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Conservation of the paintings of Ian Fairweather

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Fig. 1 | Ian Fairweather painting in his studio on Bribie Island, 1972 | National Archives of Australia: A6135, K24/11/72/1

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Fig. 2 | View of an area of lifting paint on Punch and Judy 1964. Previous application of glue in an unsuccessful repair is visible as shiny excess around the paint crack | Photograph: Anne Carter

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Fig. 3 | Detail top left corner of Alpha c.1951 showing the fragile paint surface | Photograph: Ray Fulton

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Fig. 4a | View of Bus stop 1965. Visible light | Photograph: Anne Carter

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Fig. 4b | View of Bus stop 1965. UV illumination shows the autofluorescence of colours and medium. The brigh pink fluorescence is likely to be alazarin crimson in patches and the purple reflectance shows titanium based pigments in the grey and white paint. Photograph: Anne Carter

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Fig. 5 | Paint cross section from Trotting race 1956 showing the mixtures of pigments and fillers which make up the paint. The binder has been characterised as oil modified alkyd | Photograph (x40 magnification): Anne Carter

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Fig. 6 | The verso of Bus stop 1965 being prepared for mounting. Removable Japanese tissue tabs are adhered in locations where Velcro will later be attached. The cradle is in the background and in this case required a plywood insert that fits within previously attached Masonite corners on the verso of the artwork | Photograph: Samantha Shellard

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Fig. 7 | Trotting race 1956 detail showing rim of sink mount protecting the fragile painting | Photograph: Samantha Shellard

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Fig. 8 | A selection of frame sample profiles designed for the paintings of Ian Fairweather in the QAGOMA collection | Photograph: Danielle Hastie

Materials

In 1957, artist James Gleeson, then art critic at the Sun newspaper, wrote that the paintings of Ian Fairweather would never last. (1) Reputedly using whatever materials came to hand within his itinerant lifestyle, the paintings of Ian Fairweather (1891-1974) are renowned as much for their fragility as their beauty, and this is part of their appeal.

Fairweather settled on Bribie Island in 1953 and from 1958 developed his late style using ‘plastic paints’ (Fig. 1). He described, for example, in 1963 that he now mostly used powder colour and poly vinyl acetate (PVA). (2) However, very little has been published on Fairweather’s materials and there is almost no reported medium analysis.

An initial examination of Fairweather’s late works in the QAGOMA collection revealed unstable paint and altered paint surfaces, with many artworks requiring reframing (Fig. 2 and 3). An example of a treatment carried out on ‘Head’ 1955, is described in a previous QAGOMA post. In order to plan a conservation approach to treat these paintings the Gallery’s Conservation section commenced a study to investigate materials and to develop suitable mounting and framing techniques.

The story of Fairweather’s material use is long and complex. He formally trained at the Slade School in London, and his early works contain leached oil mediums. He began to avoid using oil paint in the late 1930s due to an allergic reaction. Thus, from 1939, he was looking for water-based matt and bodied paint. (3) Suitable commercially available paints at this time would have included artist watercolours and gouache, decorator paints including casein and distemper, and poster colours made from cellulose. Water based synthetic paints were not yet available. War rationing and poverty would have also affected his material choices. Interviews and letters describe his use of unusual materials from the 1940s until 1958, for example, soap, casein, Clag Paste and Reckitt’s Blue washing agent are mentioned. (4) Paintings from this period are among the most fragile of Fairweather’s oeuvre.

Paint analysis was undertaken through the QAGOMA Centre for Contemporary Art Conservation utilising fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) for initial characterisation, as well as ultraviolet light imaging (UV), infrared red reflectography (IR) and industry research (Figs. 4a and 4b). A material theory that is being investigated is that of Murray Bail who proposed that Fairweather only started painting his late larger paintings from 1958 when water based dispersions were available to him.

Research to date has revealed the earliest use of synthetic polymer in a painting from 1956, this being an oil modified alkyd paint which is likely to be solvent based (Fig. 5). Material analysis supports his predominant use of poly vinyl acetate from 1959, but also revealed his continued use of alkyd as well as a yet uncharacterised paint media. FTIR analysis of media from pre 1956 paintings has proved difficult with samples not identifiable due to the paint being under bound. However, a significant finding is that Fairweather was not exclusively using water based paints at this time.

Fairweather’s technique continues to elude a simple understanding. He was an artist whose work, including the palette, was directly influenced by the availability of materials. This initial research confirms that the fragility of his paintings varies enormously depending on their date, the support, the type of paint materials used and environmental and conservation history. Even though the late paintings are more robust than works from the 1940s and early 1950s, the way Fairweather used paint, what he added and how he adjusted the medium has not render all late paintings inherently stable.

Mounting

Two techniques have been developed to prepare Ian Fairweather paintings for display.  Both techniques - cradle mounting and sink mounting - have been designed to manage the fragile nature of the artworks.

