04 September 2011

25 years ... and 25 iconic projects

25 years ago today marks the day that Julian Bickersteth founded International Conservation Services (ICS). Well, not quite, in that it was originally called Campbell Conservation before morphing into ICS in 1991. Back in 1986 a wonderful man called Chick Campbell, who owned and ran the Campbell Group, was prepared to back Julian's idea that there was an opportunity in the Australian market for a privately-run multi-disciplinary fine arts conservation business, and the rest, as they say, is history.

At ICS, we've chosen to acknowledge and celebrate our past 25 years of conservation in a number of ways.  One of the ways, as is obvious by the image at the beginning of this post, has been with a commemorative logo.  We'll also be celebrating with our staff, and with the Australian conservation community, over the next couple of months.

But one of our most enjoyable, and interesting, exercises earlier this year was to identify 25 iconic projects that ICS has completed over the past quarter of a century.  Selecting them was very difficult - and we cheated a bit in the end!  A few of the 'projects' are more like relationships - where we have carried out a range of projects over many years for a single client or institution, including Old Parliament House in Canberra, and the National Trust of Australia (NSW).

Then there are projects where we contributed to the conservation of a significant heritage place. These projects include the Capitol Theatre in Sydney, the Parramatta Justice Precinct and the Sydney Harbour YHA (Big Dig in Cumberland Street, The Rocks).
We've also included projects where we developed new conservation techniques (Childrens' Chapel, St James), acquired new skills, or ventured into new fields of work.

And of course, there is one of the first projects worked on by Julian Bickersteth when he started the business in 1986 - co-ordinating the ‘Treasures of the Holy See' exhibition from the Vatican for Expo 88 in Brisbane.

All of the projects and objects we work on have stories to tell. But the projects we've selected as our 25 iconic projects have particularly interesting stories to tell, and they are special ICS stories that we treasure.

Visit our website to discover more about our 25 iconic projects.

David West
Executive Director

20 October 2010

raising a toast to heritage

For regular readers of this blog, you'll know that our conservators work hard, often on painstakingly repetitive tasks.  And so at the end of the week, there is often cause to celebrate in the timeworn Australian tradition.  With a cold beer or a glass of wine.

But for the past couple of years, we have actually been working with one of Australia's iconic beverage businesses to help them manage their heritage collections.  This blog is about our work with Foster's Group.  

When you hear the name Foster's, you almost certainly think of “beer” or “wine” – you probably don’t think “heritage collection”.  However, Foster’s has an impressive heritage collection, built up over the years by its various brands, some of which trace their history back nearly 200 years.

Foster’s is proud of its heritage and its heritage collection, and is keen to see the collection survive well into the future. With this in mind, we have been working with Foster’s over the past two years to progressively document and catalogue their collection. This is an ongoing process, as Foster's operate from many sites across Australia (and the US).

There are a number of reasons behind Foster’s decision to go through this process, including their desire to ensure that their heritage collection is managed appropriately, and that measures are in place to keep track of heritage material. Another driving factor behind this process is Foster’s desire to capture information relating to their brand portfolio, including brands which are no longer owned by them, and brands which no longer exist. This information is an important part of the history of any organisation, as an understanding of the past provides a blueprint for the future.

Fire extinguisher from Penfolds collection, SA

Timber hand cart from Wynns Coonawarra collection, SA

Painted mirror from the Seppelts Great Western collection, VIC

But despite what you may think, the Foster’s heritage collection does not just contain wine bottles and beer cans (although there are quite a lot of them!). The collection includes wine and beer making equipment, documents, advertising and promotional material, photographs, artworks, furniture, trophies and awards, old ledgers, vehicles, barrels and kegs ... and of course, bottles and cans.

Cataloguing and documenting a collection is an important step in the care and management of any collection, and Foster’s, although not a “traditional” collecting institution, is no exception to this.  At each site we visit, we issue an accession (or catalogue) number for each item identified as belonging to their heritage collection, and record details such as name, accession number, description, measurements, condition, significance and brands. We also photograph (3D objects) and/or scan  (2D objects) each item.

