The oil paintings of Isaac Walter Jenner (1836-1902) are executed in a fine and detailed manner which invite close and careful viewing. Like many artists, Jenner used sketching or ‘underdrawing’ to develop subjects beneath oil paint layers. Here, we highlight the artist’s style and detail some of the discoveries found when we look at Jenner’s preparation for painting using infrared reflectography (IRR imaging)1.
Infrared imaging of Jenner’s paintings show that the artist most often prepared a very careful underdrawing. Generally, this underdrawing appears detailed, confident and strong, and in some cases shows evidence of grid lines and possible tracing from a pre-prepared composition.
Isaac Walter Jenner ‘Hamilton Reach, Brisbane’ 1885
An early painting, Hamilton Reach 1885 (illustrated) provides an example of the artist’s intricate drawing preparation underneath the paint. We can see that Jenner has laid down complex outlining of the foliage, buildings and ships, however this is not explorative or sketchy, and given its confidence and evenness of line, appears to have been traced or reinforced over a sketch.
However, the artist does not always contain the final painted composition to the underdrawing outlines — as seen in Hamilton Reach, in the way the tree on the far left does not align with the outlines of the preparation. Here the final painted composition of the tree appears in IRR imaging as a darker shadowy image — Jenner has decided to paint the tree larger in size than his under sketch.
Isaac Walter Jenner ‘Queensland natives, the Currigee Oyster Company’s Station, Stradbroke Island, Moreton Bay’ 1897
Queensland natives, the Currigee Oyster Company’s Station, Stradbroke Island, Moreton Bay 1897 (illustrated) is one of Jenner’s later paintings. It again shows beautifully resolved and confident underdrawing, especially of the distant mountain range.
Details of this painting taken at high magnification — with the camera closer to the artwork — indicate that lines may have been traced from a previous drawing and later reinforced with a hard drawing medium.
You can see in the detail of the mountain ranges where the bold drawing medium sits on top of finer underdrawing lines indicating an initial soft sketch later reinforced.
Similarly, the figures on the raft appear to have had their underdrawing reinforced.
The foliage in Queensland natives, the Currigee Oyster Company’s Station, Stradbroke Island, Moreton Bay 1897 remains sketchy and is not as well defined as it is in Hamilton Reach, Brisbane 1885. It can also be seen that a straight edge has been used to draw the outlines of the architecture and Jenner has also added painted figures in front of the hut that do not appear in the underdrawing. This indicates that the figures were a later addition to the composition.
Other design features present in the final painting, but which are not evident in the underdrawing include the fisherman with boat in the foreground. Like the rescaled tree in Hamilton Reach, 1885, this figure appears as a shadowy painted addition under IRR imaging without a drawn outline. Demarcation of the water’s edge runs right through this figure — another indication that he was a later addition.
Isaac Walter Jenner ‘Brisbane River, Bulimba Reach’ 1894
In Jenner’s Brisbane River, Bulimba Reach 1894 (illustrated), we see another example of a bold confident underdrawing. In this painting, some lines have become visible through thinly painted areas of light-coloured paint. For example, in visible light, underdrawing can be seen through the paint demarcating the outline of the clouds in the sky.
Investigation into the painting via cross section by Gillian Osmond, (Conservator, Paintings) also found evidence of the underdrawing layer between the ground and layers of paint. In this cross section (illustrated), the drawing layer can be seen as a broken dark line sandwiched between layers of light-coloured ground below and paint above. Tiny, coloured pigment particles can also be seen in this cross section mixed into the white paint and these pigment particles are what give the paint its pink colour.
Isaac Walter Jenner ‘Brisbane River, Garden Reach from near dry dock looking down river’ 1894
Brisbane River, Garden Reach from near dry dock looking down river 1894 (illustrated) shows underdrawing in which Jenner’s deliberately applied lines appear ‘broken’ and perhaps show evidence of the use of an eraser to reduce their density. Fine detail such as the ends of the sawn logs showing age rings and radial splits is also evident in his preparation technique.
