Go behind-the-scenes as we conserve Ian Fairweather’s paintings

 

In 1957, artist James Gleeson, then art critic at The Sun newspaper, wrote that the paintings of Ian Fairweather (1891-1974) would never last.1 Reputedly using whatever materials came to hand within his itinerant lifestyle, the paintings of Fairweather are renowned as much for their fragility as their beauty, and this is part of their appeal.

Fairweather lived and painted on Bribie Island over a period of 21 years from 1953 until his death — he was 60 when he settled in a grass hut in the bush, lit only by hurricane lamps, on the smallest and most northerly of three major sand islands in Moreton Bay, just an hour’s drive from Brisbane.

Ian Fairweather painting in his studio

Ian Fairweather painting in his studio on Bribie Island, 1972 / National Archives of Australia: A6135, K24/11/72/1

Materials

From 1958 Fairweather developed his late style using ‘plastic paints’ — in 1963 he recounted that he mostly used powder colour and poly vinyl acetate (PVA)2, however very little has been published on Fairweather’s materials and there is almost no reported medium analysis.

An initial examination of Fairweather’s late works in our collection revealed unstable paint and altered paint surfaces, with many artworks requiring reframing — as was with a previous treatment carried out on Head 1955. In order to plan a conservation approach to treat these paintings the QAGOMA’s Conservation section commenced a study to investigate materials and to develop suitable mounting and framing techniques.

Punch and Judy 1964

View of an area of lifting paint on Punch and Judy 1964. Previous application of glue in an unsuccessful repair is visible as shiny excess around the paint crack
Consolidating the surface
Ian Fairweather, Scotland/Australia 1891-1974 / Punch and Judy 1964 / Synthetic polymer paint and gouache on cardboard on composition board / 73 x 95cm / Gift of the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Foundation for the Arts through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2012. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Ian Fairweather/DACS. Copyright Agency

Alpha c.1951

Detail top left corner of Alpha c.1951 showing the fragile paint surface
Ian Fairweather, Scotland/Australia 1891-1974 / Alpha c.1951 / Gouache on cardboard / 75.6 x 50.1cm / Gift of the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Foundation for the Arts through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2012. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Ian Fairweather/DACS. Copyright Agency

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The story of Fairweather’s material use is long and complex. He formally trained at the Slade School in London, and his early works contain leached oil mediums. He began to avoid using oil paint in the late 1930s due to an allergic reaction. Thus, from 1939, he was looking for water-based matt and bodied paint.3 Suitable commercially available paints at this time would have included artist watercolours and gouache, decorator paints including casein and distemper, and poster colours made from cellulose. — water based synthetic paints were not yet available. War rationing and poverty would have also affected his material choices as interviews and letters describe his use of unusual materials from the 1940s until 1958, for example, soap, casein, Clag Paste and Reckitt’s Blue washing agent are mentioned.4 Paintings from this period are among the most fragile of Fairweather’s oeuvre.

Paint analysis was undertaken through the QAGOMA Centre for Contemporary Art Conservation utilising fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) for initial characterisation, as well as ultraviolet light imaging (UV), infrared red reflectography (IR) and industry research. A material theory that is being investigated is that of Murray Bail who proposed that Fairweather only started painting his late larger paintings from 1958 when water based dispersions were available to him.

Bus stop 1965

Visible light / Ian Fairweather, Scotland/Australia 1891-1974 / Bus stop 1965 / Gouache on cardboard on board / 72.5 x 97.5cm / Gift of the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Foundation for the Arts through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2012. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Ian Fairweather/ DACS/ Copyright Agency
View of Bus stop 1965. UV illumination shows the autofluorescence of colours and medium. The brigh pink fluorescence is likely to be alazarin crimson in patches and the purple reflectance shows titanium based pigments in the grey and white paint.

Research to date has revealed the earliest use of synthetic polymer in a painting from 1956, this being an oil modified alkyd paint which is likely to be solvent based. Material analysis supports his predominant use of poly vinyl acetate from 1959, but also revealed his continued use of alkyd as well as a yet uncharacterised paint media. FTIR analysis of media from pre 1956 paintings has proved difficult with samples not identifiable due to the paint being under bound. However, a significant finding is that Fairweather was not exclusively using water based paints at this time.

