On the Mend

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Friday 31 October 2014
Genevieve Silvester

The conservation of Woman with a Floral Wreath from the collection of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

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Before treatment: the discolouration of old overpaint over a large tear in the lower right of the painting is very distracting.

Probably late 18th century, Woman with a Floral Wreath is a copy of the work of Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805). Scarred by an old tear in the lower right of the canvas – which had become raised and discoloured – our painting has lingered for a number of years in storage awaiting conservation treatment.

First steps

The impetus for treatment centred on that tear. The edges had begun to lift and the retouching was significantly discoloured, no longer integrated with the surrounding original paint. To improve the repair, the old retouching and fill needed to be removed.

But, to complicate matters, the painting was wax-resin lined (a second canvas is adhered to the original) some time ago, but the adhesion had begun to fail. Unfortunately the adhesive was applied unevenly which caused deformations in the original canvas. To remove these, the two needed to be separated and the glue removed. This also allows realignment of the fibres in the tear which would help ensure an almost invisible repair.

Removal of the lining

To protect the surface of the painting, a sheet of strong but flexible tissue paper was adhered to the surface.

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Applying facing tissue

The stretcher and lining canvas were then removed. It was exciting to discover newsprint in French still adhered to the stretcher giving further clues to the painting’s provenance. The thick layer of wax resin adhesive was removed as far as possible. After which the painting regained much more flexibility and the deformations relaxed back into plane.

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1. Removing the old stretcher 2. The lining canvas, made from cotton duck 3. The original canvas, with a layer of thick uneven wax-resin

Removal of the varnish 

To support the painting during varnish removal and while mending the tear, it was temporarily adhered to a polyester fabric around the perimeter. This was attached to a strainer, allowing safe handling, access to front and back, and air circulation during varnish removal.

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The back of the painting made accessible while attached to a temporary strainer during treatment.

A film of discoloured varnish and much of the overpaint was removed, revealing the subtle tonal modelling of the painting.

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Halfway through varnish removal, the left side still has a layer of yellowed varnish

About me

A kiwi paintings conservator, fresh from training and working in Europe, I was looking to gain experience with fellow New Zealand conservators when the chance to be involved in this project arose and I have been preparing this French beauty for a return to the gallery wall.

In my next entry I hope to show the process of repairing the canvas and lining and retouching, and maybe dabble with some technical examination results. Check back soon!