Thursday, 19 April 2012

Triage

Happily, most of the Bertha May Ingle artworks we have are in very good condition, despite their age and the highly variable storage conditions they have endured over the years. But many are in trouble, and need rescuing.

What to do? Where to begin?

Old paper. Brittle canvas. Surface damage. Decades of dirt. Perhaps mildew, in a few cases, obscuring the paint almost completely.

Much depends on the material a work was executed on. As struggling artists have always had to do, Bertha drew and painted on whatever materials were available and affordable. She often had proper artists' sketchbooks for drawing with pencil, and good paper for watercolours, but she also had to rely on many other kinds of lesser-quality paper, especially for her planning sketches and experimental studies. The latter she probably didn't intend or expect to last anyway, but fortunately for us she kept quite a lot of them. They are very much worth having, now, because they can tell us things about how she worked, and often provide clues as to names and dates and locations of other works. Many are also fine works of art, in themselves. But in many cases the poorer and older papers are deteriorating, yellowing, becoming brittle.

She painted oil paintings on canvas and on masonite, as well as on paper-based board of varying thickness and quality. Most of these materials have survived the years rather well.

[Masonite, I have learned, is still sold at art supply stores and is valued by artists as an archival material. When it is manufactured only from wood, without glues, oils, or other additives, it is a long-lasting, stable material very suitable for painting. This web site discusses its history and properties: http://www.finearttips.com/2009/03/gesso-a-masonite-panel/ ]

Pictures that have been displayed on walls in homes from the earliest years often have the to-be-expected accumulation of dust, grease from cooking, candle smoke, and tobacco smoke. Those that have been stored away, even if not in the best conditions, are at least more likely to have fairly clean surfaces. But they may have suffered from mechanical damage and the effects of excessive moisture in damp basements.

In our fantasy world, just after we have 'won the Lottery', we would apply the best and latest conservation methods to every work, starting tomorrow; we would clean every surface, de-acidify every piece of paper, restore every bit of flaked-off paint. But, in practice, we must make choices, set priorities.

An essential first priority has been to improve and stabilize the conditions in which the works are stored. All works on paper or board are now in archival sleeves, laid flat in acid-free museum boxes, and stored in an environment that is not subject to wide swings of temperature and humidity. Not quite Museum-standard controlled conditions, to be sure, but a great deal better than in the past.

Certain paintings we decided to have professionally cleaned right away, particularly where there appeared to be surface mildew as well as dust and dirt. They included a few portraits that we sensed could be very special, yet had become almost invisible. I took five of them to a Toronto gallery where they have an arrangement with a skilled and experienced conservationist. I was hopeful, but also rather skeptical about how much could be done. It would take a few weeks, they said.


I shall not soon forget the emotion I felt when the results were unveiled. Treasures that had seemed to us to be lost, with no hope of recovery, suddenly lay before me on the table, glowing in their original colours, miraculously reborn from what had seemed certain oblivion. No, I shall not soon forget that feeling.



We'll keep working at this part of the project, identifying the works most in need, most artistically deserving of attention, most suitable for purposes of exhibition, most important for representing her work in particular times and places. We've contacted experts, explored some of the treatments that are available. Choices aren't easy, and between us we probably won't fully agree on the priorities, but the direction we must go is clear. Onwards!

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