Ensuring you have a well-documented and catalogued collection is important, as it allows you to have a thorough understanding of what is in your collection and where it is. It also helps to you to keep track of your collection, and makes it easier to discover any losses or thefts from your collection which may unfortunately occur. As each organisation and institution is different, and so is each heritage collection, the type of data captured during the cataloguing process will differ. Each cataloguing project we undertake is definitely a unique experience!

Court Oakes
from the Cascade Brewery collection, TAS
The team working with Foster’s on this exciting project has found it to be both fascinating and enjoyable.  Each site we have visited brings us new stories and anecdotes about the collection and items within it. We’ve learnt quite a bit! One of the stories we were told at the Cascade Brewery involved a young Errol Flynn, prior to his swashbuckling days, who used to trespass on the forest land owned by the Brewery, and was often marched back home by Cascade’s ground ranger, former boxer Court Oakes. There is a photograph of Errol as a boy on display in the Museum. Another story from Cascade tells the tale of Fatty Appleton, a worker at Cascade in the early 1900s, who became famous for being able to lift two barrels of beer at the same time. Quite a feat!
Fatty Appleton
from the Cascade Brewery collection, TAS

Erin Watson
Collection Manager

26 September 2010

sydney statues project

As conservators, we receive a wide range of requests to assist with many unusual activities associated with cultural and heritage objects.  The Sydney Statues Project which comprises part of Art and About Sydney 2010 was one of these unusual requests.

"We want to dress some of the bronzes in the City", said the voice on the phone,  "Can you help us make sure we don't accidentally cause any damage to the statues?".  And so we became involved in this unusual project to make us look anew at the historic statues dotted around the City of Sydney.

We've worked on many of these statues at various times over the past two decades, undertaking a variety of conservation and maintenance works to the bronze statues and to the stone plinths they rest on.  We've treated corrosion, we've cleaned them and we've rewaxed them.  We've repaired vandalism, removed graffiti, and had small portions of the statues recast after they'd been damaged or stolen.  We've even temporarily relocated some of them, whether to permit other works to occur in the area, or so that the statue could be incorporated in an exhibition of the sculptor's work.  And so we have a pretty good understanding of the issues associated with care of these bronzes. 

So we agreed to work with Michelle McCosker, Imogen Semmler and Alasdair Nicol to help them with their daring Sydney Statues Project.  We worked through a risk analysis and assessment process with them, to identify the most significant risks to the statues.  We developed a methodology for testing and treating the many different fabrics selected by the individual artists so as to minimise risks arising from the colour fastness or flammability of the fabrics.  We advised on methods of installing the costumes, and reviewed the artists' designs to identify any particular risks arising from the design concepts.

And today, I visited the city and saw the statues in their new (albeit temporary) finery.  I chanced upon one of the organised tours - involving performers as tour guides - I'm looking forward to taking one of the tours to get yet another perspective on the statues!!

One of the things I most love about this project is the intent behind it.  We know that one of the essential components of conserving our heritage is communicating the stories about the objects to the public.  And the  Sydney Statues Project does this in a new and fresh way, giving us all the opportunity to experience the significance embodied in these statues froma different perspective.  Or simply to reconnect with something we had taken for granted.  International Conservation Services is proud to be associated with this creative approach to sharing the stories of our cultural heritage.

David West

23 September 2010

relaying a 19th Century tiled floor

We've just spent the past three months on our hands and knees in the Great Synagogue in Sydney.  And the result is that the tiled floor to the central portion of the Synagogue is now fully functional again. 

Laid with geometric and encaustic ceramic tiles on a cement mortar bed over a timber-framed floor in 1885, the floor had seen 125 years of services. 

Unsurprisingly, particularly given the structural alterations carried out beneath the Synagogue in the 1950s, some areas of the ceramic tiling were badly disrupted, with tiles cracked, loose and missing.

Over the past few years, we have been working with Peter Phillips of Orwell & Peter Phillips, Honorary Architect to the Great Synagogue, and Simon Wiltshier, structural engineer from Hughes Trueman, to investigate the problem and develop an appropriate conservation solution.

The recent works were undertaken in two phases.  First, structural interventions were undertaken to provide additional support to the timber floor structure.  This work was completed from beneath the floor without requiring any disruption within the Synagogue.  The second phase saw us progressively lifting and relaying the ceramic tiles.