Trotting race 1956

Paint cross section from Trotting race 1956 showing the mixtures of pigments and fillers which make up the paint. The binder has been characterised as oil modified alkyd, Photographed (x40 magnification)
Ian Fairweather, Scotland/Australia 1891-1974 / Trotting race c.1956 / Gouache on cardboard / 57 x 50.6cm (irreg.) / Gift of the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Foundation for the Arts through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2011. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Ian Fairweather/ DACS/ Copyright Agency

Fairweather’s technique continues to elude a simple understanding. He was an artist whose work, including the palette, was directly influenced by the availability of materials. This initial research confirms that the fragility of his paintings varies enormously depending on their date, the support, the type of paint materials used and environmental and conservation history. Even though the late paintings are more robust than works from the 1940s and early 1950s, the way Fairweather used paint, what he added and how he adjusted the medium has not rendered all late paintings inherently stable.

Mounting

Two techniques have been developed to prepare Fairweather’s paintings for display.  Both techniques — cradle mounting and sink mounting — have been designed to manage the fragile nature of the artworks.

An assessment of our Fairweather paintings revealed that most of the painted surfaces extended to the edges of the supports. Some artworks were also found not square and others with quite irregular edges — interestingly, in numerous paintings the artist has used a painted border as a framing device.

The main objectives that were addressed in developing new mounting techniques were:

  • To reduce the impact of the frame on the delicate, vulnerable edges of the paintings
  • To ensure that the frame glazing never comes in contact with the paint surface
  • To reveal as much of the painted surface as possible, given that the artist frequently painted up to the very edge of the support
  • To create a sound working edge for framing

To prepare paintings that have been adhered to Masonite for framing, wooden Western Red Cedar ‘cradles’ were manufactured measuring 1cm larger on all sides than the artworks. The artworks were then carefully attached to the cradles using a Velcro system. When a painting is attached, the cradle acts as a ridged auxiliary support taking the distributed weight and pressure of the frame away from the delicate edges of the painting support and the paint film at the edges.

Bus stop 1965

The verso of Bus stop 1965 being prepared for mounting. Removable Japanese tissue tabs are adhered in locations where Velcro will later be attached. The cradle is in the background and in this case required a plywood insert that fits within previously attached Masonite corners on the verso of the artwork

Paintings on paper supports, such as cardboard and newspaper that have not been adhered to solid secondary supports are some of the most vulnerable to paint cracking and damage, this is because the paper support responds to changes in humidity and temperature by cockling and bending. The paint layers are not as flexible as the paper support and consequently can crack — these works are also difficult to handle as the paper is flexible and the paint is not.

Preparation of these works for framing required the use of thick acid free cardboard auxiliary supports, attached using Japanese tissue tabs and starch paste. In a similar method to the cradle, the cardboard was larger all the way around the perimeter of the artwork, allowing the cardboard support to take the pressure of the frame. Once tabbed to a cardboard support, the works on paper were fitted with a sink mount. A sink mount is a surrounding edge of cardboard that is high enough to allow for any dimensional changes in the paper, essentially the sink mount acts as a spacer to keep the glazing from touching the paint surface.

Trotting race 1956

Trotting race 1956 detail showing rim of sink mount protecting the fragile painting

Framing

Fairweather left the choice of selecting picture frames for his paintings to others. Very little information is available in regard to the way in which Fairweather envisaged how his paintings would be framed or displayed. All of his artworks were sent to dealers or galleries unframed thus entrusting the decision of selecting profiles, styles and finishes to a second party. The main sources of information documenting the styles of picture frames used on Fairweather’s paintings exist mainly in exhibition installation photographs, oral records or on paintings in both public and private collections.

The frame styles used on these artworks were contemporary to the period. The picture framing industry of the early to mid-20th century was vastly different to that of the 19th century with the use of gold leaf and carved or applied ornament being replaced with painted finishes, plain mouldings and linen slips. There was a shift towards simplicity of design throughout the 20th century away from earlier heavier styles of the preceding centuries.

Technological advancements in manufacturing techniques and materials influenced architecture, interior design and consequently picture frames. Gold leaf, the traditional finish on picture frames for centuries, was being replaced with other decorative surface finishes such as aluminum and silver leaf, painted and textured finishes, the use of fabrics and natural finishes sealed with polishes or wax, all designed to harmonize with modern interior spaces.

Mid-20th century modern design introduced profiles and shapes to picture frame mouldings that retained some elements of historical framing vernacular while eliminating all forms of applied ornament, thus exposing the frame’s simple structure. Original period frame styles found on artworks by Fairweather epitomize this modern aesthetic, consisting of simple linear mouldings, usually one, two or three sections of varying profiles either used individually or in combination.

