Conservation is a relatively new profession, but training places and job opportunities are still strictly limited. There are three main centres for training in painting conservation - the Courtauld Institute in London, the University of Northumbria, and the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge - which between them take fewer than 20 graduates each year. Entry requirements vary but most conservators have a first degree in fine art, history of art or science.
The Association of British Picture Restorers (ABPR), which represents some 400 conservators, also arranges a handful of apprenticeships in the studios of established restorers each year. The ABPR's secretary, Jan Robinson, says competition for both routes of entry into the profession is fierce.
Conservation is a multi-disciplinary and highly-specialised area, and each branch of conservation work has its own training requirements. The UK Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (UKIC), the umbrella organisation for all forms of conservation in this country, is working on an accreditation scheme to set recognised standards for training and can advise on the courses available. Although some artistic ability is essential, the job is less about creativity and more to do with sensitivity to the processes and materials involved.
"You may be able to paint a painting but that doesn't mean you are qualified to fix a Rembrandt," says Sharon Manitta, of the UKIC. She completed three years post-graduate training in organic chemistry before beginning work as a textiles conservator, a fact that often surprises people when she tells them what she does. She says the public underestimates the amount of specialist knowledge required for conservation work.
"We have to do a lot of studying. Some people have the idea that conservation is a kind of little hobby - but this is not arts and crafts and you don't learn to be a textile conservator by going to embroidery classes. It depends on the discipline but in textiles, easel painting and paper conservation, there is a lot of chemistry involved.
"Everything falls apart eventually, whether it is made of stainless steel or silk. But a conservator's job is to slow down that process and maintain the integrity of the object."
ABPR 0181 948 5644 UKIC 0171 721 8721