The Passion Altarpiece – Laying the Problem to Rest

Once we had carried out a detailed examination of the painting (as described in a previous post), we could see quite clearly the main problems, and a treatment plan was devised. The main problem was the flaking of the paint layers.

Saint Jerome in raking light

We were surprised by the amount of flaking on the panels. During building work to refurbish the picture galleries in 2011, the altarpiece had been safely stored in another gallery, and the environmental conditions had been monitored. Only when re-installed in the picture gallery was the flaking was detected. It is also interesting that the outer paintings of the Founding Fathers (with the exception of St. Jerome) have suffered little in comparison with the paintings of the Passion, and the smaller, replacement panel, has no flaking at all. The detection of previous damage shows us that the panels have a history of flaking, the reason for this could be that the adhesion between paint layers and wood is poor. Environmental conditions have since been improved to attempt to discourage any further flaking.

Detail of St. Jerome's robes
Detail of St. Jerome’s robes

The first action on our treatment plan was to stabilise the paint layers, and lay all the flaking paint. We ranked all of the areas of flaking on a scale of 3 (quite minimal) to 1** (very severe); most of the areas were scored a 3, with only a few ranked 1**.

To help us with the process of re-laying the paint flakes, we used a Preservation Pencil – a piece of specially-designed conservation equipment. The tool provides a fine jet of air, which can be heated to a desired temperature, and can be connected to a humidifier and directed onto the flaking paint. The Preservation Pencil has many uses in conservation, from cleaning and humidifying, to separating layers, and re-activating adhesives.

The Preservation Pencil in use

Directing a jet of warm (65 degrees Celsius), humidified air at for five seconds made the paint less brittle and more plastic. Once humidified, we used a fine sable brush to introduce Isinglass (a natural adhesive, more on which later), which penetrated through the cracks in the paint to the wood panel below. Where necessary on severely flaking areas, more humidified air was applied to further soften the paint.

Introducing Isinglass into the cracks
Introducing Isinglass into the cracks

Acid-free tissue was then placed onto the Isinglass to provide support to the paint.

Laying acid-free tissue over the Isinglass
Laying acid-free tissue over the Isinglass

Finally, a heated spatula (also 65 degrees Celsius) was applied to the surface,  with hardly any pressure being used, – just the weight of the tool itself – to relax the paint and lay it flat onto the adhesive below.

Gentle heat and pressure being applied using a spatula iron
Gentle heat and pressure being applied using a spatula iron

The adhesive was left to cool and dry for a few minutes, before the acid-free tissue was removed with a moistened cotton-wool swab. Although it sounds nerve racking, as the paint layers are very delicate, it is a technique I have carried out before, and it is very successful.

After conservation
After conservation – paint layer adhered back down onto wooden panel

Finally, a bit of information on Isinglass. It is traditionally made from the swim bladder of the sturgeon, which is now rare and expensive, so a cousin from the Indian Ocean now has the dubious honour of supplying the conservation community. The Isinglass is diluted in water in a 2% proportion, and remains stable and flexible for a long time. There are modern synthetic options which can be used as an alternative, but the Isinglass is time-tested and sympathetic with the materials from when the panel was originally made.

Isinglass
Isinglass – before being made up into a solution

Jon Old, Conservation Manager/Paintings Conservator

Washing Bonnets for Common Grounds

upper image As you may have seen, the museum is currently preparing one of our next exhibitions “Common Grounds: Lace Drawn from the Everyday”, an installation of light sensitive drawings made by the artist Sarah Casey based on the Museum’s Blackborne Lace collection. A selection of objects from the collection will accompany the display. As part of the preparation for the display, we are conserving and mounting the objects. This is the case for a group of four late 18th -19th century baby bonnets, which I’m going to introduce you to below.