Picture frame mouldings were constructed locally from native and imported species of timber, mostly from the Araucaria genus, such as the local Hoop pine. These mouldings were purchased ‘in the raw’ — having no finish — directly from the manufacturer with the mouldings then being cut to size. The frames were mostly painted with colours selected by dealers to harmonize with the tonal values of paintings or left in the raw, being either waxed or polished — occasionally combinations of the two finishes can be found on a frame. Throughout Fairweather’s artistic career the mid-20th century modern aesthetic influenced the way in which his paintings were housed and ultimately the way in which they were presented to the public.

Following research into frame styles for the QAGOMA collection of Ian Fairweather paintings, the Conservation Framer designed and manufactured 10 frame sample profiles and finishes to suit his paintings. A selection of these profiles were then used to craft reproduction frames for the Fairweather paintings on display.

Anne Carter is Paintings Conservator, QAGOMA
Samantha Shellard is Paper Conservator, QAGOMA
Robert Zilli is Conservation Framer, QAGOMA

1 Gleeson, James. ‘An artist minus a soul: Fine work spoilt’. Sun, 20 November 1957.
2 26 Nov 1965 transcripts of interview between Hazel de berg, Bribie Island, National Library of Australia. Quoted in Bail, Murray. Fairweather. 2nd edn., Murdoch Books, Sydney, 2009. p265
3 26 Nov 1965 transcripts of interview between Hazel de berg, Bribie Island, National Library of Australia. Quoted in Bail, Murray. Fairweather. 2nd edn., Murdoch Books, Sydney, 2009.  p265.
4 Bail, Murray. Fairweather. 2nd edn., Murdoch Books, Sydney, 2009. p266

A selection of frame sample profiles designed for the paintings of Ian Fairweather in the QAGOMA collection

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A selection of Ian Fairweather’s works are on permanent display in the Australian Art Collection, Queensland Art Gallery (QAG)

Featured image: Looking for clues to date the works
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Secrets revealed: The Master of Frankfurt

 

The Master of Frankfurt’s Virgin and Child with Saint James the Pilgrim, Saint Catherine and the Donor with Saint Peter c.1496 is a small Netherlandish devotional panel dating from the end of the fifteenth century, the oldest European work in the Collection.

The identity of Flemish Renaissance painter The Master of Frankfurt is unknown, however he is defined as the artist who painted the Saint Anne Altarpiece for the Dominican Church in Frankfurt, consecrated in 1492. Although his name suggests otherwise, he is firmly associated with the Guild of St Luke and the city of Antwerp. Possible identities for the artist are Conrad Fyol, Hendrik van Wueluwe or Jan de Vos, with van Wueluwe seen as the most likely candidate. He is one of many anonymous artists identifiable by their painting style but not by name.

DELVE DEEPER: Read more about our Conservation projects

The Master of Frankfurt, The Netherlands 1460 d.c.1520-c.33 / Virgin and Child with Saint James the Pilgrim, Saint Catherine and the Donor with Saint Peter c.1496 / Oil on oak panel / 69 x 55.2cm / Purchased 1980 with funds from Utah Foundation through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

The scene illustrates a ‘holy conversation’ portraying the Virgin and Child with selected saints. St Catherine is receiving a wedding ring from the infant Jesus who sits on the Virgin’s knee. St James the Pilgrim kneels behind St Catherine. A donor, who likely paid for the painting, sits at the prayer desk turning the pages of a Book of Hours. St Peter stands behind him and a small dog gazes faithfully at the donor.

Elaborate religious iconography is signified by simple elements of the painting; for example, the dog indicates faithfulness and the daisies, purity. This language and the identity of each saint would have been easily understood by a contemporary audience.

Conservation findings: X-radiography

The painting though in good condition has obviously undergone several major restorations in its history. The oak panel has been thinned down to approximately 5mm, cradled and impregnated with wax on the reverse. The cross-braces of the cradle can be seen on the X-radiograph of the panel.

X-Radiograph

Initial technical analysis of this painting using X-radiography 1 revealed that the male donor seated at the prayer desk was originally a woman. The X-ray image shows the veil and head of the original female donor or saint underneath the head of the current donor. A 1902 exhibition catalogue described the male donor wearing a man’s black coat with white fur trim. This black coat has now disappeared, most likely removed as ‘overpaint’ during a past restoration, revealing a woman’s brown gown. Now a man’s head remains on a woman’s gowned body.

X-Radiograph and colour overlay

Infra-red reflectography

Infra-red2 study of this painting shows that the initial underdrawing is quite different from the painting we see on the surface. This is an exciting discovery as paintings from the late fifteenth century usually show little deviation from their careful underdrawing. Old master oil painting technique involved the build up of transparent layers of paint on a reflective white ground, and changes were avoided as they could be seen through the layers above.

