Alain Bouchardon: the art of reviving bruised paintingsPhotography : Camille Noyon - Text : Lucas Delattre
To find Alain Bouchardon in Senlis, you need to have thoroughly prepared your visit: his workshop is advertised by no exterior sign. At the end of a sparsely grassy courtyard, you ring the doorbell of an inconspicuous house. But inside, what you discover is a magnificent, bright space, filled with paintings, canvasses of all sizes, and a vast jumble of tools, vials, books, … It is an old tobacco warehouse pre-dating the war of 1914, which has kept its original bars on the windows to forbid intrusions. It feels like a 19th century workshop. Old clothing irons are laid on tables to flatten the surface of several works in progress.
Alain Bouchardon is both an artist and an artisan: he is an art restorer, and even one of the most prized ones, with a portfolio of customers from around the world, made of museums, auction houses, other artisans (like upholsterers) and of course individual art collectors. The latter have passions and personal fortunes which vary greatly – some of them have entrusted works to the restorer’s care which they undoubtedly will never come back to get, for lack of money.
Heir to a long tradition, Alain Bouchardon maintains a know-how that has been highly sought after ever since the foundation of this craft during the 17th century, a time which saw the emergence of the first experts in the « cleaning up » of royal collections. It was in the 18th century that the technique of re-canvassing was perfected, which is the process of « mounting » over a new linen cloth canvasses of which the material has been damaged by tearing or poor conservation conditions.
When asked if his hand shakes when he goes to work on historical pieces, Alain Bouchardon answers with composure, relaxation and an amused distance : « I never have the jitters ». He works on all mediums, canvasses mostly but also painted wood (altarpieces, harps and harpsichords for example), and pieces of all time periods, from the 16th century to contemporary works. In his workshop, you can find a painting sooted up from having spent too much time in a smoker’s living room, another with oxydated varnishes and worm-eaten frames, a third of which the canvas was punctured by a sabre thrust at the end of a drunken night. One piece has a massive white space : in this spot, the restorer will have to replace a nude, disappeared for unknown reasons. Sometimes, the works in need of restoration cannot travel ; in that case, Alain Bouchardon gets out of his workshop to go repair a mouldy painting in a village church or revive the ceilings of a jeweller’s palace in Paris’ Place Vendôme.
« Among my assignments, one of the most common is to make up for failed restorations. » His work takes anywhere from an hour to six months and Alain Bouchardon makes sure that his interventions are always reversible. To this end, he only uses old, natural products, like his « home-brewed » glue made from honey, flour and fungicide. « There are no desperate cases, » he says. However, some restorations can « be torturous », particularly when working on difficult-to-remove varnishes. To avoid damaging a painting’s surface, some precautions have to be taken. Similar to rock-climbing techniques, there are « belaying » tricks. Before any intervention, you have to test the products with a low quantity over less visible areas of the painting.
After having studied sculpture at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Alain Bouchardon acquired his art restorer know-how at the Atelier Moras (Paris), working for national museums and historical monuments, then moved on to practice his craft at the Palace of Versailles, before settling on his own in Senlis, in 1976, as his wife was working at the nearby airport in Roissy. With forty years of practice, he has become a reference for his fellow craftsmen, accredited by the official organisation of French Museums, summoned as an expert by the Court of Appeal in Amiens, member of the jury for the trade competition « Meilleurs Ouvriers de France », … His workshop bears the label of excellence « Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant » and he has won the award of the Société d’Encouragement aux Métiers d’Art.
In days of yore, painters were also art restorers (« everyone, like Rubens, made their own stew »). Alain Bouchardon, reciprocally, is not only a restorer, but also a painter in his leisure time. He paints for pleasure and enjoys copying (perfectly) some artists which he appreciates « for sentimental reasons », like Henri Régnault (1843-1871), who died at 27 years of age during the battle of Buzenval, struck in the temple by a Prussian bullet.