An assessment of the QAGOMA collection of Fairweather paintings revealed that most of the painted surfaces extended to the edges of the supports.  Some artworks were also found to be not square and others with quite irregular edges.  Interestingly, in numerous paintings the artist has used a painted border as a framing device.

The main objectives that were addressed in developing new mounting techniques were:

  • To reduce the impact of the frame on the delicate, vulnerable edges of the paintings,
  • To ensure that the frame glazing never comes in contact with the paint surface,
  • To reveal as much of the painted surface as possible, given that the artist frequently painted up to the very edge of the support,
  • To create a sound working edge for framing.

To prepare paintings that have been adhered to Masonite for framing, wooden Western Red Cedar ‘cradles’ were manufactured measuring 1cm larger on all sides than the artworks. The artworks were then carefully attached to the cradles using a Velcro system (Fig. 6). When a painting is attached, the cradle acts as a ridged auxiliary support taking the distributed weight and pressure of the frame away from the delicate edges of the painting support and the paint film at the edges.

Paintings on paper supports, such as cardboard and newspaper that have not been adhered to solid secondary supports are some of the most vulnerable to paint cracking and damage. This is because the paper support responds to changes in humidity and temperature by cockling and bending. The paint layers are not as flexible as the paper support and consequently can crack. These works are also difficult to handle as the paper is flexible and the paint is not.

Preparation of these works for framing required the use of thick acid free cardboard auxiliary supports, attached using Japanese tissue tabs and starch paste. In a similar method to the cradle, the cardboard was larger all the way around the perimeter of the artwork, allowing the cardboard support to take the pressure of the frame. Once tabbed to a cardboard support, the works on paper were fitted with a sink mount (Fig. 7).  A sink mount is a surrounding edge of cardboard that is high enough to allow for any dimensional changes in the paper. Essentially the sink mount acts as a spacer to keep the glazing from touching the paint surface.

Framing

Ian Fairweather left the choice of selecting picture frames for his paintings to others. Very little information is available in regard to the way in which Fairweather envisaged how his paintings would be framed or displayed. All of Fairweather’s artworks were sent to dealers or galleries unframed thus entrusting the decision of selecting profiles, styles and finishes to a second party.  The main sources of information documenting the styles of picture frames used on Ian Fairweather’s paintings exist mainly in exhibition installation photographs, oral records or on paintings in both public and private collections.

The frame styles used on Fairweather’s artworks were contemporary to the period.  The picture framing industry of the early to mid-20th century was vastly different to that of the 19th century. The use of gold leaf and carved or applied ornament was being replaced with painted finishes, plain mouldings and linen slips. There was a shift towards simplicity of design throughout the 20th century away from earlier heavier styles of the preceding centuries.

Technological advancements in manufacturing techniques and materials influenced architecture, interior design and consequently picture frames. Gold leaf, the traditional finish on picture frames for centuries, was being replaced with other decorative surface finishes such as aluminum and silver leaf, painted and textured finishes, the use of fabrics and natural finishes sealed with polishes or wax, all designed to harmonize with modern interior spaces.

Mid-20th century modern design introduced profiles and shapes to picture frame mouldings that retained some elements of historical framing vernacular while eliminating all forms of applied ornament, thus exposing the frame’s simple structure. Original period frame styles found on artworks by Fairweather epitomize this modern aesthetic, consisting of simple linear mouldings, usually one, two or three sections of varying profiles either used individually or in combination.

Picture frame mouldings were constructed locally from native and imported species of timber, mostly from the Araucaria genus, such as Hoop pine. These moulding were purchased ‘in the raw’, having no finish, directly from the manufacturer with the mouldings then being cut to size. The frames were mostly painted with colours selected by dealers, to harmonize with the tonal values of paintings or left in the raw, being either waxed or polished.  Occasionally combinations of the two finishes can be found on a frame. Throughout Fairweather’s artistic career the mid-20th century modern aesthetic influenced the way in which his paintings were housed and ultimately the way in which they were presented to the public.

Following research into frame styles for the QAGOMA collection of Ian Fairweather paintings, the Conservation Framer designed and manufactured 10 frame sample profiles and finishes to suit the Fairweather paintings (Fig. 8).  A selection of these profiles were then used to craft reproduction frames for the Fairweather paintings in the collection.

Anne Carter, Paintings Conservator
Samantha Shellard, Paper Conservator
Robert Zilli, Conservation Framer
Endnotes
1. Gleeson, James. ‘An artist minus a soul: Fine work spoilt’. Sun, 20 November 1957.
2. 26 Nov 1965 transcripts of interview between Hazel de berg, Bribie Island, National Library of Australia. Quoted in Bail, Murray. Fairweather. 2nd edn., Murdoch Books, Sydney, 2009. p265
3. 26 Nov 1965 transcripts of interview between Hazel de berg, Bribie Island, National Library of Australia. Quoted in Bail, Murray. Fairweather. 2nd edn., Murdoch Books, Sydney, 2009.  p265.
4. Bail, Murray. Fairweather. 2nd edn., Murdoch Books, Sydney, 2009. p266