A Conservation Mystery Uncovered

Diane Frape-Linton has made a substantial contribution as a volunteer to museums and collections across Central Victoria. A longstanding CAM volunteer her knowledge of the museum is prodigious and her skills are wide ranging. Recently, Diane uncovered a fascinating story about Russell Drysdale’s Desolation whilst cataloguing historical documents relating to gallery acquisitions. Diane has used a letter from Drysdale to the gallery to solve this mystery.

Russell Drysdale, Desolation,1946, oil on composition board, Castlemaine Art Museum, purchased 1946. Copyright: The Estate of Russell Drysdale. Image: Ian Hill.

A Conservation Mystery Uncovered

Acquired in 1946, Desolation soon showed signs of deterioration. When on loan to the NGV, some conservation had been undertaken, but by 1960 when the Gallery of NSW requested to borrow it, Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum (CAGHM) refused the request because paint was cracking and lifting from certain sections. CAGHM suggested to Russell Drysdale that he consider examining the painting and its damage.
Russell Drysdale was indeed anxious to see for himself as other paintings from the same period were not showing such signs of deterioration. He wrote to CAGHM asking for Desolation to be sent to The Art Gallery of NSW for examination as he had great faith in their conservator W. Boustead. The painting was duly air freighted to Sydney where it was examined using a binocular microscope.

Russell Drysdale described at length the process involved.  The damage was confined to one area from mid centre, right, obliquely towards the bottom veering to the left. A loose flake of paint was removed with a scalpel and revealed what appeared to be a thin white ground. Drysdale asserted that he never used such thin ground, so they examined the underside of the paint fragment where they found the white lead ground used by Drysdale adhering to the coloured pigment.  He explained that he first sands back the surface of the hardboard to clean it and establish a tooth. He then fills the cleaned surface with 2 coats of glue size and finally applies 2 coatings of white lead ground. Thus Drysdale was puzzled by the appearance of the faint thin ground. The next step was to lift more of the loose pigment and Boustead discovered a faintly stencilled letter B. This was the clue to the mystery.
During the war many hardboard sheets were trade stencilled on their faces with a normal stencil paint.  Drysdale’s initial preparation of the board had removed the excess paint but the residue had resisted the glue primer with the result that a minutely thin layer of air had been trapped between the primer, ground and subsequent paint. With the drying out of the painting, this layer of air had been forced outwards beneath the ground causing it to crack and lift. The remedy was to remove the paint from the affected area, sand out the stencilling, fill the patch with a new ground and repaint the work to mirror the original.
Drysdale removed the painting to his studio to do the remedial work and the repainting. He wrote that he was happy to have discovered the cause of the problem and to able to personally remedy it.
Desolation was returned to CAGHM in June 1961 as good as new.
Diane Frape-Linton
October 2020

Diane Frape-Linton

Diane Frape-Linton was born in Wales and since her school days has always had a passion for History. After a career with the Education Department, Diane moved to Fryerstown in 1981 and began volunteering at Buda. Since that time she has, for many years, been an invaluable volunteer at a number of local institutions. Buda, the Castlemaine Historical Society and the Bendigo SMI Military Museum are just some of the many local museums she has supported with her cataloguing and collection management skills over the years. Diane began work at CAGHM thirty years ago, in 1991. In the 1990s, with Lauretta Zilles, she set up the first computer database servicing the gallery and other small museums in the region. Diane has a particular interest and expertise in the area of textiles and has catalogued and documented CAM’s significant holdings in this area, including many items donated by former Director, Beth Sinclair.

In recognition of her extraordinary contribution, Diane was made an Honourary Life Member of CAGHM in 2000 and received a National recognition award for her volunteer work in 2018.

Since 2013, in the absence of a museum curator, Diane has taken on additional curatorial duties. She is single-handedly responsible for the displays in the museum as well as cataloguing, research enquiries and the on-going care and maintenance of the historical collections. During the 2020 Covid lockdown, she continued to work from home, cataloguing and identifying important historical correspondence linked to works in the CAM art collection. Her essay on the conservation of the Russell Drysdale work Desolation arose out of this research.

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