Through the Years, Through the Layers

With spirits in hand, James Gorry begins to clear away the decades of stains and dirt that have gathered on the centuries-old Irish oil painting, a portrait of a man.

The job could take weeks, he says, as he swabs at the easel. But he’ll take his time. “The picture always comes first,” he says.

At the End, the Easel

Gorry and his wife Therese have run this gallery and restoration studio off Molesworth Street together since they married in 1972. Stacks of books sit upon shelves, and the desk, and the floor. The room smells of chemicals, perfume and old wood, fusty and austere but comforting.

Some artworks are framed in gold, flush and square against the wall. Others are stacked on the ground. Unlike in most commercial galleries, dozens of the canvases remain unframed. At the entrance desk, Therese handles the phones and the clients.

And at the far end of the room, next to a large bay window, on a recent Friday, Gorry sits down at the easel and picks up a small blackened canvas and sighs. It’s too late for this one.

He picks up an unframed Irish landscape from the eighteenth century.

“The cleaning of a picture, the way I was taught, because of the environment they came from in Ireland, was not just like cleaning a varnish off a picture,” he says. “Most pictures have different layers.”

In one corner of the cleaned canvas, there is a grey block of grime, like a square rain cloud on a blue summer’s day. Gorry has nearly finished cleaning it and the bright greens shine through.

Restoration is a skill that Gorry inherited from his father who set up the gallery in 1947 and, he says, taught him everything he knows. The gallery started out as a place to look at paintings, but gradually became more of a studio to conserve and clean works.

Gorry grew up in the neighbourhood, lived on Grafton Street and went to the National School in Clarendon Street, where the Westbury Hotel now stands.

He started to work alongside his father from the age of 15, and at nights, attended the National College of Art, where he studied painting, he said. “Stephen’s Green was like my garden.”

As a child, Gorry recalls the director at the time of the National Gallery cycling over to visit, one hand on the handlebar, the other gripping a Rembrandt, brought in for an assessment.

Over the years, old masters were sent to the gallery for makeovers and Dubliners like painter Nathaniel Hone and poet Patrick Kavanagh would stop by to see the gallery and his father, James Sr.

When Gorry’s father, who trained in London as a restorer, died in 1967, his son decided to reopen part of the space as a gallery again. Each year, he puts on an exhibition of eighteenth- to twenty-first century paintings. But some habits die hard.

Old-School

Art restoration demands knowledge in all kinds of disciplines these days, but for many years, the skills were passed down from parent to child, from master to apprentice.

Still today, there are no professional training courses for conservation or restoration in Ireland, perhaps because of a lack of demand.

But there are a wide range of restoration disciplines that you can study abroad, says Zoe Reid of the Institute of Conservators-Restorers in Ireland (ICRI). “It’s a highly specialist area in any form of conservation,” she said.

Each ICRI member has dedicated training and scientific education, starting with a BA degree, and while there is a tradition of the father-son business, the ICRI encourages members to go abroad for professional training, she said.

Gorry says he keeps up to date with the chemicals of the day, but his practice is an old-school operation.

“I’m more a traditional conservator-restorer and I would be reasonably up to date,” he says. “There’s all sorts of developments, changes all the time but I think the work I do, skilfully done, is up to scratch.”

Often as he talks, Gorry raises his finger to his head in thought.

He has cleaned for clients like the National Gallery, before it hired an in-house team, and auctioneers Sotheby’s. But he also finds time to look over the smaller works brought in, sometimes charging as little as a tenner.

That’s unusual for a restorer these days, says his wife Therese. “He certainly wouldn’t tolerate ripping people off for valuable pictures when he knows they’re a certain value,” she says. “He has a reputation because he’s scrupulously honest.”

Sotheby’s sends many of its works to London but does draft in Gorry to advise clients sometimes.

“I mean the quality of his work, we’ve seen some work that he’s done so it would certainly be the convenience of it, having someone locally, certainly if it was an Irish artist,” says the head of the Irish office, Arabella Bishop. “He would have worked on a lot of paintings in that field.”

The Basics

Outside on Molesworth Street, the clatter of construction continues through the afternoon. Inside his conservation studio at the back of the gallery, Gorry strokes his hand across a canvas. When he started to work in the gallery, he remembers the first directions his father gave him.

“Now, you’ve got to learn how to handle a picture, how to carry a picture, how to hold a picture, how to take a picture out of the frame,” Gorry recalls his father telling him. “So I started right at the basics.”

It was some time before he was allowed near a canvas.

To work out how to treat an oil painting, Gorry first assesses its age and nationality. He finds the layers of dirt and grime, and cleans downwards, gradually reclaiming the image, removing each layer as he works out how to fix the warped colours.

In decades past, the varnishes sometimes yellowed the paintings. Nowadays, that’s less of an issue, but age-old problems remain.

Italian artists loved red pigment but, over time, it blurs the line between the foreground and the sky, and makes it harder to strip back the layers. The Irish turf fires of the eighteenth and nineteenth century left layer upon layer of dirt and grime.

“The worst damage that’s been done to works of art has been done by human beings,” he says. “The most important thing is the cleaning. Over-cleaning cannot be reversed. You can attempt to disguise it by either judicious restoration, or by repainting, which I wouldn’t recommend but that’s often been done.”

Over-cleaning is a curse, says Christopher Ashe of the Wellesley Ashe Gallery, a conservationist who has turned to Gorry to get works cleaned and assessed for many years.

“He’s an amazing man really,” says Ashe. “Unlike so many other people in the art world who are more interested in making money out of it, I think he has a very genuine interest in artists and their work.”

And he isn’t done yet.

Although past retirement age, Gorry says he plans to continue his work with the old masters, with Walter Osborne, George Barrett, Thomas Roberts and others.

“They used to joke about us,” he says. “You have to be dead to exhibit at the Gorry Gallery and if you’re not, we’ll arrange it!”

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Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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