Conservation history of 'Dante's Dream'

Photograph of a stretcher, description follows

This image shows what is called a "blind" stretcher. This is a normal wooden stretcher with inset wooden panels. These provide extra protection from environmental damage. It also minimises any vibration that may occur if the painting travels.


The painting was sent by train to Berlin to be photographed. The journey took three weeks. On arrival it was reported to be in a dirty condition. In a letter from the Berlin photographic company a representative wrote, "it is suggested that this was due to the long journey, and this necessitated the painting being cleaned with water, and re-varnished with copal." This treatment was not authorised and there is extensive correspondence from Berlin justifying it. It is unclear whether the original varnish was removed.


The chairman of Walker Art Gallery, Mr Dibdin, noted the painting to be in a bad condition. The canvas was tearing from its stretcher and the paint flaking and blistering, with paint losses. These problems had undoubtedly been exacerbated by the long journey through to and from Berlin.

Today, paintings still make long journeys around the world, but many precautions are taken. Journeys never take more than a few days, with the painting often travelling by plane and truck. Risks are also greatly minimised by preventative conservation measures. Pictures are always placed in specially made crates with cushioning and insulating foam to prevent them from damage due to vibration, or sharp environmental changes that may occur outside the crate. The crate is also, wherever possible, kept in specially maintained conditions and transported in a truck with environmental control and air ride suspension for a smoother journey.


The painting was 'relined' at the National Gallery, in an attempt to curb the flaking. This involves gluing a new canvas onto the reverse of the original, either in an attempt to stop a painting flaking, or to strengthen a weakened original canvas. At this time, relining was carried out almost routinely and Rossetti often lined many paintings himself. Now such a process is thought through carefully and is not undertaken lightly.

After the painting had been lined, it was attached to a new "blind" stretcher.


During the Second World War, 'Dante's dream' was removed from the wall, taken off its stretcher and rolled for storage in the basement. The stretched painting was too large to be stored and it was feared that if left on display it could be damaged in a bomb attack.


The painting was taken to Ellesmere College with other large paintings. Damage was noted in the top layer of the robes of the left pallbearer and of Dante, from the waist down. There was vertical flaking, consistent with a painting having been rolled and some delamination (flaking off) between the top layers of paint and the priming.

This delamination was probably an inherent defect in the painting. Rossetti is known to have repainted areas several times. Applying wet paint over already dry oil paint did not provide good adhesion for the upper paint layer. This can lead to the upper layers delaminating, or flaking off, from the layer below.


The painting was treated by a conservator. He wrote that he removed discoloured varnish overpaint - presumably over the losses explained earlier. He filled damaged areas with new priming and restored them.


The painting was again examined by a conservator. He recorded a possible lack of adhesion between the lining canvas and the original canvas. He also noted that once again the green drapery on the figure at the left of the picture was blistering and flaking.

At this point the overpaint from 1960 had become discoloured, mostly effecting the two central figures of the angel and Beatrice. The varnish layer and overpaint were removed. Any losses were retouched with paint to match the original and the painting was revarnished.