The role of the Gallery’s conservators is to protect these works from deterioration, while making them accessible to the viewing public for now and the future. To meet this challenge, conservators undertake examination, documentation and treatments as well as ensuring that proper storage, handling and display protocols are in place to provide the best environment for each work’s long term safety. The conservators are also responsible for condition reporting and advising on the safe-keeping of works that come into the Gallery on loan.
All conservation work is supported by the most current research and informed by specialist education. As such, the conservation team adhere to the highest international standards, working to minimise intervention and promote longevity, while respecting the historical integrity and original artistic intention of each work. To carry out their duties, the Gallery’s conservators work closely with their colleagues, particularly those in the curatorial and registration teams.
The conservation department consists of four professionally qualified conservators and two technicians. Together, they look after three specialty areas: objects, paintings and paper. There is also a full-time framer who repairs and makes the often complex frames integral to so many works.
The Gallery’s paintings conservator is responsible for ensuring that all paintings in the Collection, as well as those on loan from other institutions, are preserved in a stable condition. The paintings conservator looks after all types of painted surfaces from traditional eighteenth century easel paintings to contemporary Indigenous artworks. Numbering around 3,000 works, these paintings may be made with a range of media including oil, acrylic, or ochre on a variety of supports including canvas, board, wood or metal.
A thorough understanding of the physical and chemical properties of artists’ materials and intent, the art historical context, and the significance of the painting are needed before commencing any treatment. To this end, the paintings conservator collaborates with the Gallery’s curators to examine the structure of individual paintings, research artists' materials and methods and the techniques and materials needed for conservation treatment.
This interdisciplinary approach not only provides invaluable information about the way a painting would have originally appeared, but can also help reveal an artist’s unique techniques in constructing the work.
To assist with treatment and to develop an understanding of an artist’s methods and materials, the paintings conservator studies a painting extensively using a combination of technical tools including microscopes, X-ray equipment and infra-red cameras. Such technical research is vital to current conservation work as it guides treatment, assists in attribution and helps distinguish original layers of paint from later additions.
Where possible, results are shared with a broad audience through publications, conferences, didactic panels and public lectures.
Frames are integral to the presentation of many artworks and can often be appreciated as works of art in their own right. Their importance led to the creation of a specialised frame conservation section within the Gallery’s conservation department. The Gallery’s approach to framing is that frames should ideally be precisely accurate to the period in which the work was completed, enhance the picture, and secure the work safely. To properly conduct such work, the Gallery framer draws on a combination of skills including the traditional crafts of hand carving and water gilding and an understanding of modern materials.
In many cases works are purchased either unframed or have been subsequently reframed inaccurate to period. In the decades leading up to the mid-20th century in particular, frames in both public and private collections were often considered simply as decorative elements around a painting with little or no historical value. They would often be discarded with a change of owner or fashion. As a result, many original gilded frames between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries were sometimes replaced with contemporary mouldings, such as commercially finished frames or linen covered slips. This is the case for some paintings in the Collection.
The Gallery is dedicated to reversing this history by researching the provenance of frames for paintings in the Collection and establishing an archive of profiles and ornamentation suitable to particular artists and periods. In addition, some original frames are in such poor condition that they no longer provide a safe environment for the painting and require major restoration, often at a structural level. In some instances, the Gallery framer crafts a period accurate historical frame.
In each case these frames are based on extensive research into suitable period frames, and rely on the expertise of the Gallery’s frame maker and an archive of thousands of carved and composition profiles of original ornamentation collected over many years. All decisions concerning a new frame are the result of discussions between the Gallery’s frame maker and the relevant conservator and curator.
The Gallery’s two paper conservators are responsible for the care and preservation of approximately 9,500 art works on paper in the Collection. Works on paper include prints, drawings, watercolours, photographs, artists’ and illustrated books, as well as a variety of mixed media art works which incorporate paper. The types of works range from early nineteenth century Indian miniatures, delicate colonial watercolours to contemporary digital photographs and sculptural installations.
Works on paper are particularly sensitive to the environment around them and are susceptible to damage from a number of sources such as light, temperature, relative humidity, dust, insects, vibration as well as rough handling and vandalism.
To counter potential harm from these elements, the paper conservators ensure that optimum environmental standards are met for every art work while in storage, on display or in transit. They also provide advice or assist with the installation of complex or fragile unframed works, such as sketchbooks, oversize photographs or multi-component pieces.
In consultation with the Gallery’s curators, the paper conservators undertake treatments that repair damage or alleviate future deterioration. Treatments may include reducing discolouration, repairing losses in paper, mending tears, adhering flaking media or replacing old mounts with acid-free materials. These interventions are made with a combined respect for the unique characteristics of the art work’s material make-up and an understanding of the artist’s creative process.