It appears that the figure seated at the prayer desk was originally accompanied by St Joseph and St Cornelius. St Joseph has become St James the Pilgrim by overpainting his bare head with a shaggy hat and scallop shell, removing his shoes and adding a long staff. By overpainting his horn with a key, St Cornelius has become St Peter. As the donor figure changed, so did the symbolism of the whole painting. The identity of the original donor is not yet known, but ongoing research may answer this pivotal question.

As well as highlighting changes to the symbolism within the painting, the infra-red reflectogram illustrates the underdrawing style. The lines are generally confident and fully resolved with no searching for contours evident. This suggests tracing from an existing pattern and, given that the Master of Frankfurt managed a busy studio, this is likely.

Studies of other underdrawings by the Master of Frankfurt reveal that he usually used a brush rather than dry charcoal, which appears consistent with the Gallery’s painting. Other consistent stylistic traits include the folds in the drapery being drawn with straight lines; parallel marks for areas of shadow; and the use of two simple lines indicating eyes, lips and a nose, with the upper lip given as a broad stroke. This information is critical to placing the work authentically in the late fifteenth century and to the studio of the Master of Frankfurt.

Infra-red reflectogram

Ultra-violet light imaging

An inspection under ultra-violet light 3 reveals splits in the panel and dark areas of retouching, probably from a 1959 restoration.

Ultra violet image

Paint cross-section analysis

A paint sample the size of a pin-head was taken from the edge of the panel near St Peter’s glove for paint cross-section analysis 4. Looking at the cross-section from the bottom up, the thick white ground layer was found to consist of calcium carbonate which is typical of a fifteenth-century Netherlandish chalk ground. Usually the drawing layer is directly on top of the ground, as we see in this cross-section. The thin black line above the ground consists of carbon black. There is usually a very thin oil priming layer on top of the ground and underdrawing so that the underdrawing remains visible. As we see in this cross-section there appears to be a thin white layer consisting of lead white and calcium carbonate above the drawing layer. The blue layer above this is the image layer and is mostly likely to be azurite. The layers above are probably later restorations.

Conclusion

Physical evidence of pentimenti (a visible trace of earlier painting beneath a layer or layers of paint where the artist has changed their mind) is a rare and always fascinating find. Research has highlighted changes previously invisible, allowing a reassessment of the iconography of the panel. Particularly important is the detail now available of the underdrawing line. Distinction of the possible use of a brush and some freehand drawing implies variance from a speedily traced pattern, and gives some credence to part of the drawing being undertaken directly by the Master of Frankfurt.

John Hook is former Senior Conservator, QAGOMA
Anne Carter is Conservator, Paintings, QAGOMA
Mandy Smith is Senior Conservation Technican, QAGOMA

All infra-red imaging was undertaken by Mandy Smith (Senior Conservation Technician QAGOMA). This presentation is based on research by John Hook (former Senior Conservator, Paintings) who examined this painting using X-radiography and infra-red photography, prepared all paint cross sections and discovered most of the changes described. Research collated by Anne Carter. This blog is an edited extract from Carter, Anne (2005) ‘Donors and saints: An examination of a panel by the Master of Frankfurt’ Melbourne Journal of Technical Studies in Art, Vol 2, Underdrawing, Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, The University of Melbourne

Glossary
1 X-radiography | X-rays are the part of the electromagnetic spectrum invisible to the eye and useful for mapping materials of different atomic weight. The larger the atoms from which a material is made, the whiter that material appears on an X-ray film. X-rays are particularly useful for imaging lead white design areas in paintings, and metal armature inside sculpture. There are conservators licensed to undertake radiography of art works at QAGOMA.
2 Infra-red reflectography | Infra-red energy is heat, and it occurs at wavelengths longer than 760 nanometres – just beyond red in the electromagnetic spectrum. Infra-red imaging relies on the selective absorption of heat by pigments and is most useful for detecting underdrawing. Many earth-based pigments (for example, charcoal in drawing layers) are visible using an infra-red detector. At the Gallery we use a Hammamatsu Vidicon™ system.
3 Ultra-violet photography | Ultra-violet light is short wavelength energy, just beyond violet in the electromagnetic spectrum and invisible to our eyes. Many materials show autofluorescence when exposed to ultra-violet light. Aged natural resin varnishes characteristically fluoresce a greenish colour, and new oil paint remains dark under ultra-violet light, so the placement of new additions on top of old varnish can often be detected using ultra-violet inspection.
4 Paint cross-section analysis | Sometimes it is possible to remove a small chip of paint from the edge of a painting using a microscalpel. This chip of paint (usually less than ½ mm in diameter) can be embedded in polyester resin and cut through as a cross-section to reveal important information about paint layers, the artist’s technique, and the age of pigments used. These samples can be analysed using optical microscopy in normal light and ultra-violet illumination and imaged up to 100 000x using a scanning electron microscope (SEM). Inorganic pigment analysis can be undertaken using energy dispersive X-ray microanalysis (EDX) through the scanning electron microscope (SEM). Various organic analysis methods including fourier transform infra-red spectroscopy (FTIR) are also available.

