Saturday, 19 January 2013

Visit to Conservation Department at the Guildhall Art Gallery

On 16th January 2013 Vicky and Harriet met us in the Victorian Gallery  at the Guildhall Art Gallery ('GAG')and took us (City of London Guides Lecturers Association 'CLGLA') down below the Amphitheatre in the goods lift to the Conservation Department. High security all the way, lots of beeps and alarms as we put our bags and coats away in a secure area so we would not bump things with our ‘stuff’.

The conservators (all five of them, only one employed full-time) are responsible for all of the City of London Corporation art collection (totalling some 4500 works), including works of art at the Mansion House, Old Bailey, various schools, council offices, out on loan and of course those displayed and stored at the Guildhall Art Gallery.

An all-encompassing role involving advice on environmental monitoring, disaster planning, surveying paintings on a rolling basis, also offering advice to other institutions plus arranging loans, transportation and insurance. Not all their work is practical and as is the case for many of the arts, more staff and resources would be welcome.

Vicky showed us The Opening of Tower Bridge, London, 30th June 1894 by William Lionel Wyllie sitting on an easel.  The painting was in for inspection as some of the paint had begun to flake, as well as some earlier conservation work looking a little tarnished. There was also a possibility that it might need relining.  A painting is made up of canvas, ground and paint, the canvas reacts to humidity. Often after 150 years or so relining is required when they glue a type of fabric on the back of a failing canvas to stop it from expanding and contracting excessively, thus not supporting the paint layers as was, and to avoid further flaking. The policy of the gallery is to avoid relining if at all possible. If required they have some clever equipment – a vacuum table, it holds the layers in place while the heat it emits bonds the glue.  The painting is removed  from  the stretcher (the wooden frame that makes the canvas taut) to achieve this. Work of this nature would take one person approximately 200 hours.

The Opening of Tower Bridge - Photo: Peter Sander
The use of ultra violet light is important to search out these problems.

Photo: Peter Sander
The next painting was a portrait of Thomas Barrow by George Romney (1734-1802). Vicky had been working on cleaning up this portrait and it was almost finished.  Romney is apparently well known for portraits of children, so this work is of interest  as it is an artist painting another artist at work.  No structural problem with this work but it had on a previous occasion been covered in thick layers of varnish, also an earlier attempt had been made to clean it, this had all showed up under  the ultra violet light.  Oddly the old varnish seemed to only  outline the figure, not across it.  Uncertain as to why?  The UV shows up loss or damage in a painting as a very dark mass. 

I’m not sure if I listed all the cleaning products correctly, my shorthand is not as good as it was, but they are all organic. Aqueous (water?), solvent free, plus alcohol various types, white spirit and the conservators make their own resin soaps.

Also hasten to add varnish is good! Varnish is important as it saturates the paint and gives enhanced colour also it protects the painting.

Next up was Harriet (an intern who is working at GAG for six months). She is working on the Westminster Bridge, London c1774 (Pendant / companion piece to Blackfriars Bridge and St Paul’s   c1774) by William Marlow (not the painting we studied for the Guildhall Art Gallery Course).

Westminster Bridge, London circa 1774
Photo: Peter Sander
Harriet spoke confidently about her work and pointed out that the two paintings are checked together, or at least one after the other,  as each painting must fit in with the aesthetic of the other, one cannot be bright and glowing and the other left mucky! (My own technical term)  All work on paintings are photographed and recorded as required.  This painting does not require extensive treatment, although investigation had uncovered minor problems with the stretcher which will be sorted out relatively quickly.  Harriet used UV lights and a microscope to check over the work. This painting had been lined. Also pointed out the tacking ‘margins’ had moved beyond the stretcher e.g. actually on the front and part of painting rather than at the side, perhaps to avoid tacking old canvas; this would not be done in conservation today. The tacking marks will not be seen by the public as the frame will hide this.

We then moved into the studio where the frames are restored, repaired and reconstructed.  Judy introduced herself as the part-time part of the team, the other half, so to speak was absent on maternity leave at this time.  A small team dealing with not only the framing element but also involved in the preparation of paintings going on loan and being shipped abroad.  Ensuring they are ‘fit to travel’ as well as making sure they will survive in the gallery they are being loaned to. They are cleverly provided with their own ‘vacuum packed capsule’ within the glass and the frame.  More about this below.

Judy had just completed the frame for Deep Sea Fishing by James Clarke Hook (1819-1907) – it is now ready to go on loan to the Bulldog Trust (  for ‘Amongst Heroes: The Artist in Working Cornwall’ exhibtion.  Harriet went on to explain that the painting had been water damaged which had caused shrinkage, in turn this had created  a ‘tented’ effect of the paint on the canvas, rather like little ripples to you and I!  This had now been ’retarded’ and would no longer ‘distract’ the viewer by getting worse. The work had also undergone cleaning.  A ‘new’ frame has been used circa 1950’s, there is no record of the original.

John Gilbert’s paintings are all in frames as chosen by the artist. The gallery has a considerable collection of his works, as gifted by him and later by his brother.  All framed by Dolman* framemakers.

Judy mentioned Alma Tadema also designed all his frames for his paintings, alas not all his paintings sport them, and the gallery would just love to have the resources and time to reframe the paintings to his original design – how different they would look in their ‘bespoke’ frames !

Another painting with an interesting  ‘frame’ story is John Gilbert’s Ego et Rex Meus  - 1888. The frame was in such bad condition it had been 80% reconstructed. Most of it made from scratch using existing patterns/style of Dolman frames and remaking a moulded frame. A brilliant reconstruction made on the premises, such skill. Take a closer  look at it the next time your visit the gallery.

A question was asked regarding the Sunderland Frame surrounding Sir John Wyndham (London Gallery) - originally gilded.  Had it been painted over in black? Judy explained that over time gilding fades, especially in harsh modern lighting and wears away. An expensive repair job if you have twenty two frames to be re-gilded so in the C19th some of the frames were painted over in bronze paint, this oxidises over time and darkens, goes brown.  The strips of gilding you see in the top right hand corner of the frame was a ‘test’ by conservators to see how the gilt may have been applied originally.

All sealed up 'fit to travel'
Photo: Peter Sander
As mentioned previously paintings going out on loan are protected by a ‘sealed capsule’  so they can withstand changes in temperature and moisture. On our way out we saw Heart of Empire by Niels Muller Lund all sealed in with a weighty  41 kilo laminated glass (ordered from Germany) to the front, a polyester membrane which controls the temperature within and around the painting and silver backing and tape to keep it vacuum packed. The painting has of course been beautifully cleaned and is ready to travel to Yale in the U.S.A . It will be flown out shortly with a courier, a conservationist from one of the many galleries in the UK will accompany it (a shared scheme nationally as a cost saving strategy). 

Please note the Eve of St Agnes William Holman Hunt is now on tour, first to Moscow and then to Washington, should be back by the end of August.

Eve of St Agnes - On Tour
(c) Guildhall Art Gallery
Special thanks to the Conservation Department at the Guildhall Art Gallery for our visit arranged by CLGLA.                         

MissB will be taking a Guided Tour of the Gallery on Thursday 7th February at 11.00am. You can book on Eventbrite via Footprints of London                    

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