Baby’s cap, Blackborne lace collection no. 286
Baby’s cap, Blackborne lace collection no. 286
Baby’s cap, Blackborne lace collection no. 287
Baby’s cap, Blackborne lace collection no. 287
Baby’s cap, Blackborne lace collection no. 288
Baby’s cap, Blackborne lace collection no. 288
Baby’s cap, Blackborne lace collection no. 289
Baby’s cap, Blackborne lace collection no. 289

As you can see from the pictures, due to a long period of storage, the caps are creased and distorted, they are lightly soiled and the fibres are discoloured yellow. This is the state in which all of the bonnets entered the Bowes Museum collection, having been stored in trunks and boxes for many years. Sarah Casey has drawn some of the bonnets while still in this state, and we will display some unconserved bonnets alongside her drawings. These four bonnets represent some of the best examples of lace bonnets in the collection, so needed to be conserved for photography and display. After full documentation we decided on a conservation treatment strategy – the baby’s caps needed some surface cleaning, wet cleaning and reshaping to return them to the original shape. We carried out surface cleaning using dry cosmetic sponges to reduce the soiling (dust). We proceeded to the wet cleaning using a very low percentage of conservation-grade detergent to help us to remove the soiling completely, and also to reduce the yellowing discoloration.

Colour test. In case of coloured fabric an initial test to check the dye doesn’t bleed is always required
Colour test. In case of coloured fabric an initial test to check the dye doesn’t bleed is always required

Wet cleaning in conservation is similar to normal wet cleaning of textiles, and is based on soaking, lathering and rinsing; the distinctive feature in conservation is the method of working. In textile conservation we use pure water (de-ionised water) in many processes, which we have on tap in our studio. The reason for this is to avoid contaminants which could interfere with the cleaning process, or leave residues in the object.

The bonnets were washed in small trays, they are always worked on in a flat position with as little handling as possible. After an initial soak of the objects; they were lathered with the help of a very fine pore sponge. The process is documented, including  recording the length of time taken for each wash and rinse, pH of wash solution, and amount of water and detergent used. Finally, the bonnets were rinsed, ensuring that all the detergent was removed completely. Each bonnet took around 4-5 hours to wash.

During the wet cleaning: Emily and I at the sponge cleaning procedure (left). At right, images of lace no.287 during the soak (top), lather (centre) and rinse (bottom)
During the wet cleaning: Emily and I cleaning with sponges (left). At right, images of lace no.287 during the soak (top), lather (centre) and rinse (bottom)

Once the wet cleaning is done, it is necessary to reshape the bonnets, and let them dry on an appropriate support that maintains the correct shape. Once dry, and if necessary, it is also possible to apply some cold steam to help re-shape the bonnets and remove any creases, with the help of a support and entomological pins to hold the position until fully dry.

During the realigning process of lace no. 286 (up) and lace no. 287 (below)
During the re-shaping process of lace no. 286 (up) and lace no. 287 (below)

The preparation for the display is not complete without an appropriate display mount for each object. A couple of prototypes, using different materials, have already been made; and are awaiting a final curatorial decision. Each will be custom-made to fit the bonnet, as they are all slightly different sizes.

Prototype display mounts
Prototype display mounts

The final result can be seen in Common Grounds: Lace Drawn from the Everyday, in the Fashion & Textiles Gallery from 9th May to 28th June 2015.

final (1)

By Maria Pardos, Textiles Conservation Intern

Eleven Charismatic Men Line Up At The Museum

What number links the following: members of a football team, pipers piping or players on each side in cricket? The answer is eleven.  And while none of them were at The Bowes Museum on a recent Friday morning, a rather more illustrious group of eleven men made their presence felt.

Toby Jugs
Toby Jugs

 

They had not been seen together in daylight at the Museum for a long time, and caused quite a stir when they appeared just outside Café Bowes just after ten o’clock.

Of course, these were not real people but an exquisite set of eleven Toby Jugs that the Museum owns. They were produced during WW1 to commemorate some of the renowned political and military figures of that time, such as Lord Kitchener, General Botha and Admiral Jellicoe. Museum staff and a few volunteers were there to create a display of the jugs to link with the Museum’s First World War Commemoration Project, and give a potted history of the Toby Jugs to a reporter from the Teesdale Mercury.

Preparing the display & talking to the Mercury reporter
Preparing the display & talking to the Mercury reporter

The Toby Jugs were unpacked from their storage boxes, and we were quite surprised by their size as some of them are nearly 30cm tall.  Even more amazing was that five of the jugs still had their original certificate of authenticity tucked inside them, showing the makers details and numbers of that model made.

Having ransacked the Exhibition store room for display materials, and printed out histories of war heavyweights ranging from Lloyd George to Marshal Foch, we placed all eleven Toby Jugs into the cabinet, together with national flags, and labels to identify each national character.