We carried out the work so that each Friday afternoon we could vacate the Synagogue, leaving only a small area of the floor and a limited number of pews discreetly barricaded off.  Each Monday morning, we would open up new areas ready for the week's work.  We also stopped work several times each week during scheduled tours of the Great Synagogue.

We had previously procured replacement geometric and encaustic ceramic tiles for those missing or broken or excessively worn.  These replacement tiles came from Maw & Co, the English company which had manufactured the original tiles installed in 1885.  Needless to say, the limited number of replacements (5-10% of the total) and our work to lift and relay the floor cost rather more than the complete cost of the original tiles - the Great Synagogue's records show that the tiles originally cost £344/1/4 (three hundred and forty four pounds, one shilling and four pence), whilst the tiling cost £100.

We also worked with the specialist supplier of conservation materials, Westox, to develop a cementitious mortar that would be as close as possible to the original mix used to lay the tiles.  The composition of Portland cement has changed significantly since 1878, and it is now much stronger and chemically different to then.  The mix we developed used a combination of modern Portland cement and pozzolans to reduce the strength and shift the composition and characteristics of the mortar back closer to the 1870s Portland cement based mix in the original floor.

Other challenges included:
  • how to integrate the replacement tiles with the original tiles
  • resolving variations in the dimensional tolerances of the tiles and original joint widths
  • lifting and refixing the timber pews
We successfully relaid the floor in the time available to us, and based on our recent post-completion inspection, the floor stood up to all that the large wedding held a few days after we finished work could throw at it ... including breaking glass!

David West
International Conservation Services

21 June 2010

from the archives #01: sudan war mural, petersham

For some time, I've been contemplating revisiting some of our past projects for this blog.  With nearly 25 years of conservation work recorded in our archives, there are many fascinating places to visit and stories to share with you.  Last week, I received news about one of our past projects that was a catalyst for this post, the first in an infrequent series to be entitled "from the archives".

The Sudan War mural, with then owner, Keith Sutton

Over the weekend, a shop-terrace at 36 Terminus Street, Petersham was sold at auction.  This building is unique because in the main front room, two of the walls are covered with a mural comprising 27 life-sized or larger caricature sketches dating from 1888.

Many of the caricatures depict military and political figures associated with the Sudan War of 1885, including General Charles Gordon, Governor Loftus (and his chicken) and Ned Kelly.

Governor Loftus and his chicken

Ned Kelly

We were responsible for the conservation work to this mural in 2003.  The owner, Keith Sutton, was able to commission this work as a result of receiving grant funding from the Commonwealth Department of Environment and Heritage.  He had originally discovered the mural whilst removing the existing wallpaper (and overpaint layers) during a renovation of the property.

Condition of mural prior to conservation works

This property is listed on the Register of the National Estate, highlighting the significance of the mural.

You can read more about our work on this mural on our website, or understand the owners' story about the journey he has followed after discovering this mural in the lead article of the May 2004 edition of the Blue Pencil.

David West
International Conservation Services

16 June 2010

a window into our domestic past

Whilst a proportion of our work involves objects of high artistic value, we also work on many objects with substantial historic significance. Sometimes this historic significance resides with the object itself. At other times, the significance arises because the object is part of a larger collection.

The textiles we have been treating from Calthorpes’ House in Canberra, a historic house museum under the care of ACT Historic Places, are an example of the latter. My particular interest in this project was triggered by our work on the leather pouffe from this collection, which reminded me of the pouffe that was a favourite item of furniture in my early childhood. But more about that later. The story about this collection of textiles from Calthorpes’ House is much more interesting than that.

Calthorpes’ House, in Mugga Way, Red Hill, is significant as an example of one of the many styles of architecture in Canberra during the city’s fledgling years. It is one of the few houses from that time with all of its original features remaining, including its gardens and sheds. But the most significant aspect of Calthorpes’ House is that the furniture and other contents of the house are virtually unchanged, much of it dating back to the original occupation of the house in July 1927. The ACT Historic Places website says “Calthorpes’ House is a window into an almost forgotten world … this genuine survivor is a treasure house of domestic history.

