Paint pigments and paper conservation

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<p>Tara Elder, washing a print at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki</p>

Tara Elder, washing a print at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

Thanks to the Marylyn Mayo Foundation, specific internships are offered at the Gallery each year in particular areas, including within our Conservation department. The recipient of the 2021 Marylyn Mayo Internship is Tara Elder who is being supported to pursue her work in paper conservation, as well as research for an upcoming exhibition and study conservation practices under the guidance of leading experts.

Tara was attracted to apply for the Marylyn Mayo internship due to the opportunity it offers to work with the treatment of artwork, especially artworks on paper. The research side of the internship also appealed and, as Tara has been working in roles focused on preventative conservation and documentation, this internship gave her the opportunity to try out hands-on conservation treatments.

The Gallery is the only institution in the country that offers an internship of this kind and the opportunity to work with leading practitioners. The Gallery’s Conservation Research Centre is home to specialists working in the areas of painting, works on paper, photographic and objects conservation.

As part of her work, Tara is undertaking research into specific pigments for an upcoming exhibition – work that involves looking at the chemistry of these pigments and any conservation problems that could arise.

However, it doesn’t stop there. Tara also been investigating the dark past of certain pigments with the aim of developing a Horrible Histories-inspired public programme for children and young adults. Tara’s work has unearthed twisted tales on pigments, bringing to life the history of pigment and the dark past associated with pigments.

There’s ‘mummy brown’ – a type of brown pigment created from Egyptian mummies. Then there’s an emerald green that was used heavily in Victorian wallpapers, yet contained arsenic, known to be deadly.

‘Ivory black was traditionally produced by charring elephant ivory in a crucible. Indian yellow was produced from the dried urine of cows that had been fed a diet exclusively of mango leaves. Its manufacture was banned in India on humane grounds in 1908,’ explains Tara.

‘Most disturbing of all, mummy brown, a pigment that was in use from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, was made from pulverised Egyptian mummies.’

As part of this work, Tara has been able to utilise modern technology within the Gallery and at partner organisations. There’s X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF), which can determine which elements are present in a non-destructive way. Tara has also experienced scanning electron microscopy / energy dispersive spectroscopy (SEM/EDS) at The University of Auckland. This allows conservators to look at a tiny sample of paint and determine its elemental composition. Radiography’s large X-ray machines also allow for X-raying a painting, so the structure, frame, paint layers and much more can all be identified.

While some of Tara’s work takes advantage of modern machinery, some is very hands-based, especially her work with paper.

Tara is also working with Auckland Art Gallery Paper Conservators Georgina Whitely and Camilla Baskcomb to undertake a treatment programme for the upcoming exhibition, Manpower: Myths of Masculinity.

The Gallery’s paper conservators typically work 6 to 12 months ahead of an artwork being exhibited, assessing which works can be justified as needing treatment. As part of her internship, Tara is able to get hands-on experience. This includes painstakingly removing paper works using a scalpel from backing boards that are often acidic.

‘One of the most valuable parts of my internship is getting lots of hands-on treatment experience. This includes completing several conservation treatments from start to finish. Paper conservator Georgina Whiteley taught me the processes for documenting the condition of works on paper that she developed during her years working in private practice and at London’s Tate gallery,’ says Tara.

‘I am completing many condition documentations and treatments for the exhibitions Manpower: Myths of Masculinity and Romancing the Collection. Two of the most satisfying treatments I undertook were on artworks that were not fit for display due to their condition.’

One of these was on The Three Graces, a seventeenth-century line engraving by an unknown artist after Agostino Carraci. The support of this artwork was adhered to a non-contemporary backing paper and it had two large losses to the edges. In addition, it had a discoloured, grimy appearance with several large stains. One of these had the appearance of a blood stain, but spot testing indicated that it was not blood. After removing the backing paper, the artwork was immersion washed, then spot bleached, which successfully reduced staining and discolouration. The losses were then filled with an antique laid paper of similar weight. Prior to being adhered, the edges of fills were chamfered, so that the paper thickness remained uniform. The chain lines on the fill were matched to those on the support paper.

Alongside this work, the Marylyn Mayo Internship gives Tara exposure to the breadth of work undertaken in the Gallery’s Conservation department.

About the Marylyn Mayo Internship

Marylyn Mayo had lifelong interests in education, law and the visual arts. She collected the work of Australian and New Zealand artists and enjoyed visiting art galleries, particularly Auckland Art Gallery.

After her death in 2002, the Marylyn Mayo Foundation was established by her husband for the benefit of a number of causes. As a result of this generosity, we're pleased to offer opportunities for internships at Auckland Art Gallery that develop the skills of people wishing to pursue a career in art galleries and art museums.

The Marylyn Mayo Internships at the Gallery offer training and work experience in curatorial, education, public programmes, print and electronic publications, communications, research library, audience research and development, conservation, collection management, exhibitions management, imaging, design and exhibitions preparatory work.

More information can be found here.