Lining up the Toby Jugs
Lining up the Toby Jugs

Intricate details can be seen on the jugs, with Field Marshal Haig sitting astride a tank, Woodrow Wilson holding a bi-plane and King George V clasping a world globe. The fine detail on all the jugs is amazing and we hope the display shows them all off to maximum effect.

By Jane Wilson, Library Volunteer

Protecting Grace Darling’s Coble

In my role as Regional Conservator for the Conservation Advisory Network (a free service that offers a range of collections care advice, training and support for museums in North East England) I made a preliminary visit to the RNLI Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh. The museum commemorates the life of one of Victorian Britain’s greatest heroines, Grace Darling, who, aged 22, risked her life in an open boat to help the survivors of the wrecked SS Forfarshire on 7 September 1838. (You can find out more about her story here.)

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Grace Darling [www.rnli.org]
The museum had requested advice on how to protect the coble (a type of open fishing boat) which Grace had used, while some repairs to the ceiling of the building were taking place.

Scale model of Grace Darling's coble in the National Maritime Museum, London
Scale model of Grace Darling’s coble in the National Maritime Museum London

Moving the boat was not feasible due to lack of space and equipment required to lift the 21ft wooden vessel. Having looked at the coble I decided the best course of action was to build a box around the boat which would protect it from dust and any ingress of moisture which may result from the works to the roof of the museum.

Grace Darling's Coble [copyright John Stokes]
Grace Darling’s Coble [image copyright Jon Stokes]
I drew a rough sketch which was passed to a local carpenter Jim Donaldson. He built the box off site, and then with the museum staff we spent a day putting the box together around the boat. My role was to protect the coble, so I stood and watched everyone else working (my favorite pastime) and ensured that the boat was never at risk.

First we covered the boat in plastic sheeting, to act as an extra buffer from rapid changes in relative humidity, which could cause the wood to crack, and to protect the boat from dust. Next we constructed the frame.

Virginia Mayes-Wright (Museum Manager) and Kirsty Watts (Visitor services assistant) building the frame
Virginia Mayes-Wright (Museum Manager) and Kirsty Watts (Visitor services assistant) building the frame
Jim Donaldson (Carpenter) and Virginia installing the first side of the box
Jim Donaldson (Carpenter) and Virginia installing the first side of the box

Next we fitted the roof. The sheets fit along the cross members to inhibit dust getting into the box. The box is much higher than the coble to prevent workmen from using it as a place to store tools.

Carolyn Aldridge (Museum Manager) and Virginia and Jim fixing the last part of the boxes roof
Carolyn Aldridge (Museum Manager) and Virginia and Jim fixing the last part of the boxes roof
The box protecting the coble completed
The box protecting the coble completed

Repairs in the roof space of the museum can now begin without risk to the boat.

The box is screwed together and when no longer needed, it can be flat packed for storage, and re-used should the need arise again.

The Conservation Advisory Network is delivered and managed through a partnership between The Bowes Museum and Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, and is funded through Arts Council England’s Museum Development Program and Major Partner Museum funding.

By Karen Barker, Regional Conservator

Yves Saint Laurent: Inspired by Art

As you may have heard, the UK’s first Yves Saint Laurent retrospective will open this summer at The Bowes Museum in collaboration with Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent. The exhibition will emphasise the defining moments in Yves Saint Laurent’s career as a fashion designer and will feature some of his most iconic pieces, including the tuxedo and the Mondrian dress of 1966.

The Mondrian dress below is an example of Yves Saint Laurent’s innovative vision towards fashion design. The 1960s sack style dress was an ideal canvas for colour blocking and this particular design was inspired by the abstract paintings of the Dutch De Stijl artist Piet Mondrian.  Yves Saint Laurent produced a cleverly cut piece of cloth which disguised all shaping and seams within the gridded design. The Mondrian dress was extremely popular and even featured on the cover of French Vogue in 1965. Manufacturers soon produced replicas of the design which circulated among the fashionable women of Paris and beyond.

