INDUSTRIES.

In addition to artistic implements such as brushes and paint, and high-tech devices like UV, infrared light, and x-ray, restorers also borrow items from unrelated fields. “This industry is not big enough that they are going to make everything we need specially for us,” Barbara says, “so we end up borrowing from a lot of other places.” This includes using scalpels, droppers, and clamps from the medical industry, picks from dentistry, tweezers from jewelers, and even polyester sailcloth for backing damaged paintings.

7. SOMETIMES THE BEST TOOL IS NO TOOL. 

A conservator’s accumulated knowledge and intuition can be their most useful tool. Steve says that his training in Florence in the 1970s focused on a holistic approach that relies primarily on his senses. “I rely on my eye, my touch, my taste, my sense,” he says, explaining that he can also knock on a metal sculpture and tell what type of metal it is made of, or touch a piece of stone and determine what it is based on its temperature. He allows that this ability is not necessarily so magical—it’s just a product of experience. “Even guys who work in scrap metal can do the same thing,” he says. 

8. THEY KNOW WHEN TO LEAVE WELL ENOUGH ALONE. 

An important part of being a skilled conservator is knowing when it’s better not to interfere. “Very little should be done to paper,” Abraham says. He stresses that overzealous treating or bleaching a discoloration on the border of a work on paper risks ruining the whole thing, particularly if the central image itself looks okay. Likewise, applying a varnish with the intent of protecting a painting risks changing the color saturation or character of the work. And over-cleaning of a painting with a harsh solvent can lift away pigment that cannot be returned.

9. THEY CAN GET LONELY, AND SOMETIMES A BIT OBSESSIVE.

While the work of a dealer involves a lot of interaction with clients and schmoozing, the job of an art restorer can be a solitary one requiring long hours in close communion with artworks. “We don’t get to speak to a lot of people in a typical day,” Barbara explains. “It’s just you and your work.” And that work can be extremely exacting. Barbara explains that restorers can become “almost obsessed. If you are in a gallery and you see someone looking very closely at a painting,” she says, “that is probably a restorer.” 

10. THEIR JOB CAN BE HAZARDOUS.

While the use of such materials is on the decline, art restoration has historically involved hazardous solvents and other substances. Barbara notes it was once common practice for restorers to clean their hands in acetone, turpentine, and mineral spirits, materials known to irritate or damage the skin, lungs, and mucous membranes. 

Working environments, too, can be difficult. Steve’s company was tasked with removing two murals by the artist Carybé from a JFK Airport terminal while it was being prepped for demolition and lacking heat in the middle of winter. Plus, when deadlines are looming, or there’s some kind of emergency, art conservators will often work all night. 

11. THERE IS USUALLY NO SCRIPT TO FOLLOW.

For a restorer, jobs like the removal of the Carybé mural from the wall of JFK Airport can have no precedent. Each mural weighed one ton, was nearly 17 feet tall and over 50 feet long, and was deeply integrated into the wall structure. Steve describes being uncertain if the murals would disintegrate while being removed. “It was a once in a lifetime experience,” he says, but “beyond nerve wracking—more like an out-of-body experience. There was no way to prepare for it. No way to plan for it. Either you have to be up for these things, or ...” 

12. SOMETIMES THEY UNCOVER FAKES.

The shadowy world of art fakes and forgeries provides fodder for news stories as well as books and movies, but these stories are considerably less fun for buyers and others on the receiving end. It sometimes falls to the conservator to break the bad news to a client. Abraham describes working on a collection of paintings being represented to a Far East collector as 15th-17th century works by Raphael, Rubens, Titian, and others, only to have x-rays reveal that they were actually 19th century copies. On the flip side, sometimes a conservator has the happy experience of proving a painting’s provenance. A highlight for Barbara and Abraham’s Fine Arts Conservation was revealing the signature on Antoine Dubost’s 1804 work Sword of Damocles during cleaning. 

