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Collection Conservation

Painting Conservation

 

John Glover Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point

 

image: detail: John Glover, 'Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point' 1843, oil on canvas, Collection of the National Gallery, Purchased with funds from the Nerissa Johnson Bequest 2001 detail: John Glover 'Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point' after treatment – a great improvement in colour and sense of distance was achieved more detail

The joint acquisition of Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point 1831–33 by colonial artist John Glover was well received by staff at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery , Hobart , and the National Gallery of Australia . The acquisition did, however, create a few difficulties for the conservation departments of both organisations. It is rare for works of art to be jointly owned and have conservation responsibility shared between two institutions so geographically far apart. However, due to the operation of university level conservation training programs in the last twenty years – a situation that is currently threatened in Australia – conservation methodology is widely discussed and understood throughout the conservation profession. This enables conservators to communicate treatment options and information on conservation procedures with great clarity and understanding, even over large distances. Coupled with this is the pre-existing relationship between conservation staff employed by the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Australia . These factors made the communication of conservation proposals and the reporting of progress between both institutions relatively easy.

Undertaking a conservation treatment on any major painting involves input from both conservators and curators. In this case we were fortunate to have Erica Burgess and Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery curator, David Hansen, in Canberra with the National Gallery of Australia Director, curators and painting conservators to discuss the proposed conservation treatment. All present supported the proposal to remove both the thick layer of surface grime and, following the completion of this step, the removal of the discoloured varnish, to recover Glover's finely painted record of colonial Hobart Town .

Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point is painted in oil on a commercially prepared, fine, plain weave, linen canvas with a white- to cream-coloured priming. The canvas may have been one of the pre-prepared canvases included in Glover's baggage when he moved to Tasmania from England in 1831.

detail: right side during removal of the discoloured varnish
more details

Glover's painting technique is akin to applying oil paint in a watercolour manner. The foreground and mid-ground detail is achieved by applying dilute oil paint with a small softa haired brush. The paint is applied thinly so that the light coloured priming contributes to the overall luminosity of the picture. The foreground shadows in the painting are very reminiscent of the intense Van Dyck brown shadows seen in landscape watercolours of the period. One would have expected Glover to cover the foreground with a glaze or varnish to achieve saturation of his colours. This was not apparent on Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point prior to treatment but, as work progressed, ultraviolet fluorescence examination of the painting indicated the presence of an aged resinous coating that could be the remnant of an artist-applied glaze.

In contrast to the landscape, the sky is more heavily painted. The blue has been applied with a stiffer brush, probably a hog's- hair, mainly in parallel linear strokes. The clouds are described with rounded brushstrokes. Glover used his fingers to blend the colours on the canvas to soften the clouds. Fingerprints are readily discernable on close inspection of the paint surface.

It is normal for an oil painting to be coated with a varnish after a suitable time (it is traditionally accepted that a minimum of twelve months drying time is required for oils prior to varnishing). There is a question as to whether Glover applied a varnish to Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point. If Glover completed the painting in 1833 it would have had barely sufficient time to dry before being transported to England by 1835. Irrespective of whether or not a varnish had been applied, the discoloured coating on the painting when it arrived at the National Gallery of Australia in 2002 was not original and had been applied during a previous conservation treatment. This in itself is not an unusual finding. Most paintings of any age have undergone some conservation to repair damage, remove discoloured coatings or improve structural stability. In the case of Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point, the painting had previously been lined, cleaned and inpainted. There is the possibility of several conservation interventions to the painting during the past 169 years.

Following an assessment of the painting at the National Gallery of Australia to determine its structural stability, the thick layer of accumulated surface dirt was removed. The dirt was not only thick but had a resinous character that lead us to believe that the painting had hung over a fireplace for some years. The surface dirt was removed with small cotton swabs wet with a dilute chelating agent in water. This solution readily removed the yellow to brown surface accumulation with no impact on the varnish.