2. Short cocktail dress, Fall-Winter 1965, Tribute to Piet Mondrian

‘One of [Yves Saint Laurent’s] greatest accomplishments was a flair for colour, which he displayed from the Mondrian shifts onwards.’ Alice Rawsthorn, Yves Saint Laurent: A Biography (page 330)

Yves Saint Laurent: Style is Eternal opens 11 July 2015

For events and information relating to the exhibition follow us on Twitter @fashionatbowes

By Hannah Jackson, Assistant Curator of Fashion & Textiles

Investigating A Masterpiece

Figure 1: Image of the 15th century altarpiece of ‘The Passion, Death & Resurrection of Christ’, with the panel paintings by The Master of the View of St Gudule and the wooden carvings by the Brussels Guild of Sculptures.
Figure 1: Image of the 15th century altarpiece of ‘The Passion, Death & Resurrection of Christ’, with the panel paintings by The Master of the View of St Gudule and the wooden carvings by the Brussels Guild of Sculptures.

For my third post I want to tell you about the start of our work on the crowdfunded project to conserve the 6 quite exquisite double sided panels of a 15th century altar piece by the Master of the View of St Gudule (see previous posts Tagged ‘Altarpiece’ for further details). Our work up until this point has focused on undertaking the process of examining and documenting the current condition and structure of each panel, in order to produce an accurate condition report. These reports form the basis of knowledge onto which a tailored treatment plan will be moulded, which will endeavour to ensure the panels continued safe existence into the future, whilst not unduly interfering with, or tainting its artistic or historic legacy.

To enable this process to begin, and for the acquisition of the detailed information needed for the condition report, we employ a number of different diagnostic tools and examination techniques, which I will now try and roughly outline for you (please bear with me, it is interesting, I promise).

The process begins with photographing each panel in the studio, firstly under ‘normal’ lighting (bright studio lights), then using ‘raking light’ (where the light source is placed at an oblique angle to the surface of the painting), and if warranted ‘transmitted light’ (where the light source is positioned behind the painting).

Here are examples of each type of photograph in action, showing how these different lighting techniques can each be useful in highlighting different problems.

Example 1:

The raking light photograph shows the presence of areas of loose flaking paint.

Image of Saint Jerome taken in 'Normal Light'
Figure 2: Image of ‘Saint Jerome’ taken in ‘normal’ light.
Figure 3: Image of ‘Saint Jerome’ taken in ‘raking light’.
Figure 3: Image of ‘Saint Jerome’ taken in ‘raking light’.

Example 2:

The transmitted light photograph helps to reveal the extent of the break in the join of the panel.

Figure 4: Image of ‘The Risen Christ’ taken in ‘normal’ light.
Figure 4: Image of ‘The Risen Christ’ taken in ‘normal’ light.
Figure 5: Image of ‘The Risen Christ’ taken in ‘raking light’.
Figure 5: Image of ‘The Risen Christ’ taken in ‘transmitted light’.

Photographs in ultraviolet light and infrared are also essential aids and respectively can potentially yield such information as the presence of unoriginal paint material, to the outline of the original underdrawing, but as they have not been taken yet for this project (due to a soon to be resolved technical issue), I will not go into further detail here.

The next stage is where the majority of the hands on detective work takes place, as the panels are each carefully and closely examined lying face up on a secure mortuary table (sorry just trying to paint a memorable scene). Every square centimetre of the painting is studied using low level magnification (head magnifiers – not Homes-esque magnifying glasses sadly) and LED torches (raking light), for any anomalies on or in the surface of the painting (losses, cracking, flaking paint, foreign material etc), a UV torch is also used, which in this case helped to indicate both the presence of an aged varnish layer as well as areas of unoriginal paint material. The last tool in our armoury to be deployed is the binocular microscope (X 60 magnification), which we keep in reserve for the close up examination of areas of structural or conditional interest, which for this project included the identification of suspected areas of non-original paint material through the study of individual brush strokes.

Figure 6: Image showing the use of the binocular microscope on ‘The family of Zebedee’.
Figure 6: Image showing the use of the binocular microscope on ‘The family of Zebedee’.

Each piece of information (evidence) from these various sources is slowly gathered together, and enables us to quite literally build up an accurate picture of the condition and structure of the painting (as can be seen below). The form of this overall ‘picture’ will then dictate what course of action that will be taken in terms of treatment.

Example 3:

Showing a photograph of St Antony in ‘normal’ light on the left, and then the same photograph of St Antony on the right with the addition of the different information gathered through the condition reporting process.

