As you’ve already seen from Clare’s recent post, the preparations that are involved with lending works abroad and indeed in this country are extremely time-consuming, taking several months (sometimes years) of forward planning and preparation.
For our recent loan to the Museum of Culture in Santiago, my role as conservator was to ensure that the paintings and their frames were in tip-top condition for travel and display, no mean feat considering we were sending a certain Mr Constable off on his travels!
The first task was to write full condition reports for each painting, this takes into consideration not only the condition of painting and frame, but also any particular display or environmental requirements. This allows both our courier (Clare) and the borrowing institution to have detailed records of every aspect of the object and how it should look upon arrival and then departure. Once the paintings are returned, they will be meticulously checked before going back into storage or on display here in Southend.
It is quite often the frames that require attention as they are not merely decorative, but provide protection for the painting itself and a good job ours have done too, as our paintings are in perfect condition. Two of the frames however, were showing signs of wear and tear and needed a bit of TLC – after all, they were representing the museum, the borough, the country even, so I wasn’t about to send them on their way without a glamorous makeover!
Traditional methods and materials are still used in the conservation of historic picture frames and my main task was to consolidate/ bond any cracks and fill any obvious missing areas of decoration. For this, a preparation of rabbit skin glue and whiting (powdered chalk or calcium carbonate) was used and before you all rush off to Waitrose to check if this is Heston’s latest avant-garde Easter recipe, it’s actually a filler / bonding agent known in the trade as “Gesso”. Applied using a paintbrush, it layers beautifully to create a smooth, raised finish that forms the base for the decorative elements of the frame. I did get some “painting the forth Bridge” moments as I navigated around the larger of the two frames, finding more and more little missing sections of decoration to replace!
Once the gesso has dried, layers of “Bole”, which is a coloured clay compound, are usually applied in preparation for gilding, but as our frames had more of a paint effect, rather than traditional gilding, I chose to replicate the Bole layer using acrylic paint to represent the traditional yellow and red clays. This was followed by a layer of gilding wax, dabbed onto the repaired surface and this in turn was distressed (aren’t we all?!) using black acrylic paint.
The backs of the frames weren’t ignored either, as I checked that the fixings were all intact and secure, thus ensuring there would be no movement of the painting within the frame. It’s always nerve-wracking sending a member of your family away (yes, we are that attached to our artefacts!) but I was happy in the knowledge that the art handlers were experienced professionals, the Spanish museum is a respected institution and of course our very own courier was the best person for the job. Oh yes, and I suppose I can allow myself a small pat on the back too.
I’ll leave you for now with some images of the work in progress to see what you think – Hasta luego!
William James frame detailing the four stages of conservation: (top left) the initial Gesso layers, followed by the yellow and red “Bole” layers (top right & bottom left) and finally the gilt wax / distressed layer (bottom right)
London Bridge by William James: ready to go – the conserved section shown in the previous images is a small area of the top right corner, there were plenty more around the rest of the frame!
Constable frame: repairing the crack and yes, that is a syringe!
Constable frame: before and after treatment
On the Stour by John Constable: ready for Spain