Physicists paint a clearer picture

Young hopes to begin using ESPI to look at a real painting by the end of the year. “We will be able to compare its strain map with those from the model paintings and see how the behaviour correlates,” she explains. This will help her to check whether the process that is used to model the paintings is successful. She also hopes that ESPI will allow conservationists to assess paintings quickly both before and during restoration.

An important feature of the ESPI system – which is funded by the Commission for the Great Exhibition of 1851, an educational grant-awarding trust – is that it is portable, allowing paintings to be monitored in situ in a gallery. And since the technique is non-invasive, it should prove to be popular with conservationists, who are wary of techniques that could damage their works of art.

Young is one of a handful of physicists working in art conservation in the UK. David Saunders, a chemist who works for the National Gallery, says the usual way for physicists to become involved is by suggesting that their technique could be useful. If a gallery also thinks this is the case, they can end up doing a project together. “We have worked collaboratively with several university departments on projects of mutual interest, and often have undergraduate and postgraduate students,” he explains.

If you like the idea of working in this field, but don’t have a new technique up your sleeve, there are other options. In the UK, for example, the University of Northumbria at Newcastle, the Royal College of Art (RCA), the Courtauld Institute and the Hamilton Kerr Institute all run postgraduate courses in conservation. As Alun Cummings, course director at the RCA, says: “We are definitely interested in people with scientific degrees.” Maybe one day your descendants will have you to thank for preserving their favourite works of art.

© IOP Publishing Ltd. Reproduced with permission.