Tag Archives: preservation

Project Spotlight: National Trust at the Blickling Estate

Today we are fortunate enough to be able to spotlight a guest project coming all the way from the Blickling Estate in the United Kingdom.  Thanks to donations from Ashford Trust and the Norfolk Centre, the National Trust has been able to preserve a series of five Grisailles paintings by artist Francis Hayman (1708-1776) — one of the founding members of the Royal Academy.


The paintings are significant because of their genre, the word ‘Grisailles’ referring to the greyish, monochrome colour scheme used.  A Grisaille painting may be created for its own sake, or used as an underpainting for the artist to later finish in colour.  Little is known about the Blickling’s collection of five Francis Hayman Grisailles paintings except that they used to hang in the library.  The fashion in the early 18th Century was to hint towards classicism and antiquity, and the Grisailles resemble the frescos and marble reliefs that were popular at the time. What is particularly interesting is that, despite the changes in fashion, with a move towards the Arts and Crafts period in the later part of the 18th Century, these paintings have stood the test of time, and remained as valued pieces throughout their lifespan.


The conservation of these five works took two forms: consolidation of the paintwork, and stabilization of the frames. Conserving the paintwork was especially challenging because the surface is unvarnished and the paint is quite matte. Hayman is thought to have used a higher proportion of pigment to oil to replicate the look and feel of stonework, and this has resulted in a very porous paint layer. The canvas itself is also unlined. This means any cleaning liquid or glue inevitably soaks through the thirsty surface, and can easily discolor the paintwork. Conservators Sally Woodcock and Polly Saltmarsh consolidated the painting by filling in any surface cracking with specialist glue and using a hot air blower pen kindly borrowed from Willard Conservation Ltd to set this in place. _R9A8153

Once consolidated, Sally used deionised water to lightly clean the surface of the painting, gently removing excess dirt and debris caused by insects and bats.


The money donated also helped to carry out preventative conservation to the frames to ensure that they fully support the canvases. First, they were treated for woodworm. Then balsa wood spacers were inserted between the frame and canvas to prevent the canvas from moving around.  The spacers also ensure easy access to the canvases in the future by minimizing the potential damage caused by needing to remove the paintings from their frames. Interestingly, it’s been assumed that these black frames with gilded edges are original, but white flecks of paint seen on the sides of the canvas (only visible when the paintings are removed from their frame) perhaps suggest that the frames were actually white originally.


The conservation work that was carried out on this Hayman series will significantly improve the lifespan of these works, embodying the idea of preserving the past forever, for everyone.


Written by the National Trust, Blickling Estate.  Edited by Fine Arts Conservation.

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The challenges of working with degraded, powdery leather—Four panels from a painted leather screen

A bit of background on the panels: in another life they formed a screen, but it appears the leather was cut from something originally larger (possibly wall paneling in a room, or an even larger screen). This is suggested by the sharp cut lines along the edges and the fact that part of the painted/embossed border design has been trimmed. The wood frames to which they are now attached appear to be relatively recent. Narrow strips of leather secured with brass nails were added to cover up the cut edges.

Each of the four panels is comprised of  two sections of leather stretched over a wooden  frame. The leather is embossed and painted with floral and animal/bird motifs. The surface is varnished overall and stained to give the painted background an “antiqued” appearance.

Current condition: The leather is extremely desiccated and brittle, and shows an advanced stage of a type of deterioration known as red rot. The latter includes overall loss of strength, embrittlement, desiccation, and associated cracking, flaking, and powdering of the leather with resulting breakage and loss of fibers—this is particularly apparent in the leather trim along the edges.

This is what red rot looks like up close:

You can see that the fibers are breaking up and crumbling to dust.

The problem, simply stated, is that the leather is disintegrating. The fibrous structure made up by the collagen protein is literally breaking apart and turning into dust, especially in the trim leather, which is of a different type than the large pictorial areas. The trim is extremely ragged in appearance due to the abundance of losses. There are a number of tears and splits in the primary decorative leather as well, the worst of which is across the bottom of  panel #1 (below). To complicate matters, the varnish on the main leather (but not the trim) is sensitive to many solvents, including alcohols; it is not adversely affected by naphtha or xylene.

A comprehensive discussion of the mechanisms of leather deterioration can be found in Conservation of Leather and Related Materials by Marion Kite and Roy Thomson. I highly recommend this book for anyone that is working with leather.

Oh, I should mention that the backs of the panels have been lined with a layer of acidic paper and a heavy woven cotton fabric. Both are adhered with animal glue! Ugh!! Oddly enough, the fabric does not extend all the way to the edges of the frame, and looks as though it was applied after the leather was stretched onto the frame! Not a well thought-out solution, and clearly not the work of a professional conservator, nor even that of a skilled restorer.

Removing the lining is not really an option because the leather is too weak and the damage this process would likely cause is too great (plus, our dear client has limited funds). Therefore, we will only be removing certain sections, where it’s necessary to gain access to the back for mending tears and splits.


Coming up next:  Treatment highlights

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Welcome to my blog. I am a sculpture and 3-D objects conservator based in Los Angeles. I love my job because every project is unique, poses new challenges, and presents an opportunity for creative problem-solving! Art conservation has a tiny bit in common with environmental conservation, in that both are concerned with preservation of precious resources–in my case,  it’s our cultural and artistic heritage.

I consider sharing  information with one another to be an invaluable tool in our collective repository. That’s why I decided to write about some of the more interesting projects currently underway at our studio. This is intended mainly for folks who already have some understanding of what conservators do, or want to learn more about it.

My first series of posts will describe the treatment of four leather panels that once formed a folding screen, said to have originated in France (clearly with Asian influence) sometime in the mid to late 19th century.

The leather is severely deteriorated, and suffers from a condition known as red rot.

Much more on this topic (and how I am dealing with it) soon…

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