Since the earliest days of the Ashmolean Museum there has been interest in the condition of the paintings. The history of the people responsible for the care and repair of paintings is consistent with the wider history of paintings conservation in the United Kingdom.
During the 18th century repair and refreshing of paintings was usually assigned to local artists. By the 19th century local companies had begun to include picture restoration as a service alongside other activities such as framing or the selling of artists’ materials. Established picture restorers such as Henry Merritt, the Morells and the Butterys were increasingly involved in the treatment of the paintings towards the end of the 19th century. In the 20th century two Viennese picture restorers, Sebastian Isepp and Joseph Deliss, worked for the Ashmolean Museum.
Toward the latter half of the 20th century space was increasingly made available so that painting restorers and conservators could also work inside the museum when necessary. This coincided with the emergence of the conservation profession, ethics and science, in addition to postgraduate training programmes at the Courtauld Institute in London (1934) and the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge (1976).
Between 1969 and 2007 around 21 conservators (and the occasional liner) have been instrumental in the care of the Ashmolean’s paintings. The museum has also benefitted greatly from the guidance and expertise of leading institutions such as the National Gallery, the Hamilton Kerr Institute and the Courtauld Institute.
In 2007 a paintings conservator was added to the staff of the Conservation Department with a dedicated space in the new suite of conservation labs completed in 2009. Since 2009 paintings have been treated and prepared for display in the galleries and for loan to other institutions. An example of this work is the restoration of Elias Ashmole’s portrait by John Riley and its limewood frame by Grinling Gibbons.