13. SOMETIMES THEY CREATE FAKES.

Occasionally the best way to protect a valuable piece of public art from the elements is simply to bring it indoors. Many institutions and municipalities, particularly in Europe, have made the decision to place original works in more protective surroundings and to create a copy in hardier materials for outdoor display. Steve calls this practice “the greatest solution for outdoor conservation.” His team was responsible both for restoring the figure of Lady Baltimore on the 1814 Baltimore Battle Monument and for creating the replica figure that currently stands on the monument (the original was brought to Maryland’s Historical Society). They are carrying out similar work on the wooden figure of St. Paul that graced the top of St. Paul’s Chapel in Lower Manhattan, which will be fully restored, moved indoors, and replaced by a resin replica.

14. NO PUBLICITY IS OFTEN THE SAME AS GOOD PUBLICITY.

The work of a skilled restorer is often invisible, taking place deep behind the scenes, and is aimed at erasing damage done to art rather than drawing any attention to it. Abraham points out that silence is often a sign of a job well done. “If you do your work well, nobody knows about it,” he says. 

15. THE BEST CLIENTS ARE THE ONES WHO LOVE ART. 

While many in the business say art collecting is becoming increasingly commodity-driven, there are still collectors who are motivated by a love of art itself. Collectors with a strong passion are Barbara’s favorite: She explains that those who view art as an investment can be more frustrated by damage to their property than glad to find a professional who knows how to fix it. They can also focus too much on the fact that the value will not be the same as before. Art lovers, on the other hand, “think of [restorers] as someone who rescues their treasure. They thank us so much, it’s good for us.”

All photos courtesy iStock.

11 Secrets of Lexicographers

Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images
Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images

Merriam-Webster defines a lexicographer as “an author or editor of a dictionary.” The job sounds simple enough, but the work that goes into researching and writing definitions like the one above takes a unique combination of skills. Lexicographers have to be passionate about words without being pretentious, knowledgeable without being overeducated, and analytic enough to treat language like a science while being creative enough to define tricky words like art and love.

To learn more about what goes into being a lexicographer, Mental Floss spoke with a few from the world’s top dictionaries. Here’s what they had to say about where they find new words, what goes into the editing process, and how they really feel about defining literally as “figuratively.”

1. Being a lexicographer doesn't require a specific degree.

There are a number of different paths you can take to get into lexicography. Most people who write and edit dictionaries come from some sort of humanities background, but there’s usually no specific degree or training required to become a lexicographer. Emily Brewster, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster since 2000, double-majored in linguistics and philosophy. She tells Mental Floss, “A lot of people have an English background. There are some editors who have linguistic backgrounds. But really, when your job is defining the vocabulary of the English language, expertise in any field can apply. We have science editors, we have people who are specialists in chemistry, specialists in law, so any kind of expertise can make you a better definer.”

According to Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer who worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and Random House Dictionaries, an education with a focus on lexicography specifically can actually be a turn-off for employers. “There was a university that once offered a degree in lexicography, but no dictionary house would ever hire someone with a degree in lexicography [...] In general, the people who are going to be teaching it that way are probably not experienced practical lexicographers, and the kind of things you need to do the job are rather different than what academics would study if you were studying lexicography.” Students studying lexicography at Université de Lorraine in France, for example, learn about etymology, polysemy (the existence of multiple meanings for one word), and lexicological analysis. A class can provide helpful background on the subject, but it won't necessarily equip learners with the skills and instincts they need to find and define new words.

Too much education, regardless of the subject, can also hurt someone’s chances of working for a dictionary. “In general you want someone with some but not too much training in some kind of general humanities discipline," Sheidlower says. "Not someone with a Ph.D., because people with Ph.D.s tend to think you can spend the rest of your life studying things, and when you’re actually working for a dictionary you have a list of 50 things you have to get done by the end of the week. The fact that one of them or all of them might be super interesting doesn’t mean you can spend three weeks studying the same thing.”

2. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are "proper."

