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Hamilton Kerr Institute

Fitzwilliam Museum


John Brealey was the leading conservator of paintings of his generation and worked in many of the world's foremost art museums.

He became Head of the Paintings Conservation Department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1975, after a distinguished career as a private restorer in London.

From his position in the Metropolitan Museum, John Brealey trained a new generation of art conservators and continued the cleaning of great paintings for the Met and for other museums in America. 

The archive consists of books, conservation reports and photographs and a personal archive. 

Obituary by David Bomford, The Independent, 2002

Leading conservator of paintings

John Malcolm Brealey, art conservator: born London 25 January 1925; married 1951 Hella von Kupfer (died 1991; one son and one son deceased); died New York 19 December 2002.

John Brealey was the leading conservator of paintings of his generation and one of the most important teachers and practitioners of the 20th century. Conservators in many of the world's foremost art museums worked with him or were trained by him and his influence on the profession was profound. He was head of the paintings conservation department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a post to which he was invited in 1975 after an extraordinarily distinguished career as a private restorer in London. He remained at the Metropolitan Museum until 1989 when a stroke cruelly cut short his working life.

Brealey was born in 1925 in Hammersmith, west London. His parents were both artists: his father William Brealey was a well-known portrait painter in London, and his mother trained as a designer of textiles. Speaking in 1976 (to the American Institute for Conservation oral history project), John Brealey said of his early life:

Later . . . I realised that I had a very strongly developed inherent response to works of art which seemed to be stronger than other people's. I felt completely at home with an artwork . . . probably the only time in life that I was at ease.

He went to Mill Hill School and was evacuated to Cambridge during the Second World War. After a brief flirtation with journalism, he worked in an aircraft factory and found it was possible to work at night and have the days free to spend in museums and libraries in Cambridge. At this time he met Picasso's dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and his brother Gustav, whose collection of photographs and paintings he studied.

Brealey went into the RAF and was posted to India for three years, where a medical examination revealed a condition that barred him from active service. He transferred to the educational branch of the RAF and was allowed to travel around India lecturing on Cubism, the Bauhaus and other aspects of modern art: one of his lectures was to a regiment so polite that it was some time before he realised that they spoke no English.

On his return to England, he became a picture restorer on the advice of Anthony Blunt and James Byam Shaw, who both recommended that he should train with Johannes Hell, then restorer at Dulwich Picture Gallery. From 1947 to 1951, Brealey absorbed Hell's conservative approaches to the cleaning of paintings and the experience was to shape his own philosophy for the next four decades. A short period at the Courtauld Institute followed, studying with Stephen Rees Jones, head of the Technology Department, and then, in 1952, Brealey embarked on his career as a private restorer in London.

Working in former artists' studios – first in Kensington and then in Little Venice – he rapidly built up an extensive practice, working for the greatest collections in Britain. Some of the most important paintings in the country were entrusted to him, from the Royal Collection, the National Trust, the Fitzwilliam Museum, the Ashmolean Museum, the Wallace Collection, Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Courtauld Galleries and the National Gallery of Scotland. His most challenging project was the series of nine large canvases of The Triumphs of Caesar by Mantegna in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court: in perilous condition and almost totally obscured by previous inept restorations (including one by Roger Fry), they were painstakingly freed from layers of wax and repaint by Brealey and his assistant Joan Seddon over a period of more than a decade, from 1962 to 1975 – one of the most notable rescue operations in the history of conservation.

Brealey also worked for many of the great country house collections, for private collectors such as J. Paul Getty and, increasingly, for museums in North America. Then, in 1975, his connections with the United States took a dramatic turn. John Pope-Hennessy, who, after a glittering directorial career in London had become curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, persuaded Brealey to give up his lucrative private practice and follow him there. The incentive was the opportunity to set up his own teaching institute within the museum and to be a focus for raising standards in the profession.

Brealey's incursion into the politicised world of American museum conservation was highly controversial. He hated the widespread assumption of conservators on both sides of the Atlantic that the cleaning of paintings was purely a matter of scientific objectivity. To him, the quasi-archaeological approach of removing all non-original material, regardless of how paintings had changed with time, made no sense. For him, aesthetic judgements and how best to convey the artist's intent were paramount, and dictated the way a painting should be cleaned. He was outspoken in his beliefs and criticisms, and antagonised a number of long-established conservators. It is widely assumed that his influence with Paul Mellon brought about a moratorium on the cleaning of paintings at the National Gallery of Art, Washington in 1978.

From his position in the Metropolitan Museum, Brealey wielded great influence. Not only was a new generation of conservators being directly trained by him, but he also gave week-long seminars for museum directors from the United States and Europe so that his views on conservation and connoisseurship could be disseminated as widely as possible. He also continued to clean great paintings for the Metropolitan Museum and for other museums in America.

A new chapter in his life opened in 1983 when the Director of the Prado in Madrid asked Brealey to sit on an advisory committee for the cleaning of Velázquez's Las Hilanderas and Goya's Black Paintings. Many more visits to Spain followed. In 1984, he was invited to carry out the cleaning and restoration of Velázquez's Las Meninas, the most famous Spanish painting in the world – an invitation fiercely opposed in the Spanish press. Criticism turned to praise when the beautifully judged restoration was unveiled and Brealey was awarded the Gold Medal for Artistic Achievement by King Juan Carlos. He later observed that the medal “should have been awarded for valour under fire”.

In 1986, he cleaned El Greco's Expolio in Toledo Cathedral and then, in 1987, he was given long-term leave from the Metropolitan Museum to direct the conservation of paintings at the Prado. A non-Spanish speaker, he was assisted there by Zahira Véliz, one of his former students in New York, and together they set about transforming the methods and morale of the restorers in the Prado. It was not easy: they were beset by strikes and political problems at the Prado. But slow progress was made and, over the course of nearly two years, the restorers there grew in confidence and expertise under Brealey's guidance.

Then tragedy struck. Back in New York in the summer of 1989, Brealey suffered a massive stroke. He made a partial recovery – enough to make two more short visits to Madrid, which, paradoxically, were full of laughter and jollity. But his speech and mobility were severely impaired and deteriorated further; he had to retire from the Metropolitan Museum and he spent most of the last decade of his life in his New York apartment supported by a few loving friends and his son Nick.

John Brealey was an enigmatic man, shy, slightly prickly and awkward socially, with an occasional self-deprecating humour that was as refreshing as it was unexpected. As he said of himself, he was only really at ease in the company of works of art. Art was the great love of his life and he spoke with passion about “life-changers”, those creations of the hand and intellect that affected him most deeply. He was an inspirational teacher and to hear him talk in front of paintings was unforgettable. To the world at large he was a controversial figure, but he used controversy to fight for what he believed in. To his friends and close colleagues he was unfailingly kind and loyal and he inspired exceptional loyalty in others. We can only speculate – and we all have – how much more he might have achieved in New York, Madrid and elsewhere if his career had continued.

David Bomford, The Independent