One summer’s morning in a provincial Australian town I found myself standing in the town hall, staring up into a large gilded framed mirror. The mirror, a gift to the town from a grateful colonist with a defiant taste for the Roccoco, was to be cleaned and repaired in time for the centenary celebrations only a few weeks away. It wasn’t to be removed from the wall to which it had been bolted for the past 100 years; instead I was to work on a mobile scaffold supplied by the council’s obliging painters.
From a distance the frame’s golden curls and swags of flowers looked a little dusty and cracked but, as I climbed closer to the ornate decoration, the more rough repairs and fills and overpainting leapt out at me. I became irritated—how could this have been done, I wondered, why didn’t they match the inpainting, why did they leave that lump of plaster squashed with a thumb into a corner, did they really just randomly stick that swag of flowers to the nearest bit of molding?
As the day wore on my thoughts kept travelling along this road until I became distracted by the effort of scrambling up and down the scaffold ladders for forgotten equipment, and by twisting into cramp-inducing positions trying to see into the dark hollows and crevices that were always too low or to high for whatever level of the scaffold I was on. At one point, while hanging over the top railing, I wondered if the WorkSafe officer was about to watch me plunge to my death on the polished parquet floor, and not safely tucked up in her office.
I started thinking about all those who had worked on the mirror before me and the advent of mobile scaffolding—those people who had had to climb up and down tall ladders with pots of paint and plaster, who had twisted and turned hanging onto the ladder, forgetting things, climbing up and down, moving the ladder this way and that. I suddenly realised the rough fills, the random attachments, the acres of overpainting were less about carelessness than perhaps the sheer physical challenge of creating a perfectly executed inpainted fill while holding onto a ladder with one hand, twenty feet in the air.
Several days later and the job complete, I stood again looking up at the mirror, now repaired and cleaned. I saluted those who had gone before me and hoped that those who came after would be a little forgiving.