Framing memory

27 June 2019 by Claire Hunter

Conservator Janet Hearne at work.

Conservator Janet Hearne at work in the Memorial's painted surfaces lab.

Imagine trying to work on the reverse of a fragile sheet of glass while looking in a mirror. That’s exactly what conservator Janet Hearne had to do for Framing memory, an exhibition of reverse-painted glass-framed photographs at the Australian War Memorial.

The Memorial holds the largest-known collection in the world of rare and fragile reverse-painted glass framed portraits, and this exhibition is the first time 13 of them have been on display together. A fourteenth portrait is on display in the First World War Galleries.

Before they could be exhibited, they were sent to the Memorial’s painted surfaces lab for conservation.

“They are really interesting objects to work on,” Hearne said.

“I hadn’t worked on anything like this before, and what’s interesting about the reverse glass portraits is the way you have to work on them.

“Because they are painted on the reverse, you need to be looking at the front of the glass while you are working with the paint from the back.  

“This involved setting up a mirrored work area, essentially a glass topped table with a mirror placed beneath so you can see what’s actually happening with the treatment as it progresses.

“The glass components ranged in condition, some were in very good condition, but others showed signs of deterioration, for example flaking and detachment of the paint from the glass creating visible air pockets and in some cases loss of original paint.”

Some of the objects also had masking tape and other paper components attached to the back that were affecting the front.

Reverse-painted glass framed portrait of William George Hallett
P10785  Reverse painted glass framed portrait of William George Hallett, before and after treatment

Reverse-painted glass framed portrait of William George Hallett, before and after treatment.

Hearne had to research how best to conserve the objects.

“It took quite a bit of research before I actually started to work on the objects: that was research into the types of materials that I would want to use, the adhesives and retouching mediums.

“It also meant experimentation, and looking at how things would work.

“The adhesive that I used was a new adhesive, one I hadn’t used before. It was chosen for a number of reasons. It’s water soluble, but it’s also able to be altered with the addition of solvents to change its working characteristics, like viscosity, strength or drying times.

“It has a similar refractive index to glass, which means that the clarity of it is very good. Because the adhesive is going to be visible through the front of the glass, that’s really important.

“It is also a stable adhesive that we wouldn’t expect to discolour over time; and also reversible, so it’s able to be removed in the future if necessary. That is a really important part of conservation – that you use materials that can be removed and re-treated if necessary.”

 She also had to work closely with the Memorial’s paper lab to conserve the objects.

“They are made up of three distinct components,” Hearne said.

“There’s the wooden frame, and the reverse-painted glass, and then the photograph that sits within that. The paper lab worked on the photographs, and was also really involved in the framing and the matting, and then the reframing of them so that they were safely housed, a really important aspect of their ongoing preservation.

“It’s been quite challenging, but really interesting as well. I had to get the right material that I was happy with for the adhesives, but then adapt the approach to each of the different challenges that each of the glass portraits presented.

“I’m happy with the result. One of the interesting aspects has been balancing the objective of stabilisation and achieving a good aesthetic result with accepting some of the limitations imposed by the object itself. It’s about accepting some of the damage as part of the history and the life of the object.”

For Hearne, it’s important to maintain the integrity of the work while also preserving it for future generations.

“I really enjoy my work as a conservator,” she said. “I like the mixture of science and art and the practicality of it. It’s hands on, and we get the privilege to work closely with significant and often beautiful  items held in the National Collection, and ensure that they are seen in the best light possible.”

Framing Memory is on display in the Captain Reg Saunders Gallery at the Memorial until 2 July.

Framing memory also features in episode six of Louise Maher’s podcast series, Collected: stories from the Australian War Memorial.  To listen, visit here.