Owned and occupied by Harry and Dell Calthorpe from 1927 until Mrs Calthorpe’s death in 1979, the house remains a significant feature in the historic fabric of Canberra, providing an example of how one family grew and changed with the times over a period of 50 years. Mrs Calthorpe was particularly careful with her possessions, and whilst changes were made, many of the objects were kept and repaired and continued to be used.

Recently, we undertook a condition assessment of all of the textiles in the collection at Calthorpes’ House, comprising over 500 objects in total. We were then commissioned to undertake conservation treatments on a number of the historic soft furnishings, including curtains, lampshades, a bedspread, bolster cushion and a pouffe, all of which appear to be original to the House.

Detail of pouffe surface, showing the faded colours

One of the much-loved features of the Calthorpes’ House Breakfast Room is a leather and early plastic pouffe (stuffed footstool or ottoman). The exact date of purchase of this pouffe is unknown. When it was new, it would have been a mix of vibrant red, maroon and bright green leather, however the colours have faded over time, and they are now a mix of maroon, red and tan. In addition to fading surface colours, the zipper had been damaged, and several seams had spilt. It was definitely in need of some attention from a conservator!

Detail of split seam on pouffe prior to treatment

Treatment on the pouffe began, with the split seams and broken zipper being repaired. Unfortunately, light damage cannot be reversed, meaning that nothing could be done about the fading colours on the surface of the footstool.

As the treatment progressed, a surprise emerged: the stuffing of the footstool comprised a variety of different clothing and textile items from the House! We knew they originally came from the House because they had tags with “Calthorpes” sewn onto them. Items found to be inside the footstool included carpet off-cuts, pyjamas, skirts, baby’s clothes, doll’s clothes, socks and even an outdoor summer tent! The clothes contained inside the pouffe reflect the styles of a bygone era, possibly discarded by the family as they had been outgrown or did not conform with the fashions of the day.

And this is where my childhood memories come in, because I recall that the pouffe in our home was also stuffed with oddments of fabric and clothing. These made it heavy, and awkward to handle, but also meant that when you sat on it or rested your feet on it, you could settle into position and then it would not move.

The question is – were the discarded Calthorpes’ clothes in their pouffe the original stuffing of an object acquired at a later date? Or were they a later stuffing of the pouffe after the original stuffing was no longer functional?

Objects found inside the pouffe (a) outdoor summer tent (b) pyjama top

All of the items removed from inside the pouffe were cleaned and re-housed in textile boxes, and a custom-made Dacron insert fitted in place of the clothing insert. The Dacron insert makes the footstool lighter and easier to maneuver, and will also allow it to keep its shape better.

In addition to the pouffe, a number of lace and velvet curtains were also treated. These curtains originated from the Sitting Room, Dining Room, Breakfast Room and Bedroom 1. All of the velvet curtains and pelmets in the House are original, however many of the lace curtains are reproductions, with the originals having been stored to reduce further damage.

It is interesting to note that all of the lace curtains on the windows are reproductions, while the lace curtains on internal doors are original. This demonstrates the effect light can have on sensitive items, as the window curtains, although reproductions, were in worse condition than the original curtains still hanging on internal doors, which are protected from extended exposure to light. The window curtains had yellowed considerably, and had numerous tears and pulls. There was also a faint smoke/nicotine odour. The internal door curtains had similar damage, although they were not as badly damaged as those on the windows.

Lace curtain during treatment

Each of the lace curtains removed for treatment was washed, lined and couched before being returned to their original locations.

The velvet curtains and pelmets underwent a similar treatment to that of the lace curtains, although they were only surface cleaned, not washed, due to their fragile nature. A number of the curtains underwent stain reduction treatments, and many of the corners were repaired where they had frayed. The braids and tassels were also stabilised and repaired where possible.

Decorative tassel during treatment

ACT Historic Places has a conservation policy for Calthorpes’ House which is based on conserving objects in their current state, rather than restoring them to original (or close to original) condition. As a result, alterations to the building fabric and its contents are kept to a minimum, and are undertaken in order to keep the House and its contents in a stable condition, and as close to their state when the House was acquired in 1984 as possible. To that end, our treatments on the pouffe and curtains were minimal, and were aimed at stabilising the damage, rather than restoring the objects to their original condition.

