Creating a National Collection Blog #7 Behind the Scenes: Conservation

21 Jun 2021

I’m thrilled to say ‘Creating a National Collection’ is now open! 

As you will have seen from past blogs, a lot of work goes into the preparation for an exhibition of this scale. Today, I wanted to share a little about how the paintings themselves were prepared for display.  

Week 5’s blog post was about the pairing of two works by Claude Monet from the National Gallery and Southampton’s collections, and this week it is interesting to be able to share some details about the frame belonging to the painting The Church at Vétheuil from Southampton’s collection, which has had conservation treatment carried out on it by freelance Frame Conservator, Tom Proctor, (Thomas Proctor Framing). Over the years Tom Proctor has worked on a number of frames from Southampton’s collection. His work includes the conservation of all frames from Burne-Jones’ The Perseus Series, and the frames belonging to the two Van Dyck portraits, one of which is on show in the exhibition, Face of Britain (26 Sep 2020 – 11 Sep 2021)

For Creating a National Collection, generous funding has allowed conservation work to be undertaken on the frames of two paintings, the Anguissola portrait of her sister Elena and the frame belonging to the painting The Church at Vétheuil by Monet. Work on the Anguissola portrait was funded by The Arts Society Hampshire & Isle of Wight, and The Friends of Southampton’s Museums, Archives, and Galleries (FoSMAG), while FoSMAG funded the work on the Monet frame. 

The Church at Vétheuil was bought by Southampton in 1975 within its current frame, although it is unlikely that this was original to the painting. Firstly, the present frame is not French, but English in style with corner carved ornaments. It is made of pine and is mostly oil gilded which is a decorative framing technique meaning an oil-based glue was used to apply a thin layer of gold leaf. This can be seen throughout the more historic frames in the exhibition. 

In writing this post I was able to consult with Southampton’s Conservator, Rebecca Moisan, as well as freelance conservator Ben Hall, and Ambrose Scott-Moncrieff, former Conservator who has had an affiliation with the Gallery since the 1970s. It was fascinating to delve into both the conservation report for this work, as well as the recent treatment report by Tom Proctor. Earlier work involved two additions to accommodate the canvas better by enlarging the frame slightly. These were carved in timber to match the rest of the frame. There were two stages to Tom’s treatment which was completed in March 2021. This included the removal of surface dirt, as well as infilling a series of small losses in gesso over the whole frame. Gesso is a priming material used to prepare surfaces for painting or gilding and it, or gesso putty, was used here to fill losses, later smoothed down using both wet and dry cloths. In the middle of the frame’s profile, there is a 20mm flat frieze section which has a typical decorative practice of a layer of sand being applied before gilding. It is likely that an animal glue was used and over time this had become very brittle, as well as the sand itself being very fragile. Work involved the fragile flakes being consolidated using Lascaux medium 4176.

In the second stage of treatment a thin yellow bole, a tacky glue-like substance to which gold leaf sticks, was applied to the new sections of gesso. In the bottom left and right-hand corners of the flat frieze (where the frame extensions are) the decorative layer of sand was completely missing, and so a new layer of similar grade was re-adhered here using PVA glue. A thin layer of Le Franc oil size was applied to both areas of gesso infill and the areas of newly applied sand, followed by loose gold leaf, with a sealer on top for protection. In order to blend in with the original gilding, a toning mix of watercolour paints was used, as well as some light distressing in order for the recent work to seamlessly blend. A lightly waxed cloth was used to gently rub the frame. Areas of flaky gilding have been restored and the blues of the painting now pop against the newly restored frame.

 We are delighted that the work could be completed in time for this exhibition and hope you spend a bit of extra time admiring these beautiful frames when you next visit. 

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