Delve deeper into the collection

attrib. to Lucas Cranach the Elder, Germany 1472-1553 / Three Apostles (a fragment of a larger work) c.1515-20 / Oil on wood panel / 27.6 x 40cm / Purchased 1983 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

Infra-red reflectography

Ultra-violet light imaging

Lucas Cranach the Elder

attrtib to Jan Provoost, Flanders b.c.1465-1529 / The Annunciation 1520 / Oil on wood panel / 52 x 24.5cm / Bequest of Gwyneth Jane Hulsen in memory of her late husband, Heinrich Hulsen 1995 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

Ultra-violet light imaging

Jan Provoost

Featured image: X-Radiograph
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Go behind-the-scenes as we conserve Anthony Alder’s ‘Red-tailed Black Cockatoos’

 

Large scale paintings from Queensland’s Colonial period are extremely rare. (Red-tailed Black Cockatoos) by Anthony Alder (1838-1915) dated c.1895 shows a male and female pair of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus banksii), also known as Banksian or Banks’ Black Cockatoo, native to Australia and found in eucalyptus woodlands or along water courses. This species has disappeared from much of its former range in northern New South Wales and southeast Queensland.

Alder was the eighth of ten children, his father, Anthony Alder Snr, was a taxidermist and his mother Elizabeth Arundell was a naturalist. Alder trained in the family’s taxidermy and casting business ‘Alder and Company’ in Islington, London before he arrived in Brisbane in early 1862, and probably worked for the taxidermy business ‘Arundell and Alder’ before travelling to Somerset, Cape York Peninsula in 1864, where he spent some time collecting specimens.

The Old Queensland Museum, Brisbane

The Exhibition Building when it was occupied by the Queensland Art Gallery from 1930 / Reproduced courtesy: John Oxley Library, Brisbane

Illustrations of birds in the ‘Queenslander’

Illustrated from the Christmas supplement of The Queenslander, December 8, 1906, p. 61 / Collection: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Brisbane

Alder was the most prominent taxidermist in colonial Queensland and from 1907, was widely admired for his dioramas which he painted for the Queensland Museum when it occupied the Exhibition Building. While taxidermist to the Museum he created (and painted) several dioramas which remained on display until the old Museum building closed in November 1985, before moving to the Cultural Centre. 

He also contributed a series of illustrations of birds to the Queenslander from 1895 to 1896 and was regarded as most important Australian painter of birds after Silvester Diggles (1817-80). 

Staff of the Queensland Museum, 1912

The staff of the Queensland Museum, 1912. Standing L to R: ‘Chips’ Greensill, attendant/carpenter; William Baillie, attendant; Henry Hacker, entomologist; Eileen Murphy, stenographer; Clarice Sinnamon, librarian; Anthony Alder, taxidermist; Benjamin Harrison, chief attendant; E. Varey, attendant. Seated L to R: Heber A. Longman, assistant scientist; Ronald Hamlyn-Harris, director; James Douglas Ogilby, ichtyologist. Reclining: Tom Marshall, cadet / Courtesy: Queensland Museum, Brisbane

Red-tailed Black Cockatoos

(Red-tailed Black Cockatoos) entered the QAGOMA collection in 2014 after spending some time stored in a shed in the Warwick region of Queensland (160km west of Brisbane). Likely from its time, the painting was subject to animal droppings and to extremes of climate, as the paint surface had extensive dirt and bird droppings, some paint was lost and the paint was generally cracked. The painting had been varnished, but the varnish had become very yellowed, uneven and brittle and desiccated from age. Luckily, there was no damage to the canvas nor the painting’s stretcher, and on arrival at the Gallery, the work was received framed in its slip only — the outer decorative part of the frame was missing.

