Conservator's View: Movement in Squares by Bridget Riley

8 October 2019

Ahead of Hayward Gallery's major Bridget Riley retrospective, which opens this month, Conservator Rachel Carey-Thomas discusses Riley’s seminal Arts Council Collection work, Movement in Squares, 1961, revealing the intricate processes and methodical approach involved in cleaning this iconic painting.


Movement in Squares is one of Riley’s first fully abstract paintings and is therefore a hugely significant work. The version owned by the Arts Council was preceded by several other iterations, giving us an insight into how she honed and refined the concept and its execution.

The Arts Council acquired the definitive version in 1962 – the year after it had been painted - from Riley’s first solo show at Gallery One. Apparently this show was the outcome of a chance encounter with Gallery One director Victor Musgrave, which happened when Riley sought shelter from a rainstorm in the gallery’s entrance!

Although Riley has maintained a meticulous archive, the type of paint used for these very early abstract works is undocumented. We know that from the late 1960s she was using acrylics for their useful handling properties but Riley talks of using house paint to create her earliest black and white paintings and, in particular, a well-known brand named Ripolin, also used by Picasso.

From a conservator’s perspective, the uncertainty over what medium was used meant that my work would be guided by the results of tests to identify the properties of the paint and the effect of different cleaning agents. 


It has been a privilege to work on such an iconic painting: one of the great pleasures of working in conservation is the opportunity to spend time really getting to know an artwork. Cleaning has given Movement in Squares a ‘lift’. The accumulation of marks and overall greyness reduced the contrast between the two tones and detracted from the purity of the work’s conception.

I am so often surprised by the difference that even a small intervention can make to the enjoyment of a painting. After re-tensioning a slack canvas or restoring a minor scuff, one is suddenly able to view the work without distraction. I like to think that conservation restores the ‘integrity’ of an artwork. 

Our public collections are a wonderful resource and it is hugely important that they are well cared for so that works can be seen at their best now and by generations to come.


Rachel Carey-Thomas works with London-based conservation studio Shepherd Contemporary.


Image right: Installation view of Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares, 1961 at Hayward Gallery 2019 © Bridget Riley 2019 Photo Stephen White & Co.

The Arts Council Collection : Conservator's View: Movement in Squares by Bridget Riley

Movement in Squares will be on display as part of a major retrospective exhibition of Riley’s work at Hayward Gallery, 23 October until 26 January 2020. 

Developed in close collaboration with the artist herself – and in partnership with National Galleries of Scotland – it is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of her work to date.

Tracing both the origins and the evolving nature of Riley’s innovative practice, the exhibition brings together the artist’s iconic black-and-white paintings of the 1960s, expansive canvases in colour, early figurative works and recent wall paintings.


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Works in Profile: Movement in Squares

Senior Curator, Natalie Rudd, introduces Bridget Riley's Movement in Squares, 1961. The painting is a key work in the Collection and was purchased by the critic David Sylvester from Riley’s first solo exhibition in London.

The Arts Council Collection is the UK's most widely seen collection of modern and contemporary art.

With more than 8,000 works by over 2,000 artists, it can be seen in exhibitions and public displays across the country and beyond. This website offers unprecedented access to the Collection, and information about each work can be found on this site.