State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 45 Autumn 1990

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The Conservation Treatment of Samuel Jackson's Panorama of Early Melbourne

Introduction

The conservation treatment of large objects always requires careful consideration and a certain amount of imaginative thinking. The condition of the object, whether it is a painting, manuscript or even a large book, may not in itself demand a complex treatment. The size, however, requires that standard approaches be reconsidered in favour of a more flexible framework. This was the case in 1987 when the State Library of Victoria Conservation Department undertook the treatment of Samuel Jackson's
Panorama of early Melbourne.
The Panorama holds a significant place in the La Trobe Library collection, both because of its subject matter and the physical dimensions of the work. Housed in a heavy polished wood frame, the drawing measures over five metres in length. The additional weight of glass, the stretcher on which the drawing is supported, and the original iron supports across the back of the frame give the object a formidable physical presence. Despite such protection, the drawing had become quite discoloured and dusty over the years. Due to the importance of the drawing in the La Trobe Library collection, this slow degradation was reason enough to attempt a conservation treatment — both to prevent further damage, and if possible to reverse some damage which had already occurred.

Choosing a Treatment

In selecting techniques and materials for conservation treatments, conservators follow a professional Code of Ethics. In Australia, this has been developed by the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM), and gives the following general guidelines: materials used must be of archival quality, and therefore not deleterious in any way to the object; techniques should be reversible, i.e. able to be undone in the future if necessary; conservators must work within the limits of their ability and experience so that an object is not damaged by unskilled hands; the historical integrity of the object must be maintained; and the condition of the object and process of treatment must be recorded for future reference. These general rules, together with curatorial guidelines from the custodian of the object, form the basis for selecting a suitable conservation treatment.
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Choosing a treatment for the Panorama seemed, on the surface, relatively simple. As already mentioned, we wanted to stabilize the object so further degradation would not occur, and we also wished to remove discolouration and staining which had occurred over the years. Thus the process would be a full conservation treatment, encompassing elements of “preservation” as well as “restoration”.
However, the size of the drawing posed two problems: our standard laboratory equipment was not big enough to handle the object; and the drawing would have to be worked on by a number of people at the same time. This is an unusual occurrence in Paper Conservation, where most items are treated by an individual conservator. Rescheduling of other treatment programmes was neccessary to allow all staff to concentrate on the treatment of the Panorama.

Assessing the Condition

The first step in the treatment of the Panorama was actually getting it into the Conservation Laboratory, which is situated in the basement of the Library. The length of the framed drawing combined with narrow corridors and corners meant that taking it through the Library to the basement was an impossibility. With the combined effort of Library attendants, general hands and conservators, the Panorama was carried down the stairs from the first floor of the La Trobe Library and out onto La Trobe Street. From there it was conveyed through the Museum Courtyard, and into the basement through a fire exit adjacent to the Paper Conservation Laboratory. The safe arrival of the Panorama meant that the real conservation treatment could begin.
Before starting a treatment, conservators must examine the object thoroughly and provide detailed written and photographic notes on its condition and the treatment proposed.
Working within the framework of their professional ethics, they consider a variety of questions: Can the item be treated safely? Can damage be undone, or only arrested? Can further deterioration be prevented? Are the techniques and materials proposed for the treatment compatible with the history and nature of the object?
With these questions as a starting point, conservators examine the object and try to come up with a solution which resolves the problems without altering its essential nature. The key to modern professional conservation is prevention. Where damage has already occurred, intervention is desirable but should be kept to the necessary minimum.
The examination and documentation of the object forms the core of the conservation treatment. The process of “getting to know” the object through examination is indispensable in making a sound treatment decision. Assessment of the materials and techniques originally used is also invaluable in choosing compatible materials for the conservation treatment. The conservator acts as a contemporary “Renaissance Man”, bringing together knowledge of science, arts and crafts, materials and techniques and history to solve the riddles of deterioration. A combination of practical, technical and philosophical talents goes a long way towards resolving the dilemmas of conserving cultural objects.
In the case of the Panorama, conservators found that the basic structure of the paper was in good condition, despite the inevitable wear and tear of the years. The drawing was executed in black ink and watercolour over a fine pencil grid, on nine adjoining sections of cream machine-made paper. It was mounted on two layers of linen which were stretched taut and nailed over a wooden frame. The frame of the “stretcher” was braced with three wooden supports, and also had three iron bars for fitting into the wooden outer frame. The linen was stamped with the following inscription: “W & C Dean, Artist's Colourmen — Framers — Equitable Place, Melbourne”.
Conservators had originally supposed that the nine sections were joined together after the drawing had been completed. Closer examination suggested that they were already adhered before the artist commenced work, or were joined as the drawing proceeded. This conclusion was reached because many lines and washes of colour ranged over more
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than one section with a uniformity which otherwise would have been very difficult to achieve. Not only were the sections prejoined, but it also appears that they had been folded over one another at some early stage. This was discovered when the drawing was examined under magnification, where faint creases and damaged fibres were visible along the centre of each section.
These discoveries were very important in determining the final treatment. It seemed that it was the artist's original intention for the drawing to be viewed as a whole. If this had not been so, it would have been a responsible option to consider separating the sections and storing them individually. This would have made handling, protection and storage all much simpler, and more oriented towards long-term preservation. As it was, Samuel Jackson's opinion was taken into account through the interpretation of the drawing technique, and historical accuracy was maintained — despite the difficulties this posed in treating the work and in storing and protecting it from further damage.
The most obvious problem with the Panorama was the extreme discolouration of the paper. It is likely that this had occurred largely due to exposure to light. However, other factors such as the quality of the paper and backing cloth, could also have contributed to the deterioration. Additional staining was caused by the proximity of the wooden supports on the stretcher and also by the addition of card and brown paper around the edges of the work. The image itself was remarkably sound. Small losses had occurred through silverfish damage, particuarly at the joins where there was. a concentration of adhesive. Also, small areas of pigment were cracking and lifting but were fortunately not lost.
These details were observed and recorded in the documentation process. The drawing was examined both by the naked eye, and under magnification. Tests were undertaken to determine the level of acidity in the paper, as an indication of the strength and condition of the paper fibres. These tests showed that the paper and linen backing were highly acidic, and were therefore vulnerable to continuing deterioration. The ink and watercolour media were tested for solubility to determine whether the item could withstand washing. These tests are all recorded as part of the documentation process, and by such procedures, the conservator builds up a profile of the object: what it looks like; what it is made from; techniques used by the artist; the extent of damage; and so on. Having completed this crucial detective work, we were now ready to decide upon a treatment and commence work.