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Before conservation

Before conservation / Anthony Alder, Australia 1838-1915 / (Red-tailed Black Cockatoos) c.1895 / Oil on canvas / 90.7 x 70cm / Purchased 2014. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

The painting showed excessive drips, as you can clearly see, and the white strip in the center of the painting is primer where the paint has been lost due to corrosion. Bird droppings are very acidic (pH 3.5 to 4.5), the (mostly) uric acid initially begins to burn and etch the paint’s surface, the longer it remains, the greater the damage. Dirt and discolouration can also be seen in the sky.

The reverse of (Red-tailed Black Cockatoos) shows us the artist used unprimed cotton canvas tacked to a key-able stretcher, dirt and insect droppings can also be seen. A major part of the restoration involved initial cleaning of the painting before the varnish and other dirt layers could be removed. Cleaning was carried out under the microscope and different cleaning systems were used for different types of droppings.

Conservator, Anne Carter working under the microscope

Detail of insect droppings. Note how the insect droppings have affected the paint – etching it away.

As the painting had been varnished, some droppings could be mechanically removed by carefully breaking them and pushing them off the varnish using a very tiny scalpel.

Other droppings were very hard and required the use of conservation gels and other techniques to make them soft enough to remove.

Damage to the paint can be seen in the black of the cockatoo’s feathers, the paint has been etched away.

Near the artist signature, droppings on the paint surface show the white uric acid as a perimeter of white around the dark dropping. Fortunately these could be removed without any damage to the underlying paint.

In long streaks, droppings had also caused damage, where the paint was eaten away revealing the white ground of the painting, as can be seen in the details of the feathers.

Under the microscope, in close up of around 20x magnification, you can see residual droppings (brown) on the left, and then an area where the droppings have fallen off and taken paint with them (right). Residual droppings had to be very slowly and carefully removed so as to not dislodge any more paint during the cleaning process.

Age cracking can also be seen, together with tiny paint losses. This type of paint cracking can be exacerbated by exposing an oil painting to fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity as the canvas support is flexible and can swell and contract as the humidity changes, but as the paint is less flexible, it cracks.

Cracking is most obvious in areas of high canvas tension such as the corners, as seen here in the top right corner before treatment.

Once all the dirt and droppings were removed, the discoloured varnish layer could be removed using solvents, the varnish removal has begun in the top right corner, revealing a bluer sky under the yellow varnish.

More varnish is removed in the sky, cleaned from the right top corner.

Once all the dirt and varnish was removed, a new conservation grade varnish was applied to the surface by brush to saturate out all the colours. This is done with the painting lying flat.

Once the varnish has set, re-integration of the paint losses is undertaken using a tiny sable brush and conservation grade resin and dry pigments. Pigments are mixed to match the colour and gloss of the original paint. This in-painting is fully reversible as it is soluble in solvents that do not affect the paint layers.

Once the in-painting is completed, another layer of varnish is sprayed on so that the black cockatoos become gloriously glossy and saturated again. The age cracks in the paint within the sky are not reversible, but the paint is now stable and the painting is ready for its new frame and for display!

The moral of the story is that it’s not such a good idea to leave your oil paintings in a shed where temperatures can be extreme, and if you do need to store them, its best to wrap them safely to avoid any damage.

Anne Carter is Conservator, Paintings, QAGOMA

After conservation

After conservation treatment with new frame / Anthony Alder, Australia 1838-1915 / (Red-tailed Black Cockatoos) c.1895 / Oil on canvas / 90.7 x 70cm / Purchased 2014. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

Featured image: Once the varnish has set, re-integration of the paint losses is undertaken using a tiny sable brush and conservation grade resin and dry pigments. Pigments are mixed to match the colour and gloss of the original paint. This in-painting is fully reversible as it is soluble in solvents that do not affect the paint layers.

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Ever wondered how we move an unframed painting?

 

“Artists handle their works without gloves, so why do Gallery staff need to wear white gloves to handle paintings once they enter a Gallery’s collection?” I hear you ask.

It is sometimes said that in Museums and Galleries we work in a parallel universe; a basic premise of collection care and conservation at QAGOMA often being the maintenance of works in the condition they left the artist’s studio. No matter how an artist handled their work during creation, once a work enters our Collection, it is handled with utmost care.

New fingerprints, dents and other scuffs are unacceptable and are minimised during handling through a few simple but effective measures. For paintings, preventive conservation measures include handling frames for unframed paintings, backing boards and handles, and of course wearing gloves to prevent acids and other oils from your hands dirtying the edges.