Figure 7: Image of ‘Saint Antony’ taken in ‘normal’ light.
Figure 7: Image of ‘Saint Antony’ taken in ‘normal’ light.
Figure 8: Image of ‘Saint Antony taken in normal light with  the gathered conditional information added. Black outline = Flaking paint, Red outline = unoriginal paint (retouching), Green outline = Loss, Blue outline = Areas of previous selective cleaning, aged varnish removed.
Figure 8: Image of ‘Saint Antony taken in normal light with the gathered conditional information added. Black outline = Flaking paint, Red outline = unoriginal paint (retouching), Green outline = Loss, Blue outline = Areas of previous selective cleaning, aged varnish removed.

Stay posted for future updates on the treatment of the 6 double sided 15th century altarpiece panels by the Master of the View of Saint Gudule.

By Paul Turner, Paintings Conservation Intern

New Year, New Projects…..

Well-rested after the Christmas break, the textile conservators are back in the studio and working on some exciting new objects.

This week I have started the treatment of a pair of stays c. 1750. They were shown in the exhibition Materials Remains in 2013 (read previous blog posts about the exhibition here and here). An earlier form of corset, the stays are a rare example of a working women’s undergarment which were found in Whitby, North Yorkshire. Although the stays are quite crudely made in plain fabrics, the evidence of wear and unusual thick wool padding beneath the lining raises questions about how the stays would have been worn, and how they may have helped the owner to carry out her work.

CST.2.976 Stays – opened out flat on workbench

 

Although we do not know who wore the stays, we can tell a little about them from the garment itself. Taking measurements, it appears she had a short waist, narrow back, large bust, and narrow arms. The thick wool padding may have been to protect her while she worked, providing cushioning if she was very thin, extra insulation against the cold, or to help support heavy loads – the fisherwomen at Whitby carried heavy baskets on their backs. The stays are also very long in the body and cut high between the shoulder blades which would have added some much needed back support during a long working day. The armholes have been given additional wool padding around their edges – in other stays of this date, the arm holes are often bound in kid leather, giving protection from broken boning.

CST.2.976 Back view of stays lying flat.
CST.2.976 Inside view of stays showing soiled linen lining

The technique of manufacture suggests that these stays have been made by a stay-maker, rather than home-made by the woman who wore them. They are characteristically mid-18th century in style, this includes the long tabs which would have splayed out over the hips from the waistline, and the blue wool tape covering each vertical seam which would have helped visually slim down the figure. In the damaged areas we can see that the boning is baleen (whalebone), rather than wood or cane which has been observed in home-made stays of this time.

Donated to The Bowes Museum in the 1980’s, these stays have become a popular item for costume specialists to study, and were displayed in 2013 exhibition, in the ‘Materials Remains’ exhibition in the Fashion & Textile gallery. They had to be displayed lying flat in their storage box, being too vulnerable to display mounted upright.

Now in the conservation studio, the stays are getting some much needed attention. Modern stitched repairs carried out before the stays were acquired by the museum were unsightly, badly executed, and offered little support to the object. The stitching has now been documented and removed, along with patches of cream cotton fabric, which had been used to fill holes in the lining fabric. With the patches removed, we can explore a little more of the inner layers of the stays, looking at the stitching, materials, and wool padding. The conservation treatment will replace the attempts at repair with dyed-to-match linen patches. These will visually blend into the cream coloured lining, with stitching in a fine, colour-matched thread to secure the patches and support the weak areas of fabric.

The overall staining to the outside and inside of the stays, and signs of general wear will not be altered. Likewise, the numerous historical repairs which have been made will be kept intact. The importance and interest of this object is the evidence of its use and wear, which hold further clues to life of the woman who wore it, and reflects wider society in 18th century Whitby.

The next stage is to prepare the linen support patches and carefully stitch them into place, so watch this space for the ‘after’ pictures coming soon.

CST.2.976 Close up of previous repairs in undyed cream cotton and grey synthetic thread.
CST.2.976 Close up of previous repairs in undyed cream cotton and grey synthetic thread.
CST.2.976 Close-up showing where previous repairs have been removed exposing the woollen padding
CST.2.976 Close-up showing where previous repairs have been removed exposing the woollen padding

 

By Emily Austin, Textile Conservation Intern