Behind the Scenes of Angels and Aristocrats

Te Papa’s latest art exhibition, Angels & Aristocrats, opens on the 20th October in the Level 5 galleries.  The exhibition draws on a number of collections from around New Zealand including artworks from Te Papa’s collection which you will see on display.  Some of these paintings required attention in the conservation lab before the exhibition began, to allow them to be fully appreciated on display.  As paintings age they begin to deteriorate and changes occur in their appearance and condition.  Both deterioration and change are a result of the interaction of all the materials which make up a painting and the environment around them.  Therefore, as conservators we sometimes have to intervene and carry out treatment to repair and stabilise the art work.


Mrs Humphrey Devereux; 1771; Copley, John Singleton. Ultra-violet examination of the painting during cleaning. The varnish fluoresces a bright blue colour which indicates a synthetic varnish layer. The painting is partially cleaned at this point hence the patchy nature of the fluorescence. You can also clearly see the test cleaning spots and two areas of damage which appear as white marks in the image, 2012, Photograph by Katherine Campbell. © Te Papa

Conservation procedures aimed at preventing or slowing deterioration include repair of tears, correction of canvas distortions and consolidation of flaking paint.  Restorations may also be performed when the aesthetic appearance of the painting and the intention of the artist have been compromised, and can include the removal of discoloured surface coatings and the filling and retouching of loss.


The rectangular shape on the subject’s face is a cleaning test which reveals the original colour of the composition beneath, 2012, Photograph by Katherine Campbell. © Te Papa


One of the paintings that underwent conservation before the exhibition was Mrs Humphrey Devereux painted by John Singleton Copley in 1771.  The varnish layer on this portrait, applied in the 1960’s during a previous conservation treatment, had diminished the tonal ranges of the work as it became very degraded and matte over time, therefore requiring removal.  The varnish removed from the portrait was very dark yellow and quite thick and it took several weeks to complete the removal using a solvent mixture arrived at through a testing regime to ensure its effectiveness without any damage to the underlying paint. 


Before varnish removal, 2012, Photograph by Katherine Campbell. © Te Papa


Removal of the old varnish had a dramatic effect on the overall colour, balance and depth of the painting, 2012, Photograph by Katherine Campbell. © Te Papa


The painting was re-varnished with a clear, synthetic resin to emulate the original surface.  The varnish selected is one that has been developed specifically for the conservation profession and is known to be stable and reversible which ensures that any future cleaning will not need to be repeated for a long time and if it does eventually become necessary, it can be done with the least possible intervention. The final part of the treatment was to carry out inpainting or retouching over the areas of old damage and then a final layer of varnish was sprayed onto the painting before it was refitted into its frame.

Mrs Humphrey Devereux; 1771; Copley, John Singleton. After treatment, 2012, photograph by Kate Whitley © Te Papa

One Response

  1. Heather Campbell

    what a relief when Mrs Humphrey Devereux lost her jaundice….


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