Modelling the masters

Researchers at Warwick University and the Courtauld Institute of Art are using computer modelling techniques to help preserve old works of art.


The modelling itself is based on work by Prof Wanda Lewis of Warwick’s School of Engineering. She has previously modelled the stresses and strains experienced by tensioned fabric enclosures, such as the Millennium Dome in London, most recently known as the O2.


Prof Lewis said: ‘We have developed a sophisticated computer modelling package that predicts the shape of fabric enclosures very accurately. I realised that we could apply the same modelling principles to predict the behaviour of [an] artist’s canvas, which is simply a different material and structure.’


To do so, she teamed up with Dr Christina Young of the Conservation and Technology Department at the Courtauld Institute, who specialises in measuring the physical behaviour of fabric supports such as the canvases of paintings.


Dr Young, a senior lecturer in paintings conservation, said: ‘When conservators restore a painting, if it is severely degraded they may attach new fabric to the reverse. This “lined” painting is then restretched and attached to a wooden stretcher. Ideally, this results in a painting which will be stable and safe to display for future generations.’


Prof Lewis added: ‘[Using the software] we can model every detail down to the number and position of the staples used, friction of the fabric, the effectiveness of the staples and the detail of how the fabric is wrapped round the corner. The results of our work can bring about significant improvements in the methods of tensioning the canvas to ensure as uniform distribution of stress as possible.’


The researchers believe that their work will provide invaluable information to help researchers improve and develop structural conservation treatments for paintings on canvas.