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