In conversation: Tiago Oliveira
Tiago is a qualified conservation expert and restorer with more than ten years of experience working with a wide range of materials and objects in private and public collections. We met at his studio in Deptford on a sunny afternoon in February.
JR: Hi Tiago, so how did you get into conservation?
TO: I’ve always had an interest in arts and craft from an early age. It wasn’t until I was 15 and at school that I had to choose between studying English, Maths, Science or Fine Art. I chose art but realised early on it wasn’t something I was going to enjoy.
JR: So you found fine art too conceptual?
TO: Yeah it just wasn’t for me. I like to be hands on and craft stuff, repair stuff. It was one of my teachers who suggested I should consider conservation and restoration, and I did, and it’s been working. It’s the craft and history but also a bit of science because you need to understand the materials you’re working with in order to treat them – especially cleaning, I need to understand how a certain soap will react with a piece I’m working on.
JR: Nice, then what?
TO: I went on to study conservation at university in Porto. It was very broad and covered paintings, sculpture and ceramics. I decided I wanted to specialise in ceramics but couldn’t find any quality courses in Portugal funnily enough.
JR: Really? That’s strange. Portugal is so well known for its glass, ceramic and textile industries.
TO: There are good schools now but back then literally none. It’s the reason I came to the UK. I enrolled on a Masters course at West Dean College of Arts & Conservation near Chichester. It allowed me to specialise further and I loved it so much I stayed.
JR: Awesome, and then straight into work I presume?
TO: Yeah, I graduated in 2006, came to London and started working with a sculptor who specialised in marble. Not ceramics but it was closer to what I studied nonetheless. Then I got an amazing opportunity with a private ceramic conservator based in Brighton which I did for two years.
JR: And how did you set up on your own?
TO: I was getting a bit tired of the commute between London and Brighton so in 2015 I set up at home and started working with my own clients. It was hard at first, I couldn’t afford to rent a studio, and could only do so much at home because of the chemicals and equipment needed. I did it all in my attic with windows fully open in the winter so the air could circulate properly.
JR: Also, I guess working where you live is a hard balance to strike? How did you distance yourself from it at the end of the day?
TO: Well, luckily, because it was all in the attic I could just close the door and not see it. But it was always there, always on my mind. I’d find myself nipping in after hours to do a little bits here and there. I’ve been in my Deptford studio now since May 2019 and it’s so much better! Lots more space and a really nice creative community nearby.
JR: Your work is obviously quite broad. What’s your favourite material to work with?
TO: Porcelain is my all time favourite but two to three years ago I re-discovered glass and I love it! They’re completely different. Porcelain is always very colourful, opaque and full of details. It can be figurines or plates whereas glass has a much more functional and utilitarian aesthetic. Their form is also a little less perfect which I like.
JR: Do you have a particular commission or project that you’re really proud of?
TO: Yeah for sure, around two years ago myself and a colleague were invited to Salzburg in Austria to have a look at a 15th century Majolica stove – a large structure made of brick and ceramic used for heating the home as well as cooking. The particular one we were working on was a museum piece and we spent two months in summer restoring the ceramic facade, riding the funicular railway everyday to a castle at the top of the mountain where it was housed. It was fantastic, truly memorable.
JR: With the 15th century in mind how does age affect the way you work with certain materials and objects?
TO: Erm, if the object is archaeological it’s already going to be very frail and unstable so we do very little. We basically just sterilise it and preserve what’s already there. Conservation always comes first, then restoration. I try and show that a lot of objects already have value, historic value that restoration can sometimes diminish.
JR: That’s a really interesting point, that objects can have more value in not being perfect like it was fifty or a hundred years ago?
TO: Totally, if you go to the British Museum nowadays you often see a shard of glass or piece of tile with a drawing of what it would have been like behind it. That’s much more tangible than restoring the fragment, adding new elements and ultimately de-valuing it. There’s also sentimental value to consider. An item might have no economic value whatsoever but because it belonged to your Grandmother it holds place in your heart and people do anything to preserve that.
JR: Finally, what’s your view on the current throwaway culture we’re experiencing and do you think it’ll change?
TO: It’s funny that you ask that. One of the reasons I decided to stay in the UK is because the work I do here is valued. Maybe it’s changed now but back home in Portugal there was way less emphasis on keeping things. If something breaks people just go and buy new things. In the UK, I see a value for history, heritage and legacy. The work I do is all about conserving what we already have, resorting it where necessary and ultimately ensuring it lives on for others to enjoy. We’re not there yet but I think globally we’re more aware of waste and how it impacts the environment. Of course we still have to buy stuff but I believe we have a moral obligation to buy well and invest in it where we can.
JR: Awesome, thanks Tiago, that was great.
TO: You’re welcome.