Skip to content

Restoring a Streeton

The small French village of Villers-Bretonneux, in the Somme Valley, is a place of huge significance to Australia.

During World War I, the German army – in its attempt to reach Amiens, a strategic city in the north of France – launched two attacks on Villers-Bretonneux, the second of which happened in late April 1918. On the morning of 24 April, German troops briefly took control of the village. But, after an overnight Allied counterattack in which Australian troops played a central part, the village was recaptured and remained under Allied control until the end of the war. However, 2473 Australian casualties were recorded. Today, the site hosts the Australian National Memorial officially commemorating more than 10,000 Australians who served in France and Belgium during the Great War, as it was then known.

Australian artist Arthur Streeton, in his role as official war artist, visited the village and the battleground, which he depicted in the painting Villers Bretonneux 1918. The Art Gallery of NSW purchased the work in 1920. It was recently the subject of a major conservation project on which I worked with frame conservators Margaret Sawicki and Emma Rouse and technical assistant Melissa Harvey.

The conservation treatment of the painting started with a surface cleaning, as it was covered with a thick, yellow dirt layer. This was followed by the removal of several layers of yellowed varnishes. These two treatments had an impressive visual impact, bringing back the original colours of the paint film.

It is unlikely that Streeton himself would have applied any varnish layers so in order to respect his artistic intention, it was decided with Wayne Tunnicliffe and Denise Mimmocchi, (the Gallery’s head curator and senior curator of Australian art) not to revarnish the painting. The final step was to fill in and retouch the losses.

The frame of Villers Bretonneux also required conservation treatment to restore its aesthetic integrity. Cross-section analysis of the frame’s surface layers showed that brass-based paint had been applied over the original surface in an attempt to mimic the gold-leaf gilding. Many ornaments had detached from the frame and were replaced with crude repairs.

In the first step of the frame’s treatment, a detached section of the wooden profile was stabilised with adhesive. Previously crudely repaired sections of ornaments were softened and dislodged mechanically with tools. The bronze paint on the frame’s surface was removed with solvents applied using cotton swabs to reveal the original gilding below. Using moulds, new sections of ornament were made and they were gilded with gold leaf, toned and distressed to match the original gilding.

The restored painting and frame is currently on display in Canberra in the National Gallery exhibition Arthur Streeton: the art of war. The project was made possible through donations to the Conservation Department including support from the Conservation Benefactors.

You can browse a slideshow of photos of the project. Click on one of the small images to begin.

	The painting before treatment.
  • 	The painting before treatment.
  • 	This photo shows the painting’s surface at different treatment stages, from right to left:1 The surface before cleaning2 After cleaning the surface dirt3 After removal of the varnish layer
  • 	The painting during varnish removal.
  • 	The painting halfway through varnish removal, showing the treated section on the left.
  • 	The painting after varnish removal.
  • 	The painting with the paint losses filled in.
  • 	One side of frame before restoration, showing severe cracks and damage to both the frame itself and its ornaments. Many losses of ornaments were painted over with brass-based paint in the past, while new losses exposed the white gesso background and wood carcass, indicating weakness of the foundation.
  • 	The right lower corner of the frame before restoration, showing severe losses of ornaments and previous crude repairs.
  • 	The outer moulding of the frame during treatment. The time-consuming removal of brass-based overpaint (left) revealed well-preserved original gilding layers underneath (right).
  • 	The right lower corner of the frame during treatment, showing replaced missing parts of ornaments in the gesso/compo stage.
  • 	The right lower corner of the frame in-painted in preparation for in-gilding. The surrounded areas show the well-preserved original gilding, which had been revealed from under the layers of overpaint.
  • 	The right lower corner of the frame after in-gilding and toning down to match the surrounding original gilding.
  • 	The middle section of the lower member of the frame after restoration.

Previous post: Sounds of silence

Next post: Artist interview: Kushana Bush

January 08 2018, 10am
by Céline de Courlon
Paintings conservator