A day in the life of an art technician

Collection Technician Chris Christophorou has worked at the Government Art Collection for over eight years. As a painter who regularly shows his own work, he admits to having spent a lifetime in 'constant adulation' of great works of art. His day job, however, gives him the unusual perspective of mainly studying the reverse side of a painting.

One of the trolleys loaded with works of art ready for despatch

One of the trolleys loaded with works of art ready for despatch

© Crown Copyright

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As a technician, you work in the Receipt and Dispatch area and the Workshop at GAC headquarters. Can you describe a typical day for us?

All of the works of art first come into Receipt and Dispatch (R&D) – an area surrounded by shelving and racks. This is where they're normally unpacked. It's also where works are placed (generally on trolleys) ready for collection once they've been prepared for despatch in the workshop (image 1).

In our workshop we prepare the works for display. We do some frame restoration in-house but most works are framed elsewhere. (image 2) We attach hanging fittings to the works (image 3) and label each with a unique inventory number.

An important part of the workshop activity is checking the condition of works on the conservation list. Priority on the list depends on whether the works are going back to their original location; chosen for another destination or kept at the GAC to be offered in future. Specialist conservators visit once a week to examine works on the list.

Most of the conservation treatments take place elsewhere but we do undertake some preventative conservation measures, including 'tropicalisation', (image 4) a precautionary measure we take when sending works out to countries with tropical climates. Basically we seal a plastic backing board to the work with aluminium tape. This creates a barrier on the back of the work to ensure that moisture or bugs can't penetrate the back of the picture. We also sailcloth the back of paintings to prevent the canvas from slapping against the back of the stretcher (image 5).

How do you get involved with the installations? And how do you prepare works for ministers etc to view?

I used to work for private and commercial galleries – and also a couple of commercial art handling companies – where I gained considerable experience of installing works in the UK and abroad. This has proved invaluable when I am sent to install nowadays – this can range from hanging works in Number 10 Downing Street to a long and complicated installation in the Residence in Moscow.

In the UK, the Director or Deputy will provide us with a list of works they want to show ministers who are due to visit. We can make these works more 'viewable' by placing them together on a rack or otherwise arrange them in the RD area for viewing. (image 6)

How are works collected? Are there any special arrangements when works are sent overseas?

We use the same professional art handling companies to collect and ship works as the other national collections. They collect works from the GAC, wrap them and put them in fitted cases specially made for the works. The handlers will take over the whole process of shipping works abroad and work with their counterpart company overseas. (image 7)

How do you hang works? Are there specific rules around this? Do you sometimes have to adapt to suit particular spaces when you are there?

When I worked for commercial galleries there was always a golden rule that most works look 'comfortable' hung at a 150–155 centimetre centre line. This means you have to imagine a midpoint running horizontally through every picture in a room set at 150 to 155 centimetres up from the floor. This always worked beautifully in an empty pristine space and can be used for all medium sized pictures of a height of 1 metre or less. 

I tend to use this formula in my work for the GAC but of course you have to then bear in mind that we sometimes we hang over furniture in 18th and 19th century interiors with panelled walls – a real challenge. I use the 'gallery formula' as a point of departure and then change the height (often hanging them higher) to suit the surroundings. It is a great help that most paintings are hung using a special picture chain meaning that their hanging height is easily adjustable.

Sometimes we use the 'do it by eye' method. This simply means I hold a picture up till it looks correct for the room by another GAC curator, a 'post-it' note is placed on the wall by the bottom of the picture and I just measure from there. 

Is there one installation that stands out for being particularly challenging technically?

The Moscow trip was challenging because there were so many works involved.  In addition the wooden panelled rooms we so dark we had to put a picture light on each of the paintings – something we had never done before.  We carried out lengthy research prior to installing and finally discovered  a light source that would work from the conservation point of view and which would not be too obtrusive aesthetically. There was a limited time frame in which we could install the works and the lights. Then at the very end we had our most difficult picture to hang – a portrait of Queen Victoria by George Hayter – that weighed over 100 kilos. We'd planned to hang this first and deal with the most complex part of the job at the beginning,  but owing to delays the picture arrived on our last day! It took about 7 guys to carry it up the staircase and then hang it on a special bracket.