Introduction | Essay | Paintings | Paper | Preventive | Textiles | AICCM conference papers 2008

Paper conservation


Cafes and Beaches

before conservation: Peter Purves Smith Cafe Society c.1938-39, pastel on paper, Collection of the National Gallery before conservation: Peter Purves Smith 'Cafe Society' c.1938-39, pastel on paper, Collection of the National Gallery more detail

The Gallery’s paper conservators frequently assess and, if necessary, treat works that have been requested by institutions for loan or are part of the Gallery’s Travelling Exhibitions. This article outlines two quite different conservation treatments of works requested for loan during 2001.

Café Society c.1938–39, a pastel drawing on paper by Peter Purves Smith, was requested for the exhibition, Peter Purves Smith (1912–1949) at the Australian National University Drill Hall Gallery (8 March–15 April 2001). The exhibition later toured to venues in Perth and Victoria.

Purves Smith’s drawing depicts an intimate group in a café setting. Pencil outlines are visible throughout with pastel lightly but crudely sketched over the top. The identity of the male figure on the right of the drawing is thought to be the artist and friend of Purves Smith, Russell Drysdale.

The focus of the treatment was to reduce large tape stains that disfigured the image. These were located around most of the edges and also across the body of the work where a tear was held together by tape. The tape adhesive had penetrated the fibres of the paper making it brown and translucent. The translucency is caused by the tape adhesive cross-linking during aging and is often considered to be irreversible. The wood-pulp paper is similar to butcher’s paper and had become brittle and evenly discoloured, which is a common problem with paper of this type.

The conservation treatment of Café Society was undertaken over a period of three months. The stain reduction was achieved using a combination of localised solvent treatment on a vacuum suction table and by the application of solvent gels to solubilise and absorb the aged adhesive. This innovative technique enabled the adhesive to be extracted from the paper fibres without damaging the image. Pastel is an extremely fragile medium as it is loosely bound and usually friable. The vacuum suction table allows specific areas to be isolated and ensures that the pigment particles remain in place while the solvent solubilises the stains and the adhesive is extracted into the blotter beneath the work. Once the tape stains were removed it was possible to reduce the overall discolouration of the paper and stabilise it. First of all, the drawing was lightly humidified using a solution of ethanol and water, which allowed the paper to become evenly wet. The work was then transferred onto a thick blotter and placed on the vacuum suction table. The discolouration was reduced through a controlled spray application of the ethanol and water solution and vulnerable areas were masked out. The discoloured material was drawn from the paper onto the blotter. It was then necessary to chemically stabilise the paper because of its acidic pH level. This was done by brushing the back of the work with an alkaline solution to neutralise the internal acidity and increase the alkalinity of the sheet. The next steps were to realign the tears and repair losses with toned paper infills. In order to strengthen the paper the drawing was lined with a lightweight Japanese paper adhered using starch paste. Finally, areas of loss were retouched with pastel.

The treatment of Café Society was extremely successful given the severity of the staining and the extent of the degradation of the paper support.

detail: Fred William Beachscape with bathers Queenscliff IV 1971 gouache on paper, Collection of the National Gallery

detail: Fred Williams 'Beachscape with bathers Queenscliff IV' 1971 gouache on paper, Collection of the National Gallery more detail


The conservation treatment of a series of four gouache paintings by Fred Williams, Queenscliff I–IV, proved equally as challenging. When the works were examined prior to going on loan they were found to be inherently unstable with extensive cracking of the thick paint layers. Before the work could travel the paint layers would need to be consolidated, but the process would provide an opportunity to better understand the works.

Fred Williams painted Queenscliff I–IV from the top of a cliff overlooking the beach during a seaside holiday. Many of the bathers depicted were family members and friends. Breaking each sheet horizontally into four, Williams recorded the atmospheric effects of light on the landscape, each strip representing a different time of day and corresponding shift in the colour and tone of the scene.1 Banding the images into sections creates the effect of an endless panorama, emphasising the flat stretches of sand and sea, like peering out of eyes screwed up against the bright glare of the Australian sun. James Mollison discusses the evolution of the strip format in Williams’s landscape paintings, indicating that it resulted directly from his delineating the composition with masking tape. Williams initially used this technique in 1969 and had developed it extensively by the time these works were painted in 1971, moving from a vertical format to a horizontal format.2