DIVE DEEPER: More conservation projects unveiled

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During our recent Collection Storage Upgrade, the Queensland Art Gallery’s collection storage space expanded in line with architect Robin Gibson’s original intent for a mezzanine storage level within the existing collection space, because of this over 1300 paintings required relocation.

The method of movement for most include stacking paintings together on trolleys. Paintings are individually assessed over a number of weeks, front and back, by a paintings conservator to determine which of the four preventive measures are to be taken to ensure safe movement:
1. placement in a handling frame, box or stillage to protect unframed paintings and delicate gilded frames;
2. soft wrapping of delicate surfaces to prevent scratching;
3. a cardboard only interleaf for more sturdy framed paintings; and
4. single transport only, for very delicate works that could not be stacked.

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Assessing paintings for relocation needs

Dedicated teams of art handlers work methodically through the list of works to prepare them for the move; QAGOMA workshop produced handling frames and stillages and technical staff fitted out the paintings. All artworks require custom storage solutions and technical problem solving to ensure they can be safely moved. In the case of Roger Kemp’s Tapestry – Tableau (Vertical and horizontal concept) 1972, this work was fitted into a handling frame.

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Collection storage relocation teams preparing works for transit

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Collection storage relocation teams preparing works for transit, here attaching hangers to the revers of a handling frame

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Moving Tapestry – Tableau (Vertical and horizontal concept) 1972 by Roger Kemp, Australia 1908-87, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, Gift of Mrs Merle Kemp 1994, Collection: Queensland Art Gallery, © The artist

A handling frame is a temporary wooden frame that is fitted to a painting using clips on the reverse. The handling frame is removed for display, and the clips folded in so that they are not visible. The painting is returned to the handling frame for transport after display. The handling frame enables large and fragile paintings to be moved without touching their surface. Sometimes lids are added to the handling frame for works which are light sensitive – those which contain fluorescent colours or paper collage for example. Some handling frames are also wrapped in plastic to protect dust settling on soft paint surfaces.

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Moving paintings onto their new temporary storage racks using handling frame protection.

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Paintings stacked in trolleys in their handling frames during the mezzanine move.

Roger Kemp’s Tapestry – Tableau (Vertical and horizontal concept) 1972 was inspected and because of its size, and its vulnerable paint at edges, it was fitted into a handling frame for protection. The painting came into the collection in 1994 unstretched and was stretched onto a temporary strainer for consideration for acquisition. In 1999 the painting was restretched onto a new custom made western red cedar stretcher by Gallery conservation staff.

The painting, due to its large size, had also suffered from difficult handling: its canvas was dented and there were some creases and some loose paint at the edges – all of which was treated at the time of stretching. Following stretching, a grey acid free cardboard backing board was added by screwing into the strainer to prevent accidental impact to the back of the canvas. In preparation for fitting into a handling frame, clips were added to the reverse of the stretcher.

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The reverse of Roger Kemp’s Tapestry – Tableau (Vertical and horizontal concept) 1972 highlighting the bottom left corner showing that the tacking edge does not continue all the way around the underside of the painting to the back – creating a vulnerable canvas edge. The grey board backing is also seen in this cornet detail. White cloth cotton tape can be seen underneath the staples used when the work was restretchd in 1999. This tape prevents the staples damaging paint.

The clips are a multi-purpose foldable brass fitting for paintings, they are an Australian invention and are now used worldwide for the transport of paintings in handling frames. The fittings are designed so that they can be screwed to the reverse of the painting on one side, folded out and bolted to a handling frame on the other side. The handling frame can then be slid into a crate, wrapped, or moved on a trolley. In this way, a painting can be packed with nothing touching its surface. Previously the clips had been added to the reverse of the stretcher of Roger Kemp’s painting and our video shows the next stage of fitting the work into the handling frame.

Job completed, the painting can now be safely moved.

Anne Carter is Conservator, Paintings, QAGOMA

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This delicate gilded frame is held into a handling frame using clips.

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The materials of Ian Fairweather: 1953-1974

 

The image of the artist working in his Bribie Island hut was taken late in Ian Fairweather’s career. Due to ill health he had virtually stopped painting by 1972. This image, plus images taken in the 1960s show the artist working with many open tins of commercially made house paints. Paintings were either worked horizontally on a table or, as in this image, vertically on a home-made easel. The larger, late works from 1958 are characterised by a myriad of paint drips showing through in the underlayers, with drier brushstrokes over the top. The drips are likely to be from brushing on a fluid medium while the works are on an easel. You can see the residue of drips along the bottom edge of the easel in this photograph.

