Full title: Treatment and research of two paintings by Eugene von Gurard from The Hugh Williamson Foundation conservation program.
Joseph Brown is one of Melbourne’s pioneering art dealers specialising in Australian art; his personal collection contains works from colonial to contemporary art. In 2004, 150 works (including 100 paintings) were donated to the National Gallery of Victoria. A stipulation of this gift was the permanent display of the works, filling three rooms at NGV Australia with The Joseph Brown Collection.
Being from a private collection, the immediate inclusion of the works within the NGV hang, where the painting collection has had available to it different treatment strategies and permanent conservation staff, raises particular aesthetic considerations. The Hugh Williamson Foundation supports programs in Victoria showing leadership and initiative and has funded the initial program of the technical examination and treatment, plus further research into different aspects of each painting. This paper will discuss the two paintings by colonial Australian landscape artist Eugene von Gurard in The Joseph Brown collection, which forms the first part of this program.
The technical examination of these paintings involved the production of infrared reflectograms, x-radiographs, cross-section analysis and ultra-violet and photo microscopy. By comparing preliminary drawings and the final composition, the reflectogram offers an interesting insight into the compositional development and studio processes of the artist. Previously, both pictures had been selectively cleaned and revarnished with a layer of unknown synthetic resin. Despite the layer being less than fifty years old, it had become considerably discoloured. As noted in previous varnish removals of von Gurards in the NGV collection, even subtle discolouration alters the colour relationships within the composition.
Spring in the valley of the Mitta Mitta with the Bogong Ranges in the distance (1863) had a unique phenomenon in the sky with the appearance of vertical streaks with altered colour values. It was originally presumed that this was a surface effect and would be rectified with the varnish removal. When the streaking caused a response in the radiograph it could be seen that the problem was deeper than the surface. Initial research has revealed a phenomenon known as ‘ground staining’ caused by the effects of nineteenth century colourmen experimenting with additives to their ground layers. The effect has also been noted in American paintings from the 1850’s, presumably using materials produced by the same colourmen that were supplying Melbourne at the time of von Gurard’s painting. At the time of writing, elemental analysis – in collaboration with Deborah Lau from the CSIRO – is pursuing the possible causes of this phenomenon in the Australian paintings. The analysis aims to find the metallic elements responsible, possibly the lead drier, lead acetate or the lead salt, lead stearate.