David West and Erin Watson
International Conservation Services

05 May 2010

the value of recognition

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been reflecting on the value of recognition; and in particular, the recognition that arises from awards.  In the heritage conservation sector in NSW, the annual Energy Australia National Trust Heritage Awards are the most prominent; a range of professional organisations include a heritage award within their annual awards (e.g. the Australian Institute of Architects' annual Lachlan Macquarie Award); and an increasing number of local governments hold annual heritage awards.

All of these awards programs have several things in common:
  • They promote best practice in heritage conservation
  • They recognise and acknowledge the work involved in achieving good heritage conservation outcomes
  • They publicise the efforts of owners of heritage items or places, and of the participants in the heritage conservation process
And of course, because awards have to be presented, they usually provide an opportunity for members of the sector to gather together and share experiences.

The catalyst for my reflection on the value of heritage awards was the recognition given to several projects that International Conservation Services has contributed to over the past couple of years at the 2010 Energy Australia National Trust Heritage Awards presented at the Westin Hotel in Sydney on 12 April 2010.

Christ Church, Bong Bong
Award, Conservation of Built Heritage

Dunbar Anchor
Award, Maritime Heritage

Royal Botanic Gardens Heritage Statuary Conservation
Commendation, Conservation of Built Heritage

Sydney Harbour YHA, The Rocks
Commendation, Development

But the real purpose of this blog post was to reflect on how we can all do better at sharing the knowledge, the skills, the experience, and the conservation outcomes, that derive from these award-winning projects.

First and foremost, we need to promote the awards.  We need to tell stories about the awards, and about the award-winning projects.  We need the winners of the awards to post the information on their websites, send newsletters and emails about the awards, and not be shy about promoting the news that they received an award.  Why?  Because publicity about the awards builds interest and builds recognition that the award winning projects represent a benchmark, a level of practice that is desirable and that is achievable.

Secondly, we need to share stories about the work that was done on the projects that were awarded.  We need to publish the reports (online preferably); create photo galleries (online again); give presentations and tours; tell stories about the challenges, the successes, and the failures (yes, the failures) that occurred in the course of completing these award-winning projects.  Sharing these experiences will help us all develop our skills, and disseminate the knowledge that will help more of us do better work more of the time.

Finally, we need to encourage our peers, our partners, our clients, our consultants and our contractors to nominate their projects for awards.  At International Conservation Services, we have been nominating projects for the National Trust Heritage Awards for more than a decade.  Along the way, we've had a number of projects which were recognised with commendation, and this year, 2010, two of our projects received awards.  We're proud of all of these projects.  Just as we're proud of all our other projects that were nominated and not recognised, or the vast array of projects that we didn't nominate for a wide variety of reasons.  Our challenge to ourselves is to share more information about our projects with our community.  Which in a way brings me full circle to the reason why we write this blog!

David West
International Conservation Services

21 April 2010

building over archaeological remains

Two weeks ago, I was delighted to attend the official opening of the Sydney Harbour YHA and the Big Dig Archaeology Education Centre by the Patron of YHA Australia, Her Excellency the Governor General of the Commonwealth of Australia Ms Quentin Bryce AC.

View of The Big Dig Archaeology Education Centre from the Sydney Harbour YHA, looking over some of the archaeological remains exposed on the site.

Located between Cumberland Street and Gloucester Street in The Rocks, Sydney, this development over one of Australia's largest urban archaeological sites is the result of over fifteen years of work by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, land managers for the site, and over six years of work by YHA.

Archaeological excavation of this site was commenced in 1994 by Godden Mackay (now Godden Mackay Logan), and we first provided conservation advice on the archaeological remains at that time.

The remains excavated on the site revealed over thirty dwellings along two streets and two laneways, dating from 1795 to the late 19th Century.  Somewhere between 750,000 and 1.2 million artefacts were excavated (the number depends on who you talk to!).  The research associated with the archaeological excavation led to a wonderful book about the site by Grace Karskens, entitled "Inside the Rocks: the Archaeology of a Neighbourhood".

