Why Manny and Gail Pohl helped restore a masterpiece
“The outstanding thing about all of them is the way the colours and the details jump out at you and talk to you,” says Manny Pohl, discussing the works restored by the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ (AGNSW) conservation team. “Seeing it before and after is amazing. You can understand why these are classed as the old masters and fabulous works of art. These pictures absolutely come to life, and that’s the way people saw them hundreds of years old.”
Pohl was first introduced to gallery and its conservation efforts by BNP Paribas, which, to commemorate their 125th anniversary in Australia, had donated to the restoration of Frans Snyders’ “The Boar Hunt” (which depicts a wild boar being brought down by a pack of dogs). Pohl and his wife Gail have since donated to the preservation of several of the gallery’s artworks through their family foundation.
“Nobody was really contributing – other than BNP, at that time – to the restoration of old masters,” Pohl says. “We’re trying to use our dollars in an area where we can make a difference, and very definitely in the restoration of old paintings we’ve made a huge difference.”
Pohl’s latest contribution helped restore Carlo Cignani’s ‘The Five Senses’, painted in the 1670s. There are at least ten known versions of the painting hanging in galleries and collections around the world, all copied from the original by Cignani. The painting is an “allegory of Charity”, but the children surrounding her also represent the five senses: “holding a bell (hearing), suckling (taste), holding a posy of flowers (smell), looking in a mirror (sight) and touching the woman’s hand (touch).”
The gallery usually offers Pohl several paintings in need of restoration to choose from. A previous donation funded the restoration of ‘The Prospector’, which depicts a man panning for gold. Pohl grew up in South Africa; while he supported the end of Apartheid, he was wary of the social upheaval that could result and left the country to settle his family in Australia.
The idea of “coming to a new country and trying to find a pot of gold really struck a chord with (him)”.‘David’s First Victory’, another artwork Pohl donated to through Hyperion, depicts the Biblical hero triumphant over a dead lion and bear: “Coming to Australia and being successful was like our family slaying a lion.”
“’The Five Senses’ was because my daughter in law had recently had her own daughter,” Pohl says. “Her two daughters were the first grandchildren in our family, and when I looked at it I thought “this is the one”. It’s always been a personal link that’s prompted me to pick one out of the portfolio.”
The team that worked on the painting were: Grace Barrand, frames conservator; Anne Gerard-Austin, assistant curator, international art; and Simon Ives, paintings conservator. The restoration process is painstaking, taking place over months and years.
“I was really humbled by understanding the work these people put into this,” Pohl says. “They take an earbud and sit for months removing varnish, a fraction of a millimeter by a fraction of a millimeter, on a painting that’s a metre long by a metre high.”
“There’s a lot of money in our (funds management) industry, and people get paid well. You see these people are so dedicated; they’re certainly not rewarded like some merchant banker who puts some deal together and makes $50 million because he sold a company to a private equity firm. They take an old master from something that’s bland and dull to something that jumps out at the wall at you.”
Pohl believes that the masses are perhaps more interested in newer works – “people sort of just poo-poo (older works) and walk away from them” – but believes that there’s plenty of lessons to be learned from the old masters and art history.
“I came from a culture where you needed to play rugby and cricket, and you didn’t dare do ballet or play the trumpet – god forbid you were painting,” Pohl says. “If you go to the gallery, they’ll often have exhibitions around art history – you can track the progression of a culture, like the Shi’a Muslims or the Chinese through the art they produced and how they painted.”
“It kind of makes a philistine like me realise there’s really a part to me and my growing up and my education that was severely lacking… It’s really uplifting. It’s an essential part of anybody’s education.”
Photo: Carlo Cignani The five senses 1670s oil on canvas Art Gallery of New South Wales, Gift of George Abe Laughton 1952, provided by AGNSW