Isaac Walter Jenner ‘HMS Victory at Portsmouth’ c.1881
HMS Victory at Portsmouth 1881 (illustrated) shows evidence of a grid — visible under IRR imaging in the top right corner of the painting — this usually means that the underdrawing was copied from a sketch at a different scale. The underdrawing is also precise with emphasis on perspective and the lines appear to have been ruled using a straight edge. This demonstrates planning of the complicated patterns of masts and rigging and the detailed features of HMS Victory, including its receding sets of windows/portholes.
Anne Carter is Conservator, Paintings, QAGOMA
Endnote 1 How we see underdrawing – about infrared imaging. If drawn in a carbon-based medium such as charcoal which absorbs heat (infrared radiation), underdrawing can be revealed beneath layers of paint using an infrared camera. The infrared camera has a detector sensitive to heat. Images produced through infrared camera collection are black and white and look like the drawings themselves. They are often grainy and low resolution due to the capabilities of the infrared cameras. (IRR Images captured and compiled using a Hamamatsu Vidicon Infrared camera by Anne Carter, Mandy Smith, Natasha Harth, Gillian Osmond, Rebecca Negri, Ruby Awburn, Emily Kelleher)
Australian artist Isaac Walter Jenner (1836–1902) painted Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador in 1893 and reworked it in 1895 (illustrated). The grand history painting depicts the search led by British naval officer, hydrographer, and explorer Sir Edward Belcher (1799–1877) to rescue the ill-fated 1845 British expedition by Sir John Franklin (1786–1847) which set out to find the fabled Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The tragedy captured popular imagination during the nineteenth century.
Franklin’s two ships, the Terror and the Erebus, were last sighted by whalers in Baffin Bay just north of Cape Chudleigh, Canada. In 1852, Belcher led a search expedition, abandoned in 1854 after four of his five ships became icebound, he and most of his crew returned to England on the last ship, the North Star.
Franklin search expedition by Captain Edward Belcher 1852
Regardless of the paintings subject matter being of historical significance, and the importance of the work to the Queensland Art Gallery’s founding Collection, of particular interest here are the birds that Jenner painted in the lower right portion of the painting (detail illustrated). As we are not that familiar with northern hemisphere seabirds, we welcome any help from twitchers and ornithologists to identify the array of birds depicted, or update us on our research.
Detail highlighting birds
Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador was first exhibited at the Queensland Art Society exhibition of 1893 as Cape Chudley, Labrador (illustrated). Jenner then reworked the painting before presenting it as a gift to the Queensland National Art Gallery in 1895.
Jenner’s forbidding seascape was one of three paintings donated to the Queensland National Art Gallery for its opening in 1895, the other two being R Godfrey Rivers’s Woolshed, New South Wales 1890 and Oscar Fristrom’s Duramboi 1893. Jenner explained in his letter of gift (illustrated) that the work concerned a search party led by Sir Edward Belcher that was sent to find the ill-fated 1845 expedition of Sir John Franklin.
Isaac Walter Jenner ‘Cape Chudley, Labrador’ 1893
Royal Queensland Art Society exhibition catalogue 1893
Isaac Walter Jenner ‘Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador’ reworked 1895
Letter from Isaac Walter Jenner to Queensland National Art Gallery 1895
Taringa April 1895
I am given to understand by my friend, Mr Godfry [Godfrey] Rivers that you are taking a great interest in the formation of the Queensland Fine Art Gallery…
I am desirous as the parent of the Art Society of Queensland to offer one of my works originally exhibited at our fifth Annual Exhibition (1893)…
This picture has historical interest as having been somewhat connected with an expedition sent in search of Sir John Franklin and on account of the singular manner of return to England of one ship of the Squadron after having been abandoned 16 months previously by Sir E Belcher.
This picture is now undergoing some alterations which I trust may be an improvement…
Letter from R Godfrey Rivers to Isaac Walter Jenner 1895
Cape Chudleigh (also known as Cape Chidley) in Canada is located on the short boundary between the province of Newfoundland and Labrador and the eastern shore of Killiniq Island. It forms the northernmost point of the Labrador Peninsula and is the southern entrance to the Hudson Strait.
The painting shows a moonlit arctic landscape with its maze of translucent sea ice. Debris from storm ravaged trees and possibly parts of shipwrecks (detail illustrated) are strewn across the foreground right and the scene is eerily lit by a bright orange glow on the horizon — thought most likely to be from a ship on fire in the distance behind the iceberg (detail illustrated). An editorial in The Queenslander ‘New Pictures at the National Gallery’ on 13 April 1895 reviewed Jenner’s Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador.