Ian Fairweather painting in his studio on Bribie Island, 1972 / National Archives of Australia: A6135, K24/11/72/1

Robert Walker, Australia 1922–2007 / Ian Fairweather (from ‘Hut’ series) 1966, printed 2006 / Gelatin silver photograph / 39.8 x 29.3cm / Purchased 2007. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Robert Walker/Copyright Agency, 2019

How was Ian Fairweather’s choice of materials connected to Australian paint industry developments in the 1950s and 1960s? In an interview with oral historian Hazel de Berg in 1963 (Ian Fairweather interviewed by Hazel de Berg in 1963 and 1965, in the Hazel de Berg collection [sound recording], held at the National Library of Australia), Fairweather revealed that he had become allergic to oil paint in 1939, and did not use oils after this time. Murray Bail in his book Fairweather (2009, Murdoch Books) theorises that Fairweather only started painting his late larger paintings from 1958 — almost 20 years later — when water based synthetic polymer paint dispersions were available to him. While on Bribie Island, he bought many of his painting materials from the local hardware store. Recent research by conservators at QAGOMA has been to look at the question of what painting materials were available to Ian Fairweather while he was on Bribie Island.

Anne Carter is Conservator, Paintings at QAGOMA

Ian Fairweather, Scotland/Australia 1891-1974 / Composition I 1962 / Synthetic polymer paint and gouache on cardboard on hardboard / 67.6 x 83.5cm / Gift of the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Foundation for the Arts through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2012. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Ian Fairweather/ DACS/ Copyright Agency

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Feature image detail: Ian Fairweather Composition I 1962

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Cleaning Ian Fairweather’s ‘Head’

 

The cleaning of paintings is a fascinating subject. Changes in approaches to conservation practice mean that cleaning now often involves varnish removal.

Traditional conservation practice commonly involves removing an old discoloured varnish from a paint layer and the changes are often visually dramatic. Natural resin varnishes such as dammar and mastic turn yellow over time, turning blue skies green, and white drapery a dirty yellow, which can be transformed with cleaning.

John Richardson’s seminal article following the Picasso retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1980 titled The Crimes against the Cubists (New York review of Books 30, no.10 (1983):32-34) was one of the first to describe the alterations caused by varnishing of intentionally matt paint surfaces, and describes the ways art history can be changed by the simple act of varnishing.

After conservation treatment

Ian Fairweather, Scotland/Australia 1891-1974 / Head c.1955 / Gouache on cardboard / Gift of the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Foundation for the Arts through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2010. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Ian Fairweather/ DACS/ Copyright Agency

Conservators at QAGOMA have been lucky to treat some extraordinary paintings by Ian Fairweather. On one of these paintings Head c.1955, the thin cardboard support of the painting had been adhered to a solid support (chipboard), and the painting had been varnished. Fixing the thin cardboard support to a more solid support, although not generally advisable or reversible, is not such a bad idea. We know that Fairweather sometimes used paints that did not stick very well and had the tendency to crumble. Paintings that remain on their thin cardboard supports are now the most fragile.

Head c.1955 is likely painted in a combination of polyvinyl acetate house paints and other media and fillers, and is somewhat robust compared to many of his other paintings. Conservation treatment involved carefully checking the paint surface under various illuminations (visible light, Ultraviolet light and Infrared reflectography) to identify repairs and weak parts of the painting. It was checked under the microscope for paint instability, and flaking paint was consolidated with a conservation-grade glue.

It was decided that the varnish, although well-intended, was not original to the painting, so tests were undertaken to remove it. This is a slow and careful process, but a satisfying one.

Ultraviolet light image

The Ultraviolet light image showing the blue fluorescence of the wax varnish covering the paint.

Varnish removal process

During the varnish removal process, solvents are applied through Japanese tissue to remove the varnish while protecting the paint surface.

Varnishing matt paintings was most often undertaken to hide damages and repairs and to make the painting more dramatic and slick. As you can see in these images, the paint surface revealed after cleaning is more subtle in its colours than the varnished surface.

A large area of overpaint disguising damage was also identified. In this case the varnish residue left under the overpaint assisted in protecting the original paint while the overpaint was mechanically removed. You can see here, with the overpaint removed, the repair was much larger than the damage. This damage was filled with paper pulp and inpainted with watercolour to match the gloss of the surface.

Overpaint removal

During the overpaint removal, the first image in this series shows the dark brown overpaint, the second the overpaint removed and the third the paper pulp fill and the beginning of inpainting using watercolour. The last image shows the loss after treatment.

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Featured image detail: Ian Fairweather Head c.1955

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