In the Frame
A year on from handing the Portrait Gallery over to the building contractors and completing the marathon Tyvek cover up of the murals, the Conservation Department is deeply immersed in the preparation of objects for the re-installation of the building. The deadline to which we are working is next spring when we will have access to Queen Street once again.
Thankfully, prior to the decant many of the collections were condition surveyed allowing us now, armed with the new exhibition lists, to make informed decisions regarding exactly what conservation attention objects require to make them fit for display. With eighteen entirely new exhibitions and 50% more display space in the building than before this is quite a task! While the logistics of what might be feasible is discussed between curators, conservators, registrars and documentation and art handling teams, there is a key group of individuals whose contribution is vital to the success of the project but whose presence is very much hidden ‘behind the scenes’. This small dedicated group consists of the conservation technicians.
In essence the conservation technician’s role is to support and complement the work of the conservator. The Portrait of the Nation project as a whole has presented an invaluable opportunity to improve the essential ‘housekeeping’ aspects of collections care such as the framing, housing, mounting, glazing of both paintings and works on paper and the ‘cons techs’, as they are affectionately known, are an essential part of this.
Charlotte and Lynn primarily handle the vast range of materials under the ‘works on paper’ category such as prints, watercolours, pastels and photographs. In addition to cutting standard window mounts they are frequently required to cut unusually shaped bespoke designs. They also provide inlays which provide a false margin around the object to facilitate safe handling. Depending on display requirements, mounted works are then usually fitted into stock style and sized frames with the appropriate glazing. Clean hands, manual dexterity and precision are prerequisites with good humour a bonus!
All easel paintings coming through the studio for treatment automatically have their fitting in the frame upgraded by technicians Ian, Jamie and Graham. This involves papering the frame rebate prior to adhering velvet ribbon as protection to the outer surface face of the painting. Aged, inadequate protective backboards are also replaced with appropriate, conservation grade, that is, stable, materials. As further protection we are also glazing all paintings on wood panel supports and those with unvarnished surfaces with special laminated, low reflecting glass. The technicians are responsible for co-ordinating all aspects of this – ordering materials, liaising with conservators and generally managing timeframes and a workload that is frequently interrupted by numerous other National Galleries of Scotland commitments. Attention to detail, patience and a ‘flap-free’ approach to diplomacy are obviously of paramount importance to this role.
It appears that our small band of skilled conservation technicians effectively represents a ‘backbone’ for the majority of the department’s activities. In addition to the day-to-day collection care task, they are regularly called upon to devise inventive solutions to practical problems. The sheer volume of objects from the Portrait Gallery collection, as well as their diversity, coming though the department as we prepare for the re-opening next year has underlined just how valuable our ‘cons techs ‘are.