Detail lower centre. Discoloured varnish has been removed from the foreground, water and commenced across Hobart Town and foothills.

detail: lower centre. Discoloured varnish has been removed from the foreground, water and commenced across Hobart Town and foothills. more detail

Detail lower centre recorded under ultraviolet light. Note fluorescent coating across foreground that may be the remnant of an artist's glaze. This has been partly removed from the larger tree. Some of the foreground figures have been previously retouched.

detail: lower centre recorded under ultraviolet light. Note fluorescent coating across foreground that may be the remnant of an artist's glaze. This has been partly removed from the larger tree. Some of the foreground figures have been previously retouched. more detail

Following this initial step the discoloured varnish was tested for solubility. Initially, a solution of alcohol in petroleum spirits was tested. This mixture readily removed the discoloured varnish and some of the earlier retouching. However, there was some doubt about identifying what was varnish, retouching and possible original paint, particularly in the brown colours, so other reagents were tested. It was found that a solution of alkaline water and ethanol proved to be very effective in removing the discoloured varnish. This solution left previous retouching undisturbed and had no apparent impact on the original paint. Removing the discoloured varnish could now be carried out with ease and confidence. The main problem with using an alkaline based reagent, even in very dilute concentrations, is that they can have a saponification impact on oil paints. To counter this, the application of the cleaning solution was limited to small areas at a time and each treated area was immediately wet with pure water and dried with cotton swabs. Removal of the discoloured varnish revealed Glover's colours to be crisp and clear.

During the surface cleaning and varnish removal the painting was regularly examined and photographed under ultraviolet illumination. This not only recorded our progress, but also revealed remnants of earlier resinous coatings and conservation treatments. Of great interest was a remnant of old surface coating across land, figures and trees in the lower left foreground. It is thought that this coating may be the remains of an old varnish or the artist's glaze applied to strengthen and saturate the dark shadows in this area. Where our removal of varnish followed design contours, earlier varnish removal had been carried out in a regular grid pattern. This can be seen under ultraviolet illumination where a square of old coating, along with some original paint, has been removed from the right side of the larger tree. If there had been original varnish or glaze across the water, Hobart Town , distant landscape or sky, this has now been largely removed by previous varnish removal operations. The removal of discoloured varnish and some retouching revealed areas of paint abrasion on the lower right section of the painting with small, scattered losses throughout the composition. Exposure of the abrasions and small losses is modest compared to the overall improvement to the painting gained by the removal of the discoloured varnish.

The cleaned painting appeared generally well saturated and there was some discussion as to whether a new varnish was necessary. However, as there was the need to carry out some inpainting to reduce the visual interference of abrasions, it was decided to coat the painting with a thin layer of non-yellowing acrylic varnish. A dilute concentration of the varnish was brushed across the painting. This improved the saturation of the middle distance colours and provided a surface on which to apply our inpainting.

Glover used his fingers to soften and blend paint applied to the clouds. His fingerprints are still visible in the paint.

Glover used his fingers to soften and blend paint applied to the clouds. His fingerprints are still visible in the paint. more detail

Reducing the visual impact of the abrasions and small losses was achieved by inpainting the damages with powdered pigments mixed with the same acrylic varnish. Inpainting was kept to a minimum, sufficient to present a unified surface at normal viewing distance, but retaining the small irregularities usually seen in oil paintings of this age on close inspection. The saturation level of matched that of the thin layer of varnish thereby negating the need to apply a final coat of varnish.

At the same time that the painting was undergoing treatment the frame received a general clean and repair of cracked and loose gesso moulding. When both painting and frame were completed they were brought together and Glover's Mount Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point was installe on exhibition.

The conservation treatment of Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point was particularly satisfying. Considering its age and previous conservation treatment the painting remains in remarkably good condition. Our recent treatment has revealed Glover's astonishing vision of colonial Tasmania in all its crispness of colour and subtlety of atmosphere.

Allan Byrne, Erica Burgess and Kim Brunoro


this article was first published in the Gallery's publication artonview 34 winter 2003