First, do no harm

First, do no harm
Preserving Tom Robert's portrait of Gordon George McCrae
31 August 2011

A portrait of Gordon George McCrae is the latest addition to be welcomed in to the national collection at the Library.  The Preservation Services unit collaborated with their colleagues in the Pictures and Manuscripts team in their assessment of this new acquisition by renowned Australian artist, Tom Roberts. The portrait is a beautiful example of Roberts’ craftsmanship and attention to expressive detail.  The work is dated 1927, the year of McCrae’s passing, and according to the inscription on the back, was drawn in Hawthorn, Melbourne. The team’s assessment of the portrait of George Gordon McCrae, who has been dubbed the ‘Father of Victorian Poetry’, is a snapshot of the process all new acquisitions undergo once they have been accepted by the Library. The portrait was deframed for closer inspection, where it was found that the canvas was actually secured to a small piece of artist primed board. Once the frame had been removed, inscriptions were discovered on the back of the work which revealed important historical information relating to the artist, where the work was created and manufacturing information of the artist primed board. Testing of the media found that the work was in a very stable and sound condition. The work has traces of a graphite under drawing. Identification for the sepia toned media was inconclusive, but could possibly be a sepia coloured oil paint diluted with turpentine or a watercolour wash.

Microscopic image of the letter ‘R’ of the artists’ signature.

Microscopic image of the letter ‘R’ of the artists’ signature.

Solubility testing of the media using the ten drop blot test.

Solubility testing of the media using the ten drop blot test.

The preservation team also assessed the acidity of the backing board and the canvas. Acidity testing, or pH testing, can assist a conservator in making an informed treatment decision, and more importantly, an informed decision about when it’s not necessary to intervene with the original state of an item. The presence of acidic products can cause brittleness and degradation of a collection item over a period of time.

pH testing was conducted with an ExStik™ pH meter.

pH testing was conducted with an ExStik™ pH meter.

Roberts’ portrait of George Gordon McCrae showed no signs of degradation and returned neutral results after testing for the presence of strong acid products. Based on our testing, the team decided it was in the best interest of the work to not intervene with its original format by separating the canvas from the backing board. The preservation team endorses best ethical practice, especially in striking the balance between preventive practice and invasive conservation treatment. This case study demonstrates the conservator’s mantra to first do no harm when undertaking a treatment and to ensure that invasive treatments are only undertaken when it is in the best interest of an item. Strips of masking tape will be removed from the back of the work where it was taped into a frame. A custom built box will be made to house the new acquisition and it will be returned to the care of the Pictures and Manuscripts team to be catalogued and placed within the collection.