Collection ConservationIntroduction | Essay | Paintings | Paper | Preventive | Textiles
In the skinners company: The evolution of conservation at the NGA
The period of the Gallery’s existence has parallelled the growth of the conservation profession in Australia. In fact, the last 20 years has seen the emergence of the conservation profession from traditional workshop foundations. These changes are most apparent in the way in which conservators entered the profession.
Traditionally conservators or restorers trained on the job. In the past restorers came from a trade background such as carpentry or joinery, or were artists who had been asked to repair a damaged work of art and continued to dabble in the field. Often people working in associated fields, such as framers, developed an interest in conservation and occasionally took on repair work. The heavy handed nature of some traditional restoration treatments lead collectors to consider Saint Bartholomew, the apostle flayed alive in the first century, as the patron saint of restorers and therefore restorers were known as members of the ‘skinners company’.
After the Second World War the conservation field started to embrace new technologies and ideas. People from technical and science backgrounds began to explore the nature of art materials and the deterioration processes of works of art. To cater for the growing interest and the need to preserve national and international cultural heritage, conservation training programs developed throughout the world.
When the Gallery opened in 1982, the training profile of its conservation staff reflected the period of change which was occurring in the field in Australia. Of the 14 full-time conservation staff, two had been trained overseas, five either had completed or were undertaking university level conservation training at the Canberra College of Advanced Education (later the University of Canberra) and seven had trained in an associated field or gained expertise on the job. The training profile of National Gallery of Australia conservation staff in 2002 reflected the significant impact of the training program at the University of Canberra. Of the 16 specialist conservation staff, 10 completed training at university level in Canberra while three have trained overseas and three have gained experience on the job. The recent suspension of enrolments in the University of Canberra conservation programs is of particular concern to the Gallery. It has developed a close relationship with the conservation training programs over the years, with staff acting as lecturers and tutors. In return, conservation students have provided valuable assistance to essential work and research projects. The cessation of the University of Canberra conservation programs will negate the constant efforts being made towards improving the standard of care for Australia’s cultural and artistic heritage, standards that are now accepted as normal in the Gallery.
The lineage that led to the development of the conservation department at the Gallery commenced at the turn of the 20th century at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The Art Gallery of New South Wales opened at its current site in 1885. In 1902 the Gallery used the services of a private picture restorer, Henry Callan, located in George Street, Sydney. Mr Callan’s training is not known.1 Also in 1902, a ‘London trained picture restorer, and an expert in the chemistry of paints, oils, varnishes etc.’, A.C. Murch, was employed by the Gallery.2 Murch worked at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until 1908.
In 1909 Thomas Hall was appointed to the position of Picture Restorer/Art Mounter. Thomas Hall epitomised the process by which people moved into the conservation field prior to the establishment of formal training programs. Hall was originally employed at the Gallery as a Frame repairer/ Attendant in 1897. He spent a great deal of time with A.C. Murch and absorbed the knowledge and skills to take over the position of Restorer on Murch’s departure. In 1922 Thomas Hall was promoted to the position of Conservator/Custodian/Caretaker and lived in the caretaker’s cottage at the rear of the Gallery.
In 1922 Thomas Hall’s son, William Hall, having gained an interest in conservation work from his father, was appointed as Assistant Conservator. Thomas Hall retired in 1927 and William was promoted to the position of Conservator. In 1937 William was also appointed as the caretaker and moved into the caretaker’s cottage. Following the death of his wife in 1941, William resigned as caretaker and vacated the cottage. However, he remained as Conservator until 1949 when his addiction to alcohol, an addiction that had commenced on the death of his wife, led to him being found intoxicated on duty. He was forced to decide between a transfer as a cleaner to another department or to retire. He chose retirement.
In 1946 William (Bill) Boustead joined the staff of the Art Gallery of New South Wales as a Carpenter/Joiner. He had served in the AIF and, on discharge, studied at the National Art School, East Sydney. Boustead became a pivotal figure in the conservation profession in Australia and had a close association with the developing National Gallery of Australia. Boustead’s interest in art lead him to assist William Hall in various restoration tasks. As Hall’s abilities deteriorated with his growing alcoholism Boustead took on more responsibility for the conservation of the collection. Boustead was appointed Assistant Conservator in 1950. In 1953 Boustead was sent by the Trustees of the Gallery to study conservation procedures at the National Gallery, London, the Courtauld Institute and various centres in Europe. On his return in 1954 Boustead was appointed Conservator.
