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Painting Conservation


George Lambert The old dress


detail: George Lambert 'The old dress' oil on canvas, Collection of the National Gallery more detail

George Lambert was born in St Petersburg in 1873, of British—American parents. He spent his childhood in Germany and England until 1886, when his family came to Australia. In Sydney in 1894 he enrolled as a student at Julian Ashton's Art School and, at around this time, he began contributing drawings and etchings to the Bulletin and other magazines. He began exhibiting his paintings in 1895 and in 1900 was awarded the New South Wales Society of Artists travelling scholarship which enabled him to travel to England and France. During his time in Europe he took up portrait painting.

Lambert stayed in Europe until 1917 when he was appointed as an official war artist to the AIF in Palestine. Many of the paintings and sketches he produced during that posting are held in the collection of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. In 1921 Lambert returned to Australia. He continued portrait painting although he is well- known, too, for his Australian Bush subjects; later he also took up sculpture. Lambert died in 1930 at the age of 57.

George Lambert's The old dress is signed and dated 1906. It was painted in England and exhibited in London in 1907 at the inaugural exhibition of the Modern Society of Portrait Painters, of which Lambert was a founding member. The painting was reviewed in The Times (15 January 1907), the critic commenting that: ‘His large full-length does not quite succeed in being attractive the pose is too momentary, and the idea too trivial.' The old dress was sold from the exhibition to a German buyer in whose collection it remained until the painting was purchased by the National Gallery in 1974.

The canvas was torn in several places and a very discoloured varnish layer covered the image. Many of the tacks had pulled through the canvas causing a reduction in the tension on the fabric, leading to severe planar distortions.

It seems that Lambert had decided to increase the dimensions of his canvas after commencing the painting. Additional sections of canvas have been sown on to the vertical edges — a line of tack holes can be seen where the original canvas was stretched. The artist's desire to increase the dimensions of the painting apparently was due to the composition appearing crowded on the original canvas. The stitching of the additional pieces of canvas has caused some distortion in the surface plane.

removing the discoloured varnish on the painting with a mixture of solvents on cotton swabs under special light

removing the discoloured varnish on the painting with a mixture of solvents on cotton swabs under special light more detail

Examination of the painting showed that Lambert reworked the image before and after applying a varnish layer. This is seen mostly in the addition of highlights and shadows and the reworking in some areas. Many of the areas of retouching over the varnish can be seen when the painting is examined under ultraviolet (UV) light. Reworking was also be seen in cross-sections of the paint layers. The cross-sections, showing the different layers of paint as it was applied by Lambert, when illuminated by UV light revealed the presence of varnish between some layers.

After the examination and documentation of the painting, the solubility of the discoloured varnish was determined. The results of the solubility tests showed that there would be considerable improvement if the painting were cleaned the dress in particular would lose its dirty brown appearance. But due to Lambert's reworking of the image over a varnish layer, and the possibility of varnish incorporated into the layers of paint, a full removal of the discoloured varnish was not possible. The background proved to be the most problematic, where only the surface layer of the discoloured varnish was removed. Areas incorporating white, such as the figure — where the paint is harder due to the drying capacity of lead white pigment in the oil paint, and with no intra layer of varnish — were able to be cleaned more fully.

detail showing the difference between the top discolouration and the effect after conservation
detail showing the difference between the top discolouration and the effect after conservation more detail

After cleaning, the painting was placed faced down and removed from the stretcher. This allowed the canvas to be humidified and relaxed to flatten out the planar distortions. The tears were repaired by first aligning the canvas fibres and then adhering them with a conservation grade adhesive. Some of the tears, especially those along the tacking margins, were supported with a fine polyester fabric on the reverse to give extra strength to these areas.

The painting was replaced on the stretcher and revarnished. Varnish not only protects the paint surface but also saturates the paint. The varnish selected was dammar — this was considered to be compatible and possibly what the artist had originally applied. This varnish coating will be easy for conservators to remove in the future if the need arises.

Areas of paint loss were infilled with a gesso to bring them up to the same level and texture as the surrounding paint surface — seen in the illustrations as areas of white. These areas were then retouched to match the surrounding colour and design. A variety of materials are used to inpaint depending on the paint surface, in this case powdered pigments were applied in a conservation grade acrylic resin.

When carrying out all conservation treatments such as retouching/inpainting, ethical guidelines are followed — these include not covering any intact artist-applied paint, and ensuring that the conservation work remains removable.

The conservation treatment of The old dress has rescued the painting from storage. It is now stable and safe to handle and to transport; the removal of the discoloured varnish has allowed more accurate colour representation; and the repair of the tears and removal of canvas distortions have provided an even surface without disfiguring interruptions.

Kim Brunoro

First published in artonview 24 summer 2000–2001