The pictures presented last week to the Queensland National Gallery are now on view with the remainder of the Collection at the Town Hall, which already, it is interesting to note; bids fair to become a favourite Saturday afternoon resort of our citizens.
The picture presented by our well-known marine artist, Mr. Jenner, entitled “Cape Chudley, Labrador,” is an oil-painting representing the burning of a ship belonging to one of the Arctic expeditions in an inlet of the Polar seas. The glow of the flames and its reflections from beyond the icy promontory which hides the vessel tell the tale of disaster. The artist has enjoyed the rather uncommon advantage of being able to study Arctic scenery from Nature, as he visited the Arctic regions a number of years ago, when he was in the navy. The picture was shown at the Art Society’s exhibition in 1893, and found many admirers. It will always have a double interest, in the first place as the work and gift of an esteemed artist who was one of the earliest devotees of Art here, one of the first to kindle and most earnest to keep alive. her “sacred flame.” In the second place because of the undying interest men of English race must for ever feel in the tragic romance of the North-west Passage, and in the realm of perpetual frost.
Glow on the horizon
Contemporary views of the coast of Labrador
Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador is different in style to Jenner’s smaller oil painted landscapes but is similar in paint handling to his larger historic seascapes such as The ‘Retribution’ at Balaclava during the Crimean War1895 where both paintings have many layers of oil paint to produce the desired dramatic effect. The highly worked surface of Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador could be the result of Jenner’s desire to replicate the various textures of the ocean and sea ice. We do know that he reworked the painting, and that he spent time constructing the scene based on his own recollections of an arctic voyage he had taken in the early 1850s as a young man on ‘a voyage to Lapland, Nova Zembla and Spitzbergen’,1 and accounts of Belcher’s journey recorded fifty years before the painting was made.
It is also interesting to note that Jenner has signed the painting in the bottom left corner — in a grand manner fitting the painting — with the treatment of his name as a three-dimensional feature with the text reflecting off the icy water (details illustrated).
Artist signature & date
Examination by conservators at QAGOMA with infrared reflectography (IRR) reveals limited underdrawing through the layers of paint. This may be because the scene is painted on a black preparatory layer that could be obscuring the under-drawing. Begun in 1893 in his Brisbane studio 2, Jenner significantly reworked the composition in 1895, creating thicker paint layers which are less transparent to IRR. (illustrated).
A colony of flying seabirds with black tipped wings and black hooked beaks are evident in the painting, and there are also large groupings of standing birds — perched like bedraggled survivors — on rocks and icebergs dwarfed by the icy terrain. These birds at first appear penguin-like, standing upright with white chests, however penguins are not native to Canada and are only found in the Southern Hemisphere, concentrated on Antarctic coasts and sub-Antarctic islands.
These spectator birds have previously been described as Great Auks (Pinguinus impennis) (illustrated). The Great Auk is a large black-and-white penguin-like bird 75-85cm in length with short wings and a black hooked beak, however, by 1844 it had been hunted to extinction. Although the birds depicted in Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador show physical and social similarities to the Great Auk, they were extinct by the time of the expedition and when Jenner sailed past in 1850.
Looking more closely at the birds with the aid of a stereo microscope, we can see that they are painted to include vivid red throats (detail illustrated) — a characteristic that is absent from the Great Auk. They appear more typical of the migratory aquatic bird, the Red Throated Loon (Gavia stellata) (illustrated). This Loon is a smaller bird than the Great Auk, measuring 55-67cm in length and is a typical inhabitant of the Arctic regions, wintering in the northern coastal waters.
Jenner’s birds have the Loon’s distinctive reddish throat patch, which becomes apparent during its summer mating season — this breeding plumage would thus place the depiction of the scene into the summer season. Some views of the birds show their speckled backs (detail illustrated), this characteristic inspiring the red throated loon’s Latin scientific name epithet ‘stellata’ meaning ‘set with stars’ or ‘starry’.