Over the years, Bill Boustead became the leading conservation authority in Australia and his advice was widely sought. In 1962 Bill was invited to Canberra to discuss conservation requirements with representatives from the National Library of Australia, Commonwealth Archives and the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board. The latter organisation formed the nucleus from which the National Gallery of Australia collection grew.
Bill Boustead saw the need for a more formalised training system for conservators. In 1954 an advisory panel appointed by the Art Gallery of New South Wales Trustees advised that, ‘some form of apprenticeship or cadet–traineeship in conservation should be developed so that young people might be trained in workshop requirements and thus be available not only to our own Gallery, but also to other important National Institutions charged with the responsibility of conserving works of art’.3 It took another seven years, but in 1961 Royston Harper became the first cadet to commence the three-year cadet restorer training program.
Over the next 16 years, until his retirement in 1977, Bill oversaw the training of 10 restorers and several overseas conservation students. Three students from the cadet training program of Boustead’s time, Chris Payne, Geoffrey Major and myself, have been employed by the National Gallery of Australia.
In 1968, the year that an Interim Council was appointed to advise the prime minister on the design, planning and construction of the Gallery, Chris Payne was employed by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to train in the conservation of works of art. Chris was to join myself, a recently employed cadet restorer, to commence the three-year cadet restorer program at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Cadet restorers commenced their duties in the workshop, then progressed to the paper conservation area and finally the painting conservation studio. Cadets were required to assist with ongoing work in the conservation department as well as listen to taped lectures on chemistry prepared by Boustead. The information on the tapes was routinely punctuated by the sound of matches striking, tapping and gurgling as Bill struggled to maintain his temperamental pipe. As cadets progressed they were assigned conservation treatments of greater complexity, sat in-house examinations and completed a ‘thesis’ on a conservation topic. At the end of the cadetship we were recognised as restorers, though no formal qualification was given.
On the completion of his cadetship Chris Payne returned to Canberra as Acting Assistant Conservator with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Facilities for conservation were non-existent and improvement in the situation appeared frustratingly distant. Chris recalls that most of his time was spent planning and replanning proposed conservation areas. And he noted in 1974 that when urgent treatment is necessary, I am forced to work in such places as the corridors of Parliament House, various office desks or a corner of the conservation department of the National Library of Australia’.4 In 1974, Chris obtained an Australia Council for the Arts scholarship to attend a six-month basic conservation course at the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and the Restoration of Cultural Property in Rome. In 1975, after some lengthy correspondence with the Public Service Board, Chris was appointed to the position of Assistant Conservator with the National Gallery of Australia.
The seedling that was to become the Gallery moved to Molonglo Mall, Fyshwick where the collection accumulated in the years prior to the opening of the permanent building. Facilities were far from the standards we now enjoy. Chris recalls crawling into the Molonglo Mall air conditioning ducts to install baffles to stop the cold, dry winter air from entering the building. Towards the end of 1976 Chris left the Gallery and returned to Adelaide.
As the collection began to accumulate the need for increased conservation staff became apparent. In 1972, Seumas Andrewartha was recruited as a Technical Assistant to work with Chris Payne and train as a paper conservator. Seumas completed a chemistry degree at the Canberra College of Advanced Education (later the University of Canberra), a masters degree at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University and spent a period at the Pacific Conservation Centre in Honolulu. Seumas remembers starting work in the Institute of Engineers Building on National Circuit ‘in a room filled with pictures’.5Ilse King originally carried out conservation work for the Gallery on commission but was later appointed paintings conservator. Ilse’s early training was as the Straatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kassel, West Germany. In the 1978–79 Annual Report staff were listed under departments for the first time. Ilse King and Seumas Andrewartha were the only conservation staff members at that time along with mountcutter Georges Petit.
In the years leading up to the move into the new Gallery building from 1977 to 1981 conservation staff grew in both numbers and specialisations. Josephine Carter was appointed textile conservator in 1979. Josephine had extensive experience in needlework and art at secondary school and college with tertiary study in spinning and weaving. Prior to arriving in Canberra Josephine had practical textile conservation experience at the Western Australian Museum. Other staff included Mark Durr, Carol Cains, Guy Joyce, Sheridan Palmer and mountcutter David Swifte.
Molonglo Mall was essentially a storage area with a developing National Gallery taking shape within its walls. Staff duties involved some flexibility depending on the changing priorities of the time and treatments had to be carried out within the limitations imposed by a non-purpose built facility. Carol Cains recalls using a tap in the yard behind the building, the only source of water, to carry out conservation treatments. Most conservation staff were located in temporary work areas in the larger storage space; the painting conservator fared a little better by having a separate room at the front of the building.