The Conservation Treatment

As has already been stated, conservation ethics demands that the intrinsic knowable historical integrity of the item should not be infringed upon. Having made our assessment that Samuel Jackson had worked with prejoined sections or may have joined the sections himself, we then had to work within the confines of that discovery. To our minds this meant that the sections should not be separated even for treatment, and should be regarded as one item. The treatment process we followed is relatively standard in concept, but unusual in its application. As the first step, the drawing was removed from the frame, and completely dusted to remove loose particles of dirt. It was then cut from the stretcher, so the process of removing it from the linen could begin. Because the linen was in such a deteriorated state, it was necessary to remove it entirely. However, a sample was kept as part of the on-going history of the drawing. Before starting work on removing the linen backing and the paper attachments on the front of the drawing, the whole surface was “dry cleaned” with a plastic eraser. This was to further remove dust and ingrained dirt prior to washing. The removal of the card on the front of the drawing was accomplished with the use of steam. The two layers of the linen backing peeled off remarkably easily, leaving behind a thick residue of adhesive. This residue was painstakingly removed by a team of six conservators. Small areas were swabbed to soften and swell the adhesive, then gently scraped with spatulas and dental tools to remove the residue.
After surface cleaning was completed, it was decided that washing would benefit the drawing, for two reasons: it would remove soluble dirt and therefore lighten the discolouration; and by the addition of an alkaline buffering agent in the wash water, it would decrease the acidity and help stabilize the condition of the paper. Because of the size of the drawing, it was impossible to wash it in a conventionl sink, so a temporary bath was constructed using sheets of polythene and dowel rods supported on small stools. The drawing was washed through three changes of purified water, all of which had Calcium Hydroxide added as a buffering agent. The discolouration of the drawing was significantly reduced, and the acidity content reduced to an acceptable level.
Completing the wash meant that the crucial stage of stabilization of the drawing was accomplished. Soluble dirt and discolouration were removed as far as was possible without resorting to further chemical treatments such as bleaching, and a chemical buffer
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was in place to retard further deterioration. The next and final phase of the treatment was to construct a suitable storage format for the drawing.
Because of its size, the Panorama would be extremely vulnerable without a mount and frame. Since the decision had been made to keep it as one whole item, this inevitably led to the conclusion that the drawing would need to be stored in its original frame. This would give it protection from handling, and give it a stable micro-environment to exist in, but created the further problem of where it could be safely housed in the Library.
The first step in replacing the drawing in the frame was to choose a suitable backing material to reattach the drawing to the stretcher. Using the stretcher in combination with a backing cloth was attractive because it maintained the original configuration of the structure as well as helping to keep the item flat and fully supported. A fine but sturdy pure cotton was chosen for the backing. Before use, it was washed to remove any additives. The material was sprayed with buffered deionised water, then stretched while damp over the internal wooden frame and tacked into position.
The drawing itself was adhered onto hand-made Japanese paper using starch paste, and this in turn was adhered to the taut stretched cotton. The whole process of backing the drawing and then placing it onto the cotton had to be completed quickly so that the adhesive stayed moist and also so that there would be uniform drying of the whole ensemblage. The lifting of the backed drawing onto the stretcher was a delicate operation since the positioning of the item was. crucial to allow for balanced mounting around the drawing. The placing of the drawing took twelve conservators, each supporting a part of the Panorama as it was lowered into position.
With the drawing successfully attached to the stretcher, small areas of media which were fragile were consolidated with a clear adhesive (Methyl Cellulose). Areas of loss were repaired and retouched using water colour. An acid-free mount was constructed to separate the drawing from the glass and frame. The drawing, on its stretcher and with attached mount, was then replaced in the frame. Archival board was placed across the back of the frame to protect the drawing from insects and dust. The whole operation had taken the equivalent of one conservator working full-time for one month.

Conclusion

A treatment is completed, but that is not the end of the conservator's role in preserving a cultural artefact. To fulfil professional obligations, the conservator should then make recommendations for storge, display and handling of the object so that no further damage occurs.
For the Jackson Panorama, this sequel is yet to be completed. Because of its enormous size, there are few sites in the La Trobe Library which can satisfactorily house it. Constraints of space, finance and accessibility to Library users all affect the successful negotiation of a desirable location for the drawing. Despite the lack of a real conclusion, the treatment of the Jackson Panorama remains a success: it reduced discolouration and staining, restored damaged areas and should help to protect the drawing from further deterioration. A worthy treatment of a worthy object, and a very worthy cause for continuing commitment to its preservation.
Deborah Breen