April 1996 Issue 19
The 'Leighton Project': Backstage
I worked at the V&A as an intern in Paintings Conservation for 24 weeks, of which 20 were dedicated to the Leighton project or more precisely to the restoration of the half-size cartoon Industrial Arts as applied to War (195.6cm x 450cm).
It was the first time I had carried out a full conservation treatment on such a large painting, of such quality, and which was part of an exhibition involving other objects (frescoes, full-size and half-size cartoons, sketches, drawings and the gallery itself). Working on this large-scale object did not only broaden my technical knowledge, but also made me aware of a whole range of new parameters, such as the need for accurate planning and organisation of each intervention, the limitations and results to be expected.
The first obvious constraint was having to work within a public area of the Museum - the Ironwork Gallery - which was temporarily transformed into a conservation studio. This was necessitated by the impossibility of transporting the painting, due to its size, to the usual painting studio. Owing to the reduced space, the size and the weight of the cartoon, each move had to be planned a long time in advance in order to call on three or four additional 'helpers' from various departments (a special thanks to Furniture Conservation). Photographing the object also was a complicated procedure. In addition to the limitations described above, the gallery was never entirely dark, making it impossible to take raking and UV light photographs.
Working in a gallery within the Museum raised another fundamental issue: the necessity to observe strict Health and Safety measures, especially as a gallery does not have all the safety devices a conservation studio has. This is not a complaint about working conditions, on the contrary, dealing with unusual sizes, in unusual places, can be a challenging experience requiring organisation, flexibility, some ingenuity and a lot of patience.
The conservation treatment of the painting itself, with all its tears and losses made me consider more closely the delicate and controversial problem of tear-mends. Not being totally satisfied with methods using adhesives, I started investigating the relatively little-known field of sewing techniques. With my skills being limited to sewing on a button, I greatly appreciated the help and advice of the textile conservators when choosing types of thread, needle and stitches. At the beginning of my research, one of the first obstacles was to find the right needle (extremely thin and curved). The ideal one for my purpose not being available commercially, I was able to take advantage of the knowledge, the technical skill and the equipment in Metalwork Conservation to have my own tool created. This collaboration with other sections has been a very stimulating experience, reinforcing my conviction that communication between people from different backgrounds is essential for taking the best decisions, making the best choices and creating improvements.