But enough background.  The real highlight of the official opening was the opportunity to see this new building designed by Tzannes Associates in operation.  Built over the archaeological remains, we provided input during the concept design stage to minimise the impact of the building on the exposed remains.  We also developed options for the protection of the remains during construction, and in conjunction with Built, the builders, we monitored the protection system throughout construction.  We also documented all necessary conservation works to the archaeological remains.

Cumberland Street entry to the Sydney Harbour YHA:
the interpretive screens echo the original terrace houses on the site.

Whilst one of the key marketing pitches for the Sydney Harbour YHA has been the wonderful view of the Sydney Opera House and Circular Quay from the rooftop terrace, light rain in the morning meant that the official opening was relocated into the Anne Armsden Room on Level 1.  This meant that we walked through the reception area, and the main common room, at around 10.30am on a wet morning.  Guests were checking out, using the internet, reading books, having coffee - and the coffee tables are wonderful glass cases containing selections of artefacts from the site!  There was a fantastic energy about the building.

During her official opening speech, Her Excellency shared with us her experiences immediately prior to the official ceremony - she too was captivated by the opportunities for children to learn about history and archaeology at the Big Dig, as well as by the experience for international visitors to live over such a key part of Australia's early history.

After the official opening, we wandered off to inspect some guest rooms, to admire the view from the rooftop terrace, and then most importantly, to head downstairs to walk along the public laneways and view the in situ archaeological remains.  Of course, we paused to look at the variety of interpretive panels located on walls and handrails around the building.

We also popped into the Big Dig Archaeology Education Centre which is located on the site.  Two classrooms, and a dedicated space for some hands-on simulated archaeological excavation activities for children.  We watched delightedly as a group of children listened intently to a costumed coal lumper from the wharves talk about the house he lived in, and introduce a couple of his (also costumed) neighbours to the group.  When we left the site half an hour later, the kids were still clustered around these characters, actively engaging with their stories of the past.

Sydney Harbour YHA is a wonderful new development that provides an innovative way of experiencing part of the history of The Rocks - you can stay in the heart of Sydney at very reasonable rates - consider it for your next visit to Sydney or weekend away!

David West
International Conservation Services

24 March 2010

conserving heritage furniture

Conserving heritage furniture often challenges us to resolve conflicts between authenticity, minimal intervention and reversibility, and the need or desire for the furniture to continue to be used.

Recently we were presented with a set of such challenges as we embarked on a six-month long project to conserve the heritage Council Chamber furniture from the Sydney Town Hall.

This suite of Australian red cedar furniture was originally made by William Coleman for the Council Chamber of the Sydney Town Hall in 1883. The furniture was built to a design by one of the architects for the Town Hall, John Hennessey.

Photo: Historic image of the furniture in the Council Chamber of the Sydney Town Hall.

Comprising a long D-end table in two separate sections, the Lord Mayoral chair, 17 tub chairs, and 4 long benches (2 curved, 2 straight), all pieces of the suite were showing the signs of having been very well-used over a long period of continual service to the Council.

The tub chairs and benches had been re-upholstered numerous times, most recently in a manner quite different to the original. The legs of the chairs had been substantially modified, with repairs, replacements and extensions, none of which matched the original intent or appearance of the chairs. The tables had suffered mainly due to age and use, as well as through the cutting of holes and slots for telephone and computer cables.

The brief from our client, the City of Sydney, was to return the suite of furniture close to its intended original appearance whilst ensuring that it retained the patina of age and history. In addition, as the furniture was proposed to continue to be used for public events and functions, it was important that the conserved items be functional.

Photos: Tub chair prior to (L) and after (R) conservation

As a result of the original design and fabrication of the furniture, we needed to stabilise all of the joints in the tub chairs, and drew on a range of techniques to do this including:

  • Injection of animal hide glue
  • Dismantling of joints (by unscrewing, as the chairs had no traditional mortice and tenon joints), cleaning and re-gluing
  • Re-securing the screws
  • Installation of large curved blocks to the inside of the seat using adhesive
Previous unsympathetic (and weak) extensions to the legs of the tub chairs were removed. We designed and fabricated new extensions which were milled from old Australian cedar to match the original timber, and which followed the original form based on historic photographs.