The role of dictionaries is largely misunderstood by the public. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are valid and dictate how they should be used. Rather, they find the words that already exist and do their best to represent how they’re being used in the real world. “This is something non-lexicographers in particular have problems with,” Sheidlower says. “But the role of a dictionary is not to say what is correct in any sort of sense handed down from above. It is to say what is in use in language, and if people are using something different from how it’s used traditionally, that thing is going to go in regardless of whether or not you like it.”

3. Lexicographers know their decisions can create controversy—and not always for the reasons you’d think.

Even if lexicographers don’t think of themselves as linguistic gatekeepers, many people see still them that way. That can cause controversy when a word or definition makes it into the dictionary that people don’t approve of. One recent example is the inclusion of the word they in Merriam-Webster as a non-binary pronoun. “That’s been getting a tremendous amount of attention,” Sheidlower says. But as he explains, the dictionary didn’t make up the usage—it simply acknowledged its existence. “Singular they goes back to the 14th century—even nonbinary they goes back to the 18th century. ... New isn’t necessarily bad, but those things aren’t new.”

Words that fall outside sensitive social and political arenas can also stir outrage. A classic example is defining literally to mean "figuratively." “People hate that, they hate it so much,” Brewster says. “But it’s old, it’s established, and if we didn’t enter it, we’d be saying the word is not used this way, and the word is used this way and it’s been used this way since Charles Dickens. It’s not really our place to make a judgement if a word or a use is a good word. Our job is to report words that are established in the language.”

4. Lexicographers add hundreds of new words to the dictionary each year ...

Language is constantly evolving, which means that a lexicographer’s job never ends. Brewster estimates that roughly 1000 words are added to Merriam-Webster.com each year, including new senses of existing words. The most recent batch consisted of 533 new terms and uses, ranging from highly specific words like non-rhotic (the Bostonian habit of not pronouncing the letter r unless it’s followed by a vowel) to Instagram-friendly slang like vacay.

5. ... But lexicographers also have to be choosy.

More new words enter the lexicon each year than can fit between the covers of even the most comprehensive dictionary. To give readers an up-to-date picture of the English language without overworking themselves, lexicographers have to be selective about which words make the cut. As Brewster explains, every word that goes into the Merriam-Webster dictionary meets certain criteria. “We have to have significant evidence of a word in use over an extended period of time,” she says.

Those standards are a little vague for a reason. Taking the popularity and staying power of a new word into consideration, editors get to decide what counts as “significant evidence” and an “extended period of time” for themselves.

Brewster elaborates, “For example, the verb tweet as in the Twitter sense erupted very suddenly in the language. So that was a case in which very quickly it became clear that our readers were going to be served by having this term be defined. You can contrast that with a term like adorkable, it requires a longer amount of time before it meets that criteria of being in the language for an extended period of time because we don’t want to enter words that nobody’s going to be using in five years.”

6. Lexicographers struggle with words like love.

Lexicography is methodical and scientific work most of the time, but it can get subjective. If you’ve ever had trouble defining a term without using a related word, chances are whoever wrote its entry in the dictionary encountered the same problem. “A term like art or poetry or love, these are notoriously hard to define because their meanings are extremely broad. You can’t pin it down,” Sheidlower says. “The word itch is very hard to define. Trying to define the word itch without using the word scratch is very difficult. I’ll let you think about that one for a moment.” (In case you were wondering, Merriam-Webster defines itch as “an uneasy irritating sensation in the upper surface of the skin usually held to result from mild stimulation of pain receptors.” Pretty spot-on.)

7. Lexicographers rarely argue over words.

If you’re looking to have spirited debates over the value of certain words with your fellow language enthusiasts, lexicography may not be the career for you. Most of the work is done in silence in front of a computer, and conflicts that get more passionate than a politely worded email are rare. “People think we sit around a table and argue about the merits of a word. Or say, ‘Yeah, this word should get in!’ Or ‘Yeah, this word should never get in,’” Brewster says. ”It’s actually very quiet, solitary work. You can make a case for a word, but it’s all in writing. So when I draft a definition for a word, I will say that we have evidence of it dating back as far back as this date, and it’s appeared in all these different types of publications. We’re not very emotional about these things. I think we’re much more biologists than pundits.”

