Raye Collins knew she wanted to study art and art history from the time she left Ballarat High School.
The National Gallery of Victoria’s conservator of painting has recently completed a 1000-hour, six month restoration of one of the art institution’s most prized works – the 1916 portrait of the Catalan painter Manuel Humbert by the short-lived Italian genius Amedeo Modigliani.
Ms Collins said she chose to do an arts degree at the University of Melbourne following her schooling, and focused on art history. Studying literature and general history as well enabled her to broaden her interests, as did a number of years of overseas travel, viewing the art works she had read of.
“I was always very passionate about art history, but also by the actual physical process of painting and how things are made,” Ms Collins says.
“When I discovered that they were running the conservation course at Melbourne University in 2005, I thought it was the perfect way to reconcile my academic and practical interests.”
Read The Age’s interview with Raye Collins by Joe Hinchcliffe:Modigliani and me: NGV conservator restores work of Italian master
You do need to know where to stop. That’s an important skill to learnRaye Collins
The two-year Masters of Cultural Materials Conservation course gave Collins the opportunity to work at the NGV as a fellow of the Hugh D.T. Williamson Foundation.
Hugh Williamson was the Ballarat-born first general manager of the Australia and New Zealand Bank Ltd (now ANZ). A complex man, able to move within Melbourne society yet never a part of it, he had no children and left his $4 million estate to form a philanthropic foundation after his death in 1985.
“I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my career,” says Raye Collins.
“It’s a much sought-after place to be, with good reason.”
And what if there is a work that’s brought in for conservation so badly damaged it’s irretrievable?
“I like to think there’s always something that can be done,” Collins says.
“All paintings we can help in some way, within the resources. I enjoy the challenge of things that might be a little more difficult.”
Was it frightening to be working on such a valuable painting by such a well known artist as Modigliani?
“It’s a huge responsibility, because it's a responsibility to the public but also a big responsibility to the artist. I need to be able to represent their original work in the most accurate way I possibly can. We have to do a lot of groundwork before we begin - research, technical investigation and testing, so that we can then make the best possible decisions for the artwork. You go into it quite well informed.”
It's very much a detective story, says Collins, knowing where to restore the work without going beyond what the artist had originally intended or adding to the picture unintentionally – bringing the original life back to the portrait.
“You do need to know where to stop. That’s an important skill to learn. This painting, for example, is over 100-years-old, so my role is not to actually make it look like it just left the artist’s studio. My role is to restore balance to the image and and remove the distractions caused by losses or small damages. Essentially my work is to fade into the background and the artist’s work should come forward.”