Vivid red throats characteristic of the Red Throated Loon
Great Auk (extinct), & Red Throated Loon
Mystery to be solved
There are some questions regarding the depiction of the various birds. The Red Throated Loons standing upright in groups on icebergs during its breeding season is one possible anomaly — perhaps the Loons in Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador are drawn from awkwardly taxidermied museum specimens or historical prints? The Loon in its natural habitat is renowned for its inability to walk and its clumsiness on land, due to the position of its feet close to the back of its body.
Most modern depictions show the Red Throated Loon swimming or in the water, not perched on sea ice. The short wings depicted are also reminiscent of the Great Auk, rather than the larger wings of the Loon, though perhaps the birds have just started their late summer wing moult, which renders them unable to fly. Or perhaps Jenner used artistic licence and combined the characteristics of various birds.
What do you think? We also need help to identify some of the other birds depicted — those flying with a larger wing span with black tips, and smaller birds standing next to the Loons (details illustrated).
Anne Carter is Conservator, Paintings, QAGOMA Additional research and supplementary material compiled by Elliott Murray, Senior Digital Marketing Officer, QAGOMA
Endnotes 1 From a diary entry written from Jenner held in QAGOMA Research Library (undated) : “As to my own career having had a spell at a host of different callings without making any headway, I put to sea in Oyster and crab ….. first then in a vessel bound for Lapland and Nova Zumbla getting blown to Spitzberger, coming home in the early fifties joined the navy was through the Crimean War in Black Sea and Baltic also at the Bombard – “ 2 Isaac Walter Jenner’s Brisbane studio was at Montrose Road, Taringa from 1890 referenced in Margaret Maynard ‘Jenner Isaac Walter (1837–1902)’ Australian Dictionary of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1983. Online editionhttps://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/jenner-isaac-walter-6838 viewed 3/11/2023
Large scale paintings from Queensland’s Colonial period are extremely rare. Currently on display in the Australian Art Collection (Gallery 10, Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Galleries) at the Queensland Art Gallery is an oil painting that has recently been conserved while research into a replica frame have brought it back to its former glory. This is the first of a two part focus on Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, a partner to another work by the artist in the QAGOMA Collection Heron’s home.
Red-tailed Black Cockatoos by Anthony Alder (1838-1915) dated c.1895 (illustrated) 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, Far North Queensland in 1864, where he spent some time collecting specimens.
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 (illustrated). 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 (illustrated) and was regarded as most important Australian painter of birds after Silvester Diggles (1817-80).
Illustrations of birds in the ‘Queenslander’ by Anthony Alder
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 extremes of climate and accessible to animals as the paint surface had extensive dirt and bird droppings, the paint was generally cracked while some paint was lost. The painting had been varnished, however 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.
Before conservation: ‘Red-tailed Black Cockatoos’ 1895
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’
The reverse of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos (illustrated) 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 (illustrated) and different cleaning systems were used for different types of droppings.
Cleaning was carried out under the microscope
Detail of insect droppings
Detail of insect droppings. Note how the insect droppings have affected the paint – etching it away.
Droppings being removed
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.
Use of conservation gels
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
Damage to the paint can be seen in the black of the cockatoo’s feathers, the paint has been etched away.
White uric acid
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.
Paint eaten away
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 taken off, 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.
Conservation grade varnish applied
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.
Re-integration of the paint losses
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: ‘Red-tailed Black Cockatoos’ 1895
‘Red-tailed Black Cockatoos’ is on display in the Queensland Art Gallery’s Australian Art Collection, Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Galleries (10-13).
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.
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
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.
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.
Ian Fairweather ‘Bus stop’ 1965
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.
Ian Fairweather ‘Trotting race’ 1956
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.
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.
Ian Fairweather ‘Bus stop’ 1965
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.
Ian Fairweather ‘Trotting race’ 1956
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 1X-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. 2Infra-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. 3Ultra-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. 4Paint 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.
“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.
SIGN UP NOW: Subscribe to QAGOMA Blogfor the latest announcements, acquisition highlights, behind-the-scenes features, and artist stories.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Know Brisbane through the Collection / Hear artists tell their stories / Read about the Australian Collection / Subscribe to YouTube to go behind-the-scenes
We acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art stands and recognise the creative contribution First Australians make to the art and culture of this country.