QVMAG bring the work of Frederick Strange back to life

QVMAG senior conservator Amy Bartlett with curator Yvonne Adkins.
QVMAG senior conservator Amy Bartlett with curator Yvonne Adkins.

They say a picture tells a thousand words, but that number wouldn’t do justice to work of the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery conservation team.

The gallery’s group of restorers faced one of their most demanding assignments yet when they received a contribution from a private vendor to the The Enigmatic Mr Strange, Creating a Past: The life and art of Frederick Strange c. 1807-1873 exhibition. 

Strange’s portrait of Launceston boy William Tyson is one his earliest known works, having been completed in 1943. 

A work on paper which was adhered to a ply panel, the painting was applied with a waxy varnish after it was oil painted.

The fact it was kept in a humid environment meant an inherent vice from the varnish had caused efflorescence to form in areas of the work, obscuring the entire body and parts of the face.

While the team had prepared other works for the exhibition, paper conservation specialist Amy Bartlett said the portrait of William Tyson presented a unique challenge in more ways than one.

“We don’t usually treat private works, but because this was such a crucial work for the exhibition, we put everything else aside to attend to it,” she said.

“There was only a week to get it ready, which meant we were already in new territory.

“What we needed to do first was conduct tests to decide which solvents would be most effective in removing the substance without damaging the painting.

“After finding out what I could use to remove the efflorescence, I slowly swabbed starting from the bottom.”

Not only did Ms Bartlett have to remove crystalised efflorescence from surface, but also mould which had gathered within the frame package.

She said the aim was to protect the painting from any future damage.

“It was an intensive treatment over a short period of time, but it changed the aesthetic of the work,” she said.

“In terms of its long term preservation, the removal of those substances means it has a better chance of lasting for longer.”

The work of Ms Bartlett and the rest of the conservation team was of special interest to Frederick Strange expert and exhibition curator, Yvonne Adkins.

She said the painting was in many ways the jewel in the crown of the exhibition collection.

HISTORIC VIEW: Frederick Strange's View of Launceston.

HISTORIC VIEW: Frederick Strange's View of Launceston.

“It’s the earliest work in the collection, and when we first started the exhibition, we thought it was lost,’ she said.

With the help of some private collectors, they were able to locate the portrait and made contact with the owner, who agreed to loan it to the gallery so it could be part of the exhibition.

Despite its condition, Mrs Adkins said it still carried all the trademarks of a Frederick Strange artwork.

“Frederick Strange never signed or dated his work, but the provenance of this portrait was very good,” she said.

“We believe that William Tyson’s father had really supported Frederick Strange. 

“Some of the other watercolours depict a sawmill, which is where we know the father of the boy worked.

“The two men are believed to have formed a connection when they were both involved in apprehending a thief, and gave evidence together at the subsequent trial.”

It was not Strange’s first brush with the law, with the artist originally transported from Nottingham, England to Van Diemen's Land after committing a series of burglaries in 1837.

He was granted a leave pass for good behaviour and arrived in Launceston in 1841. 

Mrs Adkins said the detail of his work told its own story.

“I don’t think I would ever really want to undertake an exhibition like this without a conservation team, because when they take a painting apart, they often uncover inscriptions and other things that help us build a story,” she said.

STRANGER THINGS: Strange's painting of Battery Point from Sandy Bay.

STRANGER THINGS: Strange's painting of Battery Point from Sandy Bay.

“It’s critical to have the expertise of conservators around you because a lot of these paintings are from 1840s and 50s.”

While the QVMAG conservation team were able to work their magic on William, there was another work in the exhibition that they couldn’t restore fully.

Taken from their own collection, The Portrait of Mrs John Nicholson (Marion Davidson) was deemed to fragile for the team to work on, and was instead exhibited in its natural state.

Ms Bartlett said the damage it developed was not uncommon an uncommon occurence for paintings created around that time.

“I’ve written  a piece about his oil painting and some of the problems conservators have found,” she said.

“Even though this portrait is oil on paper, it still has some of the same issues, because it is an oil painting on canvas.

“The materials that were available to him at the time do cause issues with bubbling and cracks.

‘Given efflorescence has shown up on a number of his paintings, we can deduct he painted a lot of his works the same way.

“The way they are all behaving now means we can easily identify them as Frederick Strange pieces.”

The nature of the work undertaken by the conservation team meant they were in close contact with Ms Adkins throughout the process. Mrs Adkins the relationship between herself and the conservation team was at the heart of the exhibition.

“It becomes very exciting because you are sharing information, which starts to work for you,” she said.

“An exhibition like this really has to be a collaboration between the historian, the curator and the conservation team.

“I have a checklist of ten things I go through before I can believe it is a Frederick Strange painting, and the conservators are very much a part of helping me go through each point.”