Hidden away in Ancoats are fascinating gems. And hidden away in Hope Mill, James Bloomfield sees a story in each painting that he restores.
Some reveal surprises and some reveal secrets. The valuable 17th Century Raphael copy that he is restoring revealed a halo of beautifully crafted type around the figures, as he began to clean centuries of grime from the surface.
Another was a painting that said on the back, ‘For my wife on our 20th Anniversary.’ That one had been put across a knee (male or female, James doesn’t know) and, basically, snapped in half. Although he says that he has had pictures brought to him for restoration that have had very clear fist shaped holes in them. “In one,” he says, “you could even see the shape of the knuckles…”
And then there are the deliberately vandalised pictures; the historical portrait of a renowned Manchester school headmaster with a ubiquitous moustache drawing on it. Or the collection of paintings from a Manchester hospital systematically punctured by a disgruntled patient.
But most paintings brought to James are from galleries or collectors wishing to restore works, or families with heirlooms that require TLC after generations.
His route to restoration was far from an intended career path. Having dropped out of a digital media course at Man Met, James was employed by his uncle, painting reproductions of classical works for his restaurants, by such artists as Caravaggio. Nothing if not challenging.
Walking his dog one day James called into Grove Galleries on Ellesmere Street and popped in to ask if they had any spare studio space. George Aird, lifelong friend and agent of LS Lowry, looked at James’s portfolio and offered him work helping to restore paintings there. “Although,’ James adds, “I think a big part of it was that I had a van and so could transport paintings around!” Nonetheless he spent a five-year ‘apprenticeship’ with George, before branching out on his own.
“There are no manuals,” James states. “Often I will have to ‘weld’ a new canvas onto the back of a painting.” A process which involves hot wax and suction table. “But from there on in it’s just instinct in knowing how to clean surfaces, match pigments and judge how, in time, newly applied paint will age.
From experience I know that to get a certain blue there might be a cerulean blue, ultramarine, a bit of crimson and I might put a little raw umber in as well. But then you’ve got to factor in age, because once the oil paint has aged over a hundred years, the light changes the colour as well.”
But James is a recognised artist in his own right, flipping from restoration to creation. A recent project – and one close to his heart – was ‘In Service,’ a project completed during his year long residency in 2017 with Salford Museum & Art Gallery and Working Class Movement Library.
During commemorations for World War I, James developed the concept of producing 226 commemorative plates, one for each day of the Battle of Passchendaele. Each plate carries – in Delft pottery style – a title, date and the number of casualties in conflicts since ‘The War to End All Wars’.
The plates were all created by collaborators in a series of workshops. But vitally, these are not on display in some artistic, untouchable way. They are now in use in the Salford Museum & Art Gallery Café, where diners simply eating hot pot or cake are, in James’s concept, ‘engaging in a profound and individual act of remembrance.’
So the answer is, of course, James Bloomfield, restorer and artist.