8. Several lexicographers look at each entry.

Putting together a dictionary is collaborative work. According to Brewster, a single word entry must go through several editors before it’s ready for publication. As a definer—what most people think of when they think of a lexicographer—she sets the process in motion. “Being a general definer, my job is to define all the non-technical vocabulary in the language. But that varies really broadly, from economics terms, like a definition for dark money, to pronouns, to prepositions, and also informal terms, like say twerking.”

After she drafts a definition, it also goes through the cross-reference editor (the person who makes sure any other relevant entries are addressed), the pronunciation editor, the etymologist (who traces the word's historical origins), the person who keys it into the system, the copy editor, and the proofreader.

9. Lexicographers promise they aren’t judging the way you speak.

You may assume that someone who makes a living defining words is a stickler for language rules. But lexicographers might understand better than anyone that there’s no one right way to speak English, and the “correct” version of any language is determined by its speakers. “Sometimes when people learn that I work on a dictionary, they worry that I am judging how they write or speak, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Erin McKean, the lexicographer in charge of the online dictionary Wordnik, tells Mental Floss. “I love English, and I love all the different ways to speak and write English. I'm much more likely to ask you to make up a word for me than I am to criticize the words you use!” So if you find yourself in a conversation with a dictionary editor, feel free to use slang and mix up farther and further—you’re in a safe space.

10. Don't ask lexicographers to pick a favorite word.

Lexicographers know more words than the average person, but if you ask them to pick a favorite, they may decline to answer. "You’re not allowed to play favorites," Sheidlower says. "You have to put in words that you dislike, you can’t spend more time researching words that you do like. It’s not personal [...] Just like if you’re a parent, you’re not allowed to say that one child is your favorite, which is generally the metaphor lexicographers will use when they’re asked that question."

11. The internet makes a lexicographer’s job easier.

For most of the job’s history, lexicographers found new words by reading as many books as possible. Reading is still an important part of their work, but thanks to the internet, they have a greater variety of materials to pull from than ever. Emily Brewster mentions Google Books and online corpora—collections of text excerpts from different places, sometimes related to a particular subject—as some of her favorite sources for researching new words and their definitions and origins. But her most reliable resource is a popular social media site. “I really like Twitter in general,” Brewster says. “From Twitter, I get to a huge variety of sources. It’s a really good network for connecting with all kinds of publications.”

Buckingham Palace Used to Have a Bar For Its Staff—Until They Started Getting Really Drunk

Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

You don’t have to be a member of the royal family to enjoy some of Buckingham Palace’s spectacular perks. According to Insider, the staff has its own gym, swimming pool, squash and tennis courts, choir, book club, and 24-hour confidential counseling services.

They even used to have a private bar, but management was forced to shut it down after staff members kept getting too drunk. Insider reports that Dickie Arbiter, the Queen’s former press secretary, shared the not-so-posh tidbit in a new documentary called Secrets of the Royal Palaces, which is airing on the UK’s Channel 5 this month.

It’s not clear if a few irresponsible employees ruined it for everyone or if there was reckless over-imbibing across the board. Were the famously stoic Buckingham Palace guards among the guilty? We’ll probably never know—Arbiter kept his comments on the matter concise and rather vague, explaining that staff had gotten “too worse for wear,” so “they had to get rid” of the bar.

Though it’s highly unlikely that the 93-year-old queen was tossing back tequila shots with her ladies-in-waiting, she has been known to enjoy an alcoholic beverage from time to time. Her drink of choice is gin mixed with Dubonnet, and her former chef Darren McGrady told CNN that she also occasionally indulges in a glass of German sweet wine with dinner. “Just in the evening,” he emphasized. “She certainly doesn’t drink four glasses a day.”

Perhaps the possibly brief, definitely wondrous life of the Buckingham Palace staff bar will be covered in a later season of Netflix’s The Crown.

[h/t Insider]

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