Alumni Interview: Rebecca Hellen (BA 1994), Specialist Advisor for Paintings Conservation at the National Trust

As final-year Bristol students prepare to mark the end of their time at the University through online ‘Summer Celebration’ events, we caught up with Bristol alumna Rebecca Hellen (BA 1994), to reflect on her own time at the University. A graduate of the Faculty of Arts, Rebecca worked as Senior Paintings Conservator at Tate for 18 years, and has recently taken up a new role as Specialist Advisor and Paintings Conservator at the National Trust. She shares her career story and lends some tips for how to stay creative in lockdown.

What kind of student were you?
I studied Art History and History at Bristol, having previously spent a year at art college in London. I learnt a lot from moving to the west country and being in a smaller city; it helped expand my views and experiences. Coming to a university in a city so rich in geography, history and culture was very exciting for me. I love variety. I remember almost every detail of St Paul’s Carnival in my third year – the elation of graduating, sitting outside the Star and Garter, the whole atmosphere having a very Bristol flavour.

I came from a state school in London in 1991 and the University at the time had a reputation for a disproportionately large intake of privately educated students. In truth, I had certain preconceptions about that but when I got there, I learnt that people are people. Nevertheless, it reinforced my interest in increasing access to education and the arts.

How did studying at the University help you in your career?
In my second year at University I did a whole course on Titian with lecturer Mary Rogers. By exploring a single artist, we could go into so much detail and I was able to approach some really technical literature. I came across a journal article on the history of the treatment and technical analysis of the painting methods of Titain’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1520 – 1523) and that was it really. It was Titian who started me off. I then did my dissertation on Conservation Controversies and went on to do a Science for Conservators course at Hammersmith College, before doing a three-year Diploma at the Courtauld Institute of Art in the Conservation of Easel Paintings.

You’re passionate about making art accessible to all. How have you been able to put that passion into practice throughout your career?
The Courtauld Institute of Art is quite small. An organisation that size can be quite nimble in its approach to accessibility. In the first year of my postgraduate course there, I was really interested in learning British Sign Language. With support from staff, we set up signed tours for the Courtauld gallery which meant that we could be more inclusive for people with hearing difficulties.

In a larger organization, such as Tate where I’ve worked for the last 18 years, there are different approaches. I used to chair the Tate Staff Council so I’ve always been engaged with developing staff, deepening the discussion on art and widening accessibility for the general public.

I’m also very invested in the ways conservation can help improve access to difficult art works. Teaching visitors about the materials artists use is one way of making complex pieces more accessible. For example, J. M. W. Turner used wax and resins in his oil paints, materials that are vulnerable and can change over time. This has opened up many discussions with gallery visitors about the differences between looking at a Turner painting now, compared to the 1800s. This can help us think about classical paintings as ‘time-based media’, a form often associated with more contemporary artworks. Digital projects, such as blog pieces and films, enable greater global reach too and enable conservation to be more accessible to a wider audience.

If you’re not from an art background or you do not have the connections, having the strength of a strong brand behind you can be really helpful. It creates a sort of meritocracy and it can give you a real confidence boost. That is part of the reason why I am a Bristol Mentor, so I can share my knowledge and support students at Bristol to attain some of the opportunities I have had in my career.

I’ve always loved storytelling. It’s been the biggest privilege of my career to date.

You’re starting a new role at the National Trust. What does the job involve and what excites you about it?
The title of my new role is Specialist Advisor for Paintings Conservation, National Trust. I’ll be supporting National Trust properties in their short and long term conservation projects, working across 350 houses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with a collection of 13,500 paintings. I’m told it could take ten years to get round to visit them all! The National Trust celebrates its 125th anniversary this year so it’s a really exciting time to be joining.

I am very committed at this stage of my career to sharing knowledge. This can be a difficult balance when you are a conservator because much of the role is very practical: you are carrying out major interventions, cleaning paintings, rescuing artworks from the obscurity of poor condition. Many conservators prefer to be at the easel. I want to build on my experience of getting the most out of conserving a painting, sharing it’s technical examination and treatment with other people, whether that be schools, PhD students, lecturers, scientists or the general public.

I’ve always loved storytelling. It’s been the privilege of my career to date to pass on knowledge, ideas, opinions and tease them out of others in the ever-changing dialogues around cultural heritage. I hope the Trust will be a space where that can continue, that I can enhance and engage in their current values and expand thinking to explore new ones.

When you’ve landed a great position in a really well-respected institution, you have to be mindful that you are lucky that you can do what you do.

You can have so much fun with art, which helps open it up to new audiences. For my online leaving do from my role at Tate, one of my colleagues painted Bridget Riley’s Hesitate (1964) on her face (pictured below) with children’s face make-up. It was one of the last works I had been conserving before I left. Two other colleagues dressed up as Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol.

Creativity can be difficult during lockdown. Do you have any tips for those at home who want to engage with art?
Be in your body. Being in your head too much can stifle your creativity. Getting up and doing exercise is so vital. Or something physical – cook something every morning, bake something, something practical that takes the emphasis out of your mind. We are so hunched and contained at the moment.

Make sure you’re doing something easy and achievable. In 2007 I trained as an Iyengar Yoga Teacher and I put a lot of pressure on myself about self-practice and discipline. Be nice to yourself during these challenging times.

I have really enjoyed Grayson Perry’s Art Club on Channel 4. It’s amazing and hugely accessible. Grayson and Philippa Perry encourage people to do everything from collage to photography, pencil drawings to film pieces.

Regular practice, of anything you do, is absolutely essential. If you are a writer, write three sentences every day. Even if they are rubbish, just do it. Don’t judge yourself for its quality or quantity, just be proud that you put something down on paper. You can have a daily creative practice, whether you are someone who considers yourself creative or not.

Get connected to nature somehow. It’s another great thing for creativity. Take some space. Take some time off work, even if it is just to spend four days in the park. Lift your arms, lift your chest and feel the connection between your mind and body.

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