Creative Careers 2024: Lead Art Historian Danielle Burke

How an art history and film lover found her way into the convervation industry

Castor Chan
21st February 2024
Image credit: Danielle Burke
Danielle Burke is the Lead Art Historian at the Fine Art Restoration Company in Carlisle. We chatted with her to discover how her journey with art evolved, the emotional side of conservation, and how her love of visual media paved the way to working on a fibreglass gorilla.

What sparked your interest in art and history, and when did that happen?

I’ve always been interested in history, especially from a young age. Growing up quite close to London in Buckinghamshire, we were always taking the train to museums. I’ve also always loved paintings and visual media, when I was younger I was super into films. I think it’s one of those things where I just liked anything visual going on around me, and that sort of translated into history as well.

A conservator cleaning a painting on an easel with a Banksy piece behind her
Image credit: Danielle Burke

How did you first get into art restoration and decide that it was something you wanted to do?

To be completely honest, I studied art history at university but I took about ten years to get back into doing anything related to it. It is a bit of a difficult field, when you’re at university you feel like there’s only one route - to be a curator at a museum or something else museum focused. I come from a working class background and it really didn’t seem like an accessible space to me, and what I was more comfortable in was the area of media and marketing.

When I was at university, I got involved in a lot of societies, so I actually used that to start my career rather than my art degree. I used to run York student cinema, and I used that to get a job a week after graduation in the film industry. I was there for a long time, and with all of the technical and practical skills I picked up in doing that, I was finally able to come full circle back to my degree because those skills, when combined with my studies, were what made this role something I could do and felt confident in.

You regularly work with Banksys and numerous other beautiful pieces, what is it like being around pieces of history like that?

It’s amazing actually, because some of the time I feel like you can’t believe how old some pieces are. You do become sort of immune to being amazed by it over time, like there’s just a casual Banksy and a 16th century painting over there. You see it in more of a molecular level, you’re thinking about the materials all the time, the client who owns the work. It’s not just about the history or value of the piece that is at the forefront of your mind, you’re looking at it almost from a scientific and also emotional point of view. A lot of the time, these things mean a lot to people, so it’s a different angle that you don’t often come across in artistry because everything else is usually so academic and museum focused. Because we’re working with private clients and we’re a more commercial side in the art sector, we get to work alongside people who have that emotional connection like in shows like The Repair Shop.

It’s a different angle that you don’t often come across in artistry because everything else is usually so academic and museum focused.

Danielle Burke

What is your favourite piece that you’ve ever worked on, and what would be a dream project of yours?

We’ve had a lot of interesting pieces in, but I like a lot of 18th century portraits that have a lot of things going on in them. I like to look into that person and see what I can find our about individuals across history, it feels more alive when there’s a specific person you can investigate and find out about. I’ve also done a lot of things like posters and props - things you’d never think you’d see. Strange things coming in are the ones I remember the most; we’ve done city sculptures, trail art, giant fibreglass gorillas… things like that stick with me the most!

In terms of dream projects, I like the weirdest possible things because they’re fun. I also love art by Rembrandt, Vermeer, the big names.

As an art historian, you see a lot of pieces by artists lost to time. How you do research information about more difficult works like those?

I think in those cases, when I’m writing (because I write about every piece that comes in), I like to think that I can find a story in everything that we see. Sometimes it’ll be an entirely unnamed landscape, you look at it and think, "there’s not really much going on there, it’s just field and some clouds." But the more you look at it and spend time with it, the more you realise there all sorts of allegorical undertones, and you can pull so much out of that and find historical events that go alongside that too. For example with a Dutch landscape, where you look into it and realise that it is a patriotic piece about the Spanish having rulership over them, but on first glance it is a man sitting on a hay bale! So it’s one of those things where you just need to be creative about how you interpret things, dig into it in a visual way if there’s not much substance to it or there’s no artist name. 

A Dutch landscape partially cleaned, with left side clean and right side covered in yellowed varnish
Image credit: Danielle Burke

When people think about art restoration, most think about the retouchers, framers, those who work directly on the paintings. As part of Fine Art’s Studio team, what role does the Lead Art Historian play in that atmosphere?

We have two sections to our studio, downstairs you have the practical side, where our conservators are working on frames, furniture, all sorts of items. Then you have the upstairs offices, where I work alongside people who are dealing with the clients and keeping them updated on our processes. It’s a big sales environment as well, which not a lot of people always expect in a fine art area. We get 150 people contacting us every week, and we have to go through all of those leads and find who in there wants to commit to conservation as it is an expensive thing to undertake. We assess hundred of pieces that we’ll never actually see, but we have to make sure we reach out to everybody in an equal way, whether it’s a painting worth a hundred thousand pounds or one they found in a charity shop because the pieces are important to them. We make sure that everybody has the same experience and level of customer service. 

Then on top of that, we have the logistics team who pick up artwork and furniture all over the country all week long. There’s actually a lot of support that goes alongside restoration work, and that in itself is a whole other science that happens once the piece arrives. It’s a very complicated system and I’ve made a lot of flowcharts recently haha! It seems like such a simple thing, someone wants something restored and they can just bring it into the studio. But all the parts in between that is a big operation and we’re always trying to find ways to tie everything together. 

How does one explore a potential career in conservation and how easy is it to get into the industry?

There are two different aspects. Obviously there’s office work like mine, I do art history but I am also expected to help with leads and quoting people. I also work out logistics and help with business development by bringing in technology. So if you have experience in working in a shop or an office role, you can support an art restoration business, especially if you have a passion for art. If you wanted to become a conservator, it depends on what type of work you want to restore. If you want to do frames and furniture, you look at a more practical route with City and Guilds courses; if you wanted to become an art conservator, easel painter or ceramics, you would have to do a masters course in that specific field.  

We make sure we reach out to everybody in an equal way, whether it’s a painting worth a hundred thousand pounds or one they found in a charity shop because the pieces are important to them.

Danielle Burke

What is something you love about art restoration that most people outside of the industry wouldn’t know about?

I think it’s the transformation that can happen. We spend so much of our time speaking to people you wouldn’t think, like insurance companies. They think that if there’s a house fire, that painting is ruined and they’ll have to pay it off as there’s nothing to be done, then people are devastated that they’ve lost al their belongings. But we’re starting to step and and say, ‘it looks completely demolished to you, but there’s still a painting under there under all of that damage.’ So we spend a lot of time saving paintings that look like they should be thrown away. We had one recently that looked completely white as there had been a fire which was then put out with swimming pool water. Because of the chlorine and the moisture trapped under the varnish, the painting had become blanched and looked like it had been completely wiped off. With a few weeks in our studio, it completely came back to life and it looked like it had never happened. So I think seeing things like that is such a rewarding part of conservation.

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