Microscopic samples of paint were taken from areas of existing damage to allow the analysis of the materials and techniques.3 The works were found to be painted exclusively in gouache on a TH Saunders heavyweight rag paper, a paper that would have withstood the rigours of Williams’s energetic technique. The watermark is clearly visible in each sheet. Williams’s invoices indicate that he purchased 250 sheets of ‘Saunders 200lb Paper’ on 10 July 1970, for 20 cents a sheet. It is likely he was buying Saunders Waterford type paper, which is renowned for its strong surface, because it is internally and surface sized with gelatine. Saunders Waterford paper has two deckle edges as does the paper used for the Queenscliff series. The two deckle edges can be an indication that it is a mould-made paper, which is made on a cylinder mould machine but has features that imitate handmade paper. The manufacturer’s specifications state that the paper is particularly ‘resistant to lift when removing masking material and will stand much erasure of pencil or charcoal’ – no doubt desirable qualities for Williams during this period.4,5

Pigment analysis indicated that Williams used only commercially available gouache with small amounts of sand and grit incorporated which could have resulted as much from the artist’s habit of working outdoors as by conscious design. Williams often painted quickly, spreading the works out around him to allow them to dry. Even on hot summer days, such as the day the Gallery’s paintings were made, the works were often stacked up before areas of impasto were fully dry. This accounts for the many areas of flattened paint, and the clearly impressed texture of the paper surface now visible in the dry paint. The palette that Williams employed for these works was fairly limited, being predominantly yellow and brown ochres with smaller quantities of cadmium red, cobalt blue and Prussian blue. The manufacturer had intensified the yellow ochre with the addition of a yellow lake pigment. The gouache pigments were generally extended with chalk. Williams also used large admixtures of black and white. His invoices record that he was purchasing substantial quantities of Winsor and Newton Permanent White and Ivory Black designer gouaches. At one stage he appears to have used over 40 tubes of white in a six-month period.

detail of cracking paint from Beachscape with bathers Queenscliff IV detail of cracking paint from 'Beachscape with bathers Queenscliff IV' more detail

The paint is employed in a variety of ways. Smooth, matt and wet-in-wet techniques define the backgrounds where sand melts into sea. This contrasts with the bathers amongst the breaking waves and the surf and rocks which are painted in the artist’s familiar and often shiny, heavy impasto. When thickly applied, the pigments are often mixed directly on the paper surface, swirling one colour into another and sometimes scratched back with a stiff brush or the tip of a brush handle. The thinner wet-in-wet backgrounds would have been painted quickly and are left unmodulated by further working. The areas of impasto, however, exhibit much more concen-trated effort. Cross-sections taken from minute loose fragments of impasto indicate that, although appearing immediate in their application, the paint has actually been worked exhaustively in these tiny details, with many layers being visible. Lyn Williams explained that her husband routinely added to his gouache paintings, often working on figures and other details in the studio at a later date and not restricting himself to the result of the in situ painting.

The conservation treatment was focused on the consolidation of the paint, which had cracked and flaked in areas of thick application and was extensively damaged on the vulnerable edges of each work. Paint had also been lost from areas adjacent to where the masking tape was removed. In some cases these edges had been retouched with white paint by the artist.6 Williams had also attempted to retouch the staining which is visible in the same areas around all four edges of each work, obviously a result of water damage at some stage. Using a microscope with low magnification, a dilute solution of adhesive, methyl cellulose, was applied several times to areas of cracking paint. Ethanol was mixed with the adhesive to encourage it to flow under the paint flakes. The ethanol also reduced the penetrating effect of the water in the adhesive, as once in place the fragments immediately softened and no further manipulation was possible. With the paint firmly adhered to the paper once more, the works were ready to travel to several venues, beginning their journey at Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery in June last year.

The conservation treatment of Peter Purves Smith’s Café Society and Fred Williams’s Queenscliff Series provided very different challenges. A visible and dramatic change resulted from the treatment of the pastel, returning the image closer to its original appearance. While Williams’s works were visually unchanged, but physically stabilised.

Fiona Kemp and Andrea Wise

We would like to thank Lyn Williams and Mary Eagle for useful discussions about the works.

1 James Mollison, A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams, Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 145.
2 Mollison, p. 133.
3 Polarising light microscopy was underaken on pigment dispersions and cross-sections. Invoice books from the period indicate Williams was buying gouache in tubes including Winsor and Newton Designer Colours and Talens Poster Colours.
4 Sylvie Turner, The Book of Fine Paper, Thames and Hudson, 1998, p. 131.
5 Communication with St Cuthberts Mill, manufacturer of TH Saunders papers UK. 6 Discussion with Lyn Williams.