In late November 1981, staff occupied the present building and work began to transfer the collection and prepare those works selected for exhibition. In June 1982 there were 15 full-time staff in the Conservation Department. Dr Nathan Stolow, an internationally respected conservation scientist, had been appointed to the position of Senior Conservator. Debbie Ward joined the textile conservation team and Mark Henderson was employed as a Museum Assistant to help in the preparation of stretchers. Jacqui Macnaughtan, Cathy Aladjem, myself and frame conservator Leo Wimmer completed the painting conservation team.
Compared to the facilities at Molonglo Mall the conservation department in the Gallery was akin to conservation heaven. The department had generous space and facilities. On entering the area one was impressed by the height of the elongated space. Floor to ceiling windows along the south-facing wall provided ample if not over generous quantities of daylight. The department is on two levels. The head of department’s office and a small laboratory space being located on a mezzanine and connected to the larger work area with a spiral staircase. The work area was generally clear of built-in furniture allowing for great flexibility. This was a huge advantage as many of the larger paintings were refitted to new stretchers and reframed prior to exhibition. Ease of access for works of art was a major consideration during the development stages of the Gallery. This need was fulfilled by a large goods lift on the eastern end of the department that providing access to all levels. In addition to the goods lift, the Gallery has a large picture hoist. This piece of equipment was installed to move paintings that are too large to fit in the goods lift and reflects the concept that the collection needed to accommodate large contemporary paintings. The hoist, a large metal frame that is pulled through a slot in the floor beside the goods lift is raised and lowered with cables. It was most recently used to move the 2 x 6 metre Waterlily pond by Claude Monet on loan to the Gallery from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, for the exhibition Monet & Japan.
Textile conservation was accommodated in an area adjacent the goods lift, near the only sink and water supply to the general work area. The paper conservation area is fortunate to have the best view in the department. The area off the eastern end of the main work area has extensive views over King Georges Bridge and beyond. When the conservation department moved into the new space the paper conservator immediately set up his workbench facing the window to take advantage of the pleasant outlook. Mountcutting and framing were located on the ground floor near storage areas and the frame conservator occupied space in the still used Molonglo Mall.
Like all Gallery staff at the time, conservation staff were infused with a high level of excitement unique to museums and galleries prior to their first opening to the public. More importantly, the development of the new department provided the opportunity to set new standards for the conservation of works of art. In fact, the desire to establish the highest standards possible for the care of the collection merely reflected the feeling throughout the building.
Preparation of works of art for exhibition and loan had commenced with the collection stored at Molonglo Mall. However, it was not until staff occupied the present building in 1981 that preparation of works for exhibition began in earnest. Long hours were routine as works of art were prepared for exhibition. Works of art on paper underwent conservation treatment prior to being mounted and framed. Flat textiles and costumes were cleaned, stabilised and padded for display. Individual armatures were constructed for sculptures and objects. Paintings were cleaned and fitted in restored or new frames. Particular care was taken to ensure that conservation treatments did not overwhelm the object. The patina of age, the nature of the materials used by the artist or manufacturer and the record of use was retained by discrete supportive conservation techniques. The restoration of works of art to make them look like new has never been included in the conservation ethos at the National Gallery of Australia. In 1982, as areas of the Gallery became available for installation, the painstaking effort over the years was rewarded; the works of art simply look superb.
The conservation standards established during the Gallery’s formative years have continued to the present day. The preservation of the collection remains one of the key functions of the Gallery and the conservation department is committed to ensuring that the artist’s message, communicated through his or her work of art, remains true and undistorted.
Senior Paintings Conservator
1 A printed label: HENRY W. CALLEN and SON, print sellers and dealers in the works of art, carvers, gilders, picture frame manufacturers, (paintings re)stored, engravings cleaned, old work regilt, 318 George Street, Sydney, appears on the reverse of oil painting DG205, George Edward Peacock, Sydney Harbour near Watson Bay 1851 State Library of New South Wales.
2Alan Lloyd, ‘One hundred years of art restoration/conservation at the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ AICCM Bulletin Volume VII, Numbers 2 and 3, Sept.-Dec. 1981, pp. 3–15. The information on the Art Gallery of New South Wales has been taken from Alan Lloyd’s paper.
3 ibid., p 9.
4 Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, File 74/787, Mr CA Payne, Assistant Conservator Australian National Gallery – Basic Conservation Course, Rome 1974.
5 Conversation with Seumas Andrewartha 23 January 2002.