We completed an assortment of other treatments in order to rectify damage caused by previous repairs or modifications to the tub chairs.

A decision was made at the beginning of the project to retain one of the seventeen tub chairs in the condition we received it in order to show the range of past repairs.

We decided to replace all of the leather during our conservation works, as none of the extant upholstery was original, nor did it look like the original. The tub chairs and benches were re-upholstered to match as closely as possible the original upholstery based on our interpretation of remnant physical evidence and the historic image above. Most notable is the recreation of the original buttoning.

Upon completion of the physical conservation works, the timber elements were refinished with shellac and waxed.

Photo: Council Chamber furniture after conservation works complete

Perhaps the greatest challenge with this project was resolving issues arising from the well-meaning repair and modification works carried out to the Council Chamber furniture in the course of its 125 year history.  It is likely that few of these repair and modification works would have been carried out with any anticipation that one day this suite of furniture would have such historic significance to the City of Sydney.  We are pleased that we have been able to unravel some of the changes that had occurred over time, to reveal the original form of this imposing furniture.

David West
International Conservation Services

16 March 2010

reversing the damage of a previous restoration

Photo: Overall shot before treatment

A beautifully painted portrait of a lady arrived at our door in a horrendous condition. The canvas had suffered severe shrinkage, the paint layer had been forced together, and having nowhere to go, had lifted away from the canvas forming tent-like shapes across the surface of the painting.

Photo: Close up of paint layer

As we investigated the cause of the canvas shrinkage, we found that a restorer had previously attempted to line the canvas using a water based adhesive. Lining is a procedure where a new canvas is adhered to the original canvas in order to add strength and support. However, we try to avoid lining paintings unless it is absolutely necessary because of the risks involved. Poorly executed lining can cause shrinkage of the canvas with associated damage to the paint layer, but can also change the texture and gloss of the paint layer. When carried out correctly, lining can result in a successful stabilisation of the painting without harm.

As conservators we think a lot about how we are going to treat an object. Often, it seems to us that conservation can be more about knowing what we cannot do rather than what we can. It is very easy to re-touch that missing section of paint, or glue a sculpture back together, but what are the consequences of our actions? In essence, this is what our training and code of ethics are all about – how do we treat the problems with an artwork or artefact whilst maintaining its significance and authenticity, and causing no harm to it now or in the future.

Our treatment of this painting was a lengthy and slow process. Over weeks the adhesive was slowly removed, first by softening it with solvents, and then by mechanically scraping away the adhesive. Simultaneously, we slowly stretched the canvas on an expandable stretcher, millimetre by millimetre. Once the canvas was its original size the tenting paint was then laid back into place.

The varnish layer on top of the paint was also badly damaged from the cracking and needed to be removed. Unfortunately, as the varnish was not a conservation grade varnish, it was not soluble in any solvents that did not also damage the paint layer. Consequently, the varnish had to be mechanically scraped away, which took one conservator three weeks to do.

Photo: After treatment

Finally, we lined the painting using the correct materials and processes, before varnishing, filling of losses and re-touching of damage. The overall results were very pleasing but some evidence of the damage still remains in the surface texture.

Photo: After treatment detail

Projects like this remind us of the challenges our clients face in finding a conservator. Conservators undergo extensive training, and generally specialise in just one field, e.g. paintings or paper or sculpture or metals or furniture / wood or textiles. Most conservators have tertiary qualifications – either an undergraduate or masters degree – and have several years experience on the job working with another experienced conservator in one area of conservation alone. When you find a conservator, it is always worth asking them about their qualifications, area of specialisation and experience, and if they have carried out this sort of treatment before.

Communication is also important so that both you and the conservator understand what you wish to achieve from the conservation treatment, and what the conservator expects the outcome from treatment is likely to be. Returning a painting or artefact to a “new” condition is rarely possible or appropriate, but treating it to bring it into a stable and presentable condition is almost always achievable. Prevention of damage is always far better than a cure, and once you have found a good conservator you can be confident that they have the best interests of your artwork, antique or artefact in mind.

Adam Godijn
International Conservation Services