Reflections on the nature of cracks

From behind closed doors, CAM invited celebrated painting conservator Caroline Fry from the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation to write on an issue which can affect both historical and contemporary art. Far from an exact science, Fry discusses some of the considerations made before working on a painting. In her engaging reflection Fry foregrounds some of the dilemmas conservators face on a daily basis.

Detail, during conservation treatment 2018, Portrait of George III in coronation robes, after Allan Ramsay, before retouching, c1763, oil on canvas. Bendigo Art Gallery. Image supplied.

A crack can be ordinary, unexceptional, something to be accepted as merely ‘patina of age’. Cracks reflect the biography of a painting as of a face. Like a wrinkle, a crack is a gentle reminder of the vicissitudes of age and repeated small actions which accumulate over time. Or it can be a frightening glimpse of further structural breakdown, of chemical incompatibilities, of tensions below the surface hidden to the eye.

A crack in a painting always represents some form of ‘release’, where a new mechanical equilibrium is achieved and where tensions relax. Conservators group cracks into two categories, mechanical cracks and drying cracks. Mechanical cracks are those where the paint has sharp broken edges, caused by either stress within the painting as it responds to environmental fluctuations – swelling and shrinking, impact or vibration. These types of cracks can be described as concentric, conchoidal, sigmoid, fractal, fissured or feathering. They may twist and change direction, make garlanding patterns around the edges of an artwork, sprout barbs and form a dead end. They can run parallel, bisect a corner or cross hatch like a draftsman’s pen. The very descriptive nomenclature used by conservators is something visual and almost poetic.

Caroline Fry

BSc Melb , BAppSc in Conservation UCAN DipEd Melb GradDipMuseumSt Rusden GradCertVisArt VCA.

Caroline Fry is Principal Painting Conservator at Grimwade Conservation Services at The University of Melbourne, where she treats paintings from a wide range of public, private and commercial organisations including galleries, museums and institutions. Occasionally Fry teaches in the Masters Degree in Conservation of Material Culture at the University. She has strong interest in Australian art and has been active in the contemporary art scene in Melbourne for many years. Fry has worked internationally in Italy and Vietnam. She was awarded a medal by the Ministry of Culture and Propaganda by the Peoples’ Republic of Vietnam for her ‘services to the preservation of graphic art’ for her conservation of a significant painting in the collection at the Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts in Hanoi. Fry has also attended professional development and training workshops such as The Royal Collections Studies program at Windsor Castle in United Kingdom and most recently a UNESCO workshop in Russia on the conservation of timber buildings.

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