Grace Crowley
being modern

23 December 2006 – 6 May 2007

Grace Crowley 'Abstract painting' 1947 oil on composition board Collection of the National Gallery of Australia Grace Crowley Abstract painting 1947 oil on composition board Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

Introduction | Essay | Conservation | Select works in the NGA collection

Discovering a Grace Crowley painting

The Gallery has eight Grace Crowley paintings in the collection, spanning 32 years of her work, from 1920 to 1952. These paintings highlight changes in her style and materials during her artistic career. One of these works, Abstract painting 1947, a well considered and balanced abstract composition, recently came into the conservation lab due to some minor flaking and loss of paint mainly restricted to the green, blue and white lines in the work. Originally these lines had been painted black but Crowley changed the colour, altering the colour harmonies in the work. The paint was now lifting because it was not well adhered to the underlying paint. Consolidating the flaked paint with a conservation grade adhesive and retouching the areas of loss with powdered pigment in a conservation resin quickly remedied the problem. However, having the painting in the conservation laboratory allowed for closer examination of the entire work using infra-red imaging.

The most interesting discovery was the hidden painting on the reverse. The grey priming layer was abraded in places, showing glimpses of coloured paint, and changes in the surface texture indicated different forms. When viewed under infra-red it became obvious that there was a relatively well considered painting below. Infra-red examination is a useful tool for conservators – it is slightly longer in wavelength than visible light and cannot be seen by the naked eye but it can be photographed and, as in this case, captured through a video link onto a computer. Black-and-white infra-red reflectograms reveal layers underneath the surface of a painting depending on how the infra-red is absorbed or reflected by various materials. For example, dark lines of underdrawing can be seen due to dense carbon content while different pigments can be indicated by different shades of grey. However, there are limitations to this technique with some materials blocking the light or having similar properties that do not allow different layers to be distinguished.

Infra-red image of the back of Abstract painting 1947 showing the outline of the hidden painting 'Composition study' c. 1941 Infra-red image of the back of Abstract painting 1947 showing the outline of the hidden painting 'Composition study' c. 1941 more detail

In Abstract painting 1947 infra-red examination showed the shapes in the composition underlying the grey priming, including some dark drawing lines such as the circle and a cross, and captured them in a series of images. These images were then stitched together in Photoshop and using digital imaging we have transposed the colours that we could see over the black-and-white infra-red image.

Crowley is known to have been critical of her work, destroying many of the studies and earlier works she was no longer satisfied with. Examination under the microscope reveals that in this case she had painted an image, left it for a considerable amount of time for the oil layer to completely dry, painted over it and then painted a new composition on the other side. This does not appear to be an isolated incident with another Crowley work subsequently found to have an image on the reverse that had been painted over with grey priming.

A computerised interpretation of 'Composition study' c. 1941 with colours matched to the A computerised interpretation of Composition study c. 1941 with colours matched to the hidden painting more detail

Elena Taylor, Curator of Australian Art, examined the image on the reverse of Abstract painting 1947, compared it against pencil sketches of similar compositions and has dated the work, now titled Composition study, at c. 1941. Composition study appears to be one of Crowley’s earliest purely abstract paintings and is closely based on Albert Gleizes’s compositions. It seems likely that Grace experimented with this technique of abstraction as a stepping-stone to the style of work seen on the front of the panel. It also appears that this is not a finished work. Unfortunately there seems to be no surviving examples of Crowley’s early experimentation with pure abstraction. The earliest abstract works are dated 1947, however, it seems probable that Crowley’s earlier abstract works were destroyed or suffered a similar fate to Composition study.

Uncovering a deliberately hidden painting always raises questions of ethics. In this case, although it may be possible to investigate the removal of the grey layer to reveal the colours and composition of the work underneath, Crowley obviously did not want the work viewed and it is unlikely that the Gallery would ever display it. However, the discovery and digital mock-up help us gain a greater understanding of Crowley’s progression through one of her many